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A Ball of Thread


By Vivian Ogbonna


Editor’s note: This short story was longlisted for the 2015 Writivism Short Story Competition.


Thursday, July 16, 2015.



The door trembled on rusty hinges as it burst open with a crash, causing pieces of clay to scatter on the floor. Cries of terror rang out in the dark, as the girls scampered to a corner of the room. They huddled together, hearts thumping, eyes wide with fear. The light from the torch swept across the room in a staggered movement before resting on the girls. Abu’s tall, slim frame filled the doorway. He held a black jacket in his hand. Lamin stood behind him, his shirt stretched against his stomach. Isa cowered in the shadows outside the door, wiping his eyes with a rag. He was about thirteen years, gawky, and the skin of his forearms was lacerated with cuts.


“You,” Abu said, pulling Laraba forward. ”Wear this.” His voice was high-pitched and his eyes glinted with menace in his heavily bearded face.


“What is it?” she asked, looking intently at the jacket. Then, she started to tremble. She screamed and ran towards the door. With a speed that belied his size, Lamin blocked her path, while Abu encircled her neck with his arm.


“You’re going to do the work of Allah. You’ll be a martyr afterwards,” Abu said. 

Laraba sank her teeth into his arm and bit down with all her might. He screamed in agony, whirled her around and slapped her. She fell to the ground, stunned, but, like a cornered animal, she sprang up and kicked at his stomach. He tried to grab her leg but she jabbed her fingers at his eyes. He turned away swiftly, but not before her nails raked his cheeks, drawing blood.


Shege!” she shrieked. “You God-forsaken animal!”


The men over-powered her and pulled the heavy jacket over her head. It was made of a thick, coarse fabric and had no sleeves. Its front was covered with pockets from which small cylinders protruded, each one linked to the next by an intricate connection of wires.


“Sons of shaitan!” She hurled her rage at them. “Your descendants are cursed.”

They tried to push her forward but she dug her feet into the floor. They had to drag her backwards, her heels scraping the rough floor, and bundle her into the truck. She kept on screaming and pounding on the windows with her fists, her voice fading away, as the truck drove into the night.




The girls settled down for the night. Animals rustled in the surrounding shrubs and dry grass. In the rafters, bats and insects foraged for food. Mosquitoes, bloated with blood and humming mournfully, swarmed about the room. Crickets called out to each other, their shrill chi-chi-chi-ing sounding like taunts. Soon, they were all asleep, except Safinatu.


She got up and eased the door open. It creaked. She paused, her heart pounding. Nobody stirred. She stepped into the cool air, pulled her skirt above her knees and tip-toed away from the hut. Then she started to run, blades of grass slashing her legs and arms, the ground stony under her feet. She couldn’t see ahead, but she kept on moving, heaving her heavy-built frame forward. She heard a faint shout. “Dear God, please help me,” she mouthed, tears blinding her vision. Then, she felt a stab of pain in her left ankle. She stumbled and fell. The voices and footsteps were inches away. A ray of light cut through the darkness and rested on her. She tried to stand up, but Abu flung himself on her, while Lamin and Isa pinned her legs to the ground.

“Take your dirty hands off me,” she shouted, her voice piercing the still night.

The three men hauled her back to the room, where the other girls stood in a corner, their silhouettes stiff with tension. She spat at Abu and he slapped her. The impact caused her head to jerk sharply to the side. She screamed and cupped her burning cheek in her palm. Tears filled her eyes but she willed them not to fall. He took the front of her blouse in his hands and pulled. The worn fabric split down the front, exposing her breasts. She recoiled and wrapped her arms around her chest but he grabbed the back of the blouse and ripped it off her, before tearing her skirt away. Then, he asked Isa to burn her clothes and all the mats. He also instructed them not to step out of the room till further notice.


“Let me see if you can run away without clothes,” he said as he stormed out of the room.



The days melted into each other; listless days whose rhythm was broken only when Isa served food. But the miserly, tasteless meals brought no consolation. Sadness swirled around the room. It mingled with the smell of unwashed bodies and mouths. It clung to the air like fragrance. The girls lay in brooding silence, engrossed in their own dismal ruminations. The gentle rapping of knuckles on the door startled them. Rohilla got up and opened the door. It was Isa.

“Good morning. Master wants to see you,” he said.


Rohilla was slim and light-skinned. Her oval face was framed by long, thick hair plaited backwards, setting off her delicate features. She wiped her face with the edge of her wrapper, smoothed her hair with her palms, and stepped outside. The others exchanged knowing looks.

Karuwa,” Safinatu whispered fiercely. “How can she be intimate with that monster?”

“Oh, Safi, don’t call her a harlot,” Hassana said.


They were surprised when Isa returned a few minutes later, clutching some mats to his chest, while Rohilla came behind him, bearing two tablets of soap and some wrappers. She ignored their curious stares. “Last week I pleaded with him to forgive us, and look,” she held out the wrappers. “But I must warn you all,” she continued, “he has instructed me to report any suspicious movement, and I’ll obey him, I swear.”


“It is obvious you are special,” Safinatu said, pointing a finger in Rohilla’s face. Rebecca saw a fight brewing and threw herself in between the two of them. She held on to Safinatu, who strained to break free, her fingers clawing the air in front of Rohilla’s face.

“Will you stop it, you two? What type of madness is this?” Hassana said, her gentle voice both a command and a plea.


Safinatu stormed outside, swearing to deal with Rohilla. She sat on a log, tears stinging her eyes and running down her face. She heard her father’s voice. It was calm, but firm. My daughter, never allow any situation to discourage you. Always remain strong and focused. She remembered the occasion. Her JAMB score hadn’t met the cut-off mark for Medicine and, for weeks, she had moped about the house, refusing to eat or talk. Her father had advised her to take the entrance examinations into the School of Nursing instead. On the day of the exams, while the invigilators were collecting the answer sheets, three trucks had roared into the venue and gun-wielding men had burst into the classrooms. They had bundled her and some other girls into their trucks and driven away from town. Safinatu squeezed her eyes shut. She didn’t want to remember...


For the rest of the morning the girls took their baths and washed their clothes. When Rohilla was busy in the cooking area, Safinatu went inside the hut. She inserted the tip of her small finger inside a hole in the wall and brought out a soft round object - pieces of thread rolled tightly into a ball. She separated the pieces and counted them. Then she broke off a piece of thread from her plaited hair, twisted it around the ball, and stuffed it back inside the hole.


Outside, Hassana was sitting on the log, while Rebecca stood behind her, parting her hair in sections and weaving it in corn rows. Safinatu walked over to them, glancing at Isa, who sat at a distance, watching them warily. “The last person to leave here should take my ball of thread with her,” she said in a whisper.

“How many pieces of thread do you have now?” Rebecca asked.

“Eighty seven,” Safinatu replied.


“Oh God!” Rebecca said. Her eyes clouded with tears as she remembered her son, Silas. She had never told the other girls about him; that his father had been killed by insurgents, and life had become a struggle for both of them afterwards. In her quest to make a fresh start, she had decided to take the Nursing exams. She willed her thoughts back to the present. Hassana was reminding her to put a parting in the middle of her hair. She had once said she wore her hair that way to remember her fiancé, Idris.


Abu’s dark-green truck roared towards the hut, a cloud of dust ballooning behind it. It screeched to a stop and he came out, brandishing a gun. The girls stood at attention, while Isa ran over to him.


“Where is Lamin?” Abu asked, looking around.

“Master, he went out shortly after you drove away,” Isa mumbled. 

Dabo,” Abu said, the muscles in his jaws pulsating, his eyes darting about. “The government soldiers have arrested some of our fighters and are advancing this way. If they pick him up, it will compromise my position.”

He sat down on the log and told the girls they were leaving the camp soon. They looked at each other. Hope flared in their hearts but their smiles were hesitant. At that moment, Lamin appeared from the side of the hut, panting and sweating, his stomach heaving up and down.

“Where have you been?” Abu shrieked in rage and stood up.

Lamin halted in his tracks and looked around. “I went to buy foodstuff,” he stammered.


You went away without my permission?” Abu shouted. “And where is the food stuff you went to buy?”

“I did not see any beans,” Lamin said, averting his eyes.

“And you couldn’t buy something else? What are you up to?” Abu asked, raising his gun and pointing it at Lamin’s chest.


Instinctively, Lamin stepped back and raised his hands, a look of surprise in his eyes. Abu pulled the trigger. Gunshots shattered the silence and echoed around the vast, empty landscape. The blasts shredded Lamin’s chest into pieces of flesh and gore. Blood spurted into the air. His knees buckled, he swayed like a drunk and fell backwards with a heavy thud.

The girls screamed in horror, clinging to each another.


Sated, Abu stroked his crotch and smiled as he watched Lamin twitch and jerk until life ebbed out of him. He turned to the girls and said, “Let this be a lesson to all of you. I would rather kill you than have you expose me.” He cleared his throat and coughed out a big glob of phlegm. Then he blew his nose with his fingers and wiped them on the log.

“Throw this idiot away,” he said.

Isa came forward, his face a mask of fear, his hands trembling. The girls gave him a hand and they dragged Lamin’s mangled body into the forest, leaving a trail of blood.




They came for Hassana two days later.

It was time for Salat al-Fajr, and she had been praying in a corner of the room, her legs folded under her, her voice rising and falling in the dark. Abu stood in the doorway and asked her to step forward. She walked towards him, as though she had been waiting for that moment. Her steps only faltered when she had to re-tie her brightly coloured wrapper. He pulled the vest over her head, watching her closely, surprised at her acquiescence. Then, with her head bowed and her lips moving in prayer, she stepped outside without a backward glance.




Dawn announced itself through the tiny window of the hut. Safinatu and Rebecca sat in sullen silence. They heard Rohilla’s animated voice as she chatted with Abu.

“Shhh…I hear a vehicle approaching,” Safinatu said, hurrying over to the hole in the wall. She brought out the ball of thread and tied it in a tip of her wrapper. The engine stopped and they heard Abu exchange greetings with some men - As-Salaam-Alaikum, Wa-Alaikum-Salaam.


“I have heard one of those voices before,” Safinatu whispered to Rebecca, her brows creased with concentration. “That night we were brought here, he was one of those who came to take the other girls away. He was very tall and had burns all over his face. Don’t you remember?”


The door swung open and Abu barged in with four strange men dressed in military fatigues. He beckoned to the girls and Rebecca reached for Safinatu. They held on to each other but the man with the scarred face pulled them apart. “Didn’t you hear him?” he rasped and pushed them outside. Rohilla watched them drive away, a look of smugness on her face. 


“They’re taking them to the training camp at Gwoza. We can use them as fighters, especially that stubborn one,” Abu said. “The three of us will leave tonight.”



The darkness around the camp was broken by the dim light from Abu’s torch.

Isa sat in the truck, eating while Abu sat on the log and smoked. Rohilla watched him from the cooking area where she washed up pots and plates. Abu called out to her and she walked over to him, smiling, and asked if he wanted more food. He studied her face for a few seconds, before telling her to go and get dressed.

Her smile brightened. Her eyes widened.


“Thank God,” she exclaimed and ran into the room she had shared with the other girls. Sleeping mats were strewn about and some clothes lay in a pile on the floor. A pair of slippers lay beside the door. It looked like Hassana’s. She dressed up hurriedly and rushed towards the door where she bumped into Abu at the doorway. He thrust a black jacket at her and told her to wear it. She stared at him, incredulous. Then her eyes clouded with tears. Her mouth and chin started to quiver and a sob rose up in her throat. She suppressed it and clung to hope.


“Please have mercy on me,” she said and fell on her knees, trembling.

“Shut your mouth. You are not better than the other girls.”

“But you said you liked me. You promised I’d return to my parents and I gave myself to you,” she said, looking up at him, tears rolling down her cheeks.

He burst out laughing, revealing a perfect set of teeth. Then, as abruptly as it had started, his laughter stopped.

“I like you, but you will not return to your parents. It is better to do the work of Allah and, one day, you will meet them in Jannah.


He pushed her outside and shut the door behind them.




“Hello Listeners, remember to attend the event on the 8th of March, at the Women’s Development Center, Abuja, to mark  International Women’s Day. Our guest speakers will be Dr. Safinatu Hamza and Mrs. Rebecca Kwanashe. Ten years ago, these women were among hundreds of girls who were abducted and held in terrorists’ camps before being rescued by government soldiers. Today, these amazing women have rebuilt their lives and become role models in our society. Come and hear their stories of survival, hope and finally, freedom.”


Her hands trembled as she turned off the radio and locked up the shop. Safinatu…Rebecca... Shame washed over her. She stepped into the street and the sudden gust of wind blew her shawl off her head, revealing the scars that deformed most of her face. A passer-by stared at her and she quickly gathered the shawl around her.


“I have to travel to Abuja,” Rohilla murmured to herself as she walked home. “I have to meet Safinatu and Rebecca again.”



Vivian U. Ogbonna is an interior decorator who lives and works in Lajos and Abuja, Nigeria. She studied English Language at the University of Nigeria Nsukka. She loves the written word and hopes to be a published author in the future.










A Ball of Thread: A Short Story by Vivian Ogbonna

From: Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema | 19.Jul.2020 @07:56:00 | Add Comment
A harrowing tale of the world of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism in Nigeria and how it ravages women from Northern Nigeria. AMAZINGLY , I felt most for Rohilla

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