Nonfiction – Honorable Mention

Different Degrees of Darkness, by Kathy Bijleveld

“It’ll be Nigeria!” said Hans, beaming, confident I’d be thrilled that we’d finally been offered a posting to a developing country.  Then, when he saw the stunned, disbelieving look on my face he solemnly added “… I promise, Lina, this just means that we’ll be taking a slightly longer route on our way to Guatemala, that’s all.”

Two years earlier, only half-jokingly, I had announced to a group of friends in our Sociology course at Lausanne University that I would marry whoever was willing to take me back to Guatemala. Hans, an easy-going, practical-minded Dutchman in the group had, with an engaging smile, instantly volunteered. They all knew I had spent the first fifteen years of my life in Guatemala, felt much more Latina than Swiss, and often talked about going back to work there with Mayan Indian women and children.

Since that day, the two of us had developed such a teasing and happy relationship, sharing too the ideal of somehow wanting to make a difference in a Third World country, that we had gradually fallen in love. We’d gotten married a week after pocketing our Master’s in Sociology and Political Science. We’d both been offered an internship in the same international volunteer agency in Geneva and a posting abroad was in the making, maybe to Latin America.

And suddenly, now, Nigeria, Hans was saying! Black Africa! The instant I had heard the word “Nigeria”, an unwelcome flash had seared through my brain, the source of a recurrent nightmare I’d had for years as a child.

This is how it had come about: my older brother Jack, with whom I was often allowed to go see a matinee film on weekends in Guatemala – what a treat those outings were:  he fifteen, I ten, on our own, both feeling so grown-up! -  had accidentally bought tickets for the wrong movie. Although he had dragged me, hysterical and in tears, out of the cinema right after that shocking massacre scene, the damage had been done: I’d never forget those tall black men (called “mau mau” in the film) with their long, shiny bodies, bursting into white families’ homes and killing them with their long, shiny knives. Jack had done his best to comfort me, saying it was just some stupid, very stupid movie, then telling me jokes and doing all he could to make me laugh during the entire bus ride back home. I had had nightmares about these evil black men for years but they had gradually dissolved until, for a fraction of a second just then, the mention of the word “Nigeria” had brought them rushing back. Moments later, however, that haunting vision was dispelled by my trust in Hans and in our unwavering good luck. We excitedly packed the four metal chests we were entitled to take with us on our two-year posting to former Biafra in East Nigeria. And a few weeks later we were off with a team of 20 Dutch Peace Corps volunteers, Hans as their team-leader, me as a Kindergarten teacher. We were needed to help rebuild war-torn Biafra, Guatemala would have to wait.


Despite what would happen to us later, never would we forget our arrival in Lagos. We were scheduled to spend one night there before boarding the train that would take us to our new home town in the East. It was New Years’ Eve and night was falling when we put down our cases in a modest down-town hotel in central Lagos. We could make out dozens of bats hanging from the branches of the tree in front of our hotel-room window, it was also exotic! Impatient to explore the neighborhood, we ventured out into the crowded, poorly-lit street. The night was dark, hot and

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