By Azu Ishiekwene
In the Bible, Keren-happuch was the youngest of the three beautiful daughters of Job, who against the norms of a patriarchal society, inherited her father’s vast latter-day wealth along with her two other sisters. But in the sometimes inexplicable twist of fate, this is the story of another Keren-happuch whose sun set before it rose.
Her story as told by her mother was hard to follow. Even if I had eaten the head of a tortoise, the fabled medicine for anhedonia, the woman’s story, especially her futile search for justice, would still have broken my heart into many pieces.
Perhaps you have heard it, too. It’s the story of Mrs. Vivian Akpagher whose 14-year-old daughter, Keren-happuch, died two years ago in circumstances that still leave the woman and her family broken and traumatised.
Sometime in June 2021, Keren-happuch Akpagher, a student of Premiere Academy, Lugbe, Abuja, had managed to place a call to her mother to complain that she had eye infection and needed proper medical attention outside the school. It wasn’t a normal call, according to her mother. After an earlier call by a matron who appeared to have tried to downplay the situation, Keren-happuch used the phone of a sympathetic teacher to call her mother.
Her mother was confused. The Keren-happuch she knew wasn’t the kind of daughter that took her studies lightly or one to raise a false alarm. Yes, she was diabetic, but she had learned how to use her insulin and also to watch her diet. So, what was this about? As far as teenagers go, her mother said, she was a jovial, happy, lovable girl who along with her three siblings – all boys – had come to terms with the passing of their father.
Of all the things her mother thought about when Keren-happuch made that second desperate call from school, the last thing on her mind was that that could be the beginning of her last days with her daughter.
After she arranged for her to be brought to a hospital from school in company with the matron and it was time for them to take her back, she refused to follow the staff, insisting that her mother must follow them to the school and get a pass to take her home.
The school staff tried to assure her that Keren-happuch would be fine, that it was only a minor problem, perhaps a bacterial infection, which would be managed at the sick bay. But her mother instinct kicked in. She brushed aside the assurances and drove behind them to Premiere Academy. On arrival, the misery she was subjected to before she could finally take her daughter home was an indication of the foreboding days ahead.
Like Keren, like Syl
She was vetted and coldly scrutinised. And in a school where she had two other children, her ID was taken and snapped at the gate before Keren-happuch was finally released to her after hours of cat-and-mouse with the authorities. As she departed, she had an eerie feeling that she was walking into a trap, but the relief from retrieving her daughter and hope that she would be fine overcame her sense of the looming danger.
Sadly, what she was afraid of would not only happen to her, a slightly different but no less traumatic variety of it would happen again five months later to another family in another school nearly 700 kilometres away in Lagos. Grief likes company.
Like Mrs. Akpagher, the Oromonis also had their son, Sylvester, as a boarding student in Dowen College, one of the elite private schools in Lagos. For a long time, school bullies and absent-minded administrators ignored Sylvester’s anguished complaints, which he recorded in videos.
His parents obviously didn’t notice on time, too. Everyone, it seemed, turned a blind eye until Sylvester took ill and died from circumstances related to his abuse shortly before his 12th birthday.
Abuse and bullying have become epidemics in our schools. According to a 2007 study by Elizabeth Egbochukwu in the Journal of Social Sciences, four out of five children are at risk, the sort of risk that may have claimed the lives of Keren-happuch and Sylvester within five months of each other and which Keren-happuch’s mother probably thought she could prevent by rushing to take her child home on that day.
Of course, schools love to show off their safety records and virtually all would claim low incidence and tolerance of abuse. But even at 99 percent, the one percent of students who may die or be damaged from abuse or bullying is some family’s 100 percent.
What I feared…
As Keren-happuch’s mother’s story goes, the night after she took her daughter home, the girl became gravely ill. She had to be taken to Queen’s Clinic, Area 6, Abuja, where urine and virginal swap tests had allegedly revealed dead spermatozoa, apart from a piece of festering condom also removed from her inside.
When her personal effects were retrieved from Premiere Academy, she had marked a place in her Bible, “What I always feared has happened to me (Job 3:25).” There was a strong suspicion at the hospital that she may have been sexually abused.
Her mother said she was told her daughter died from sepsis. She claimed that she kept officials of the school informed from the moment of Keren-happuch’s admission, up to the point where she later died and about all that happened, including what the doctor said.
On its part, the school has denied any wrongdoing, insisting that Keren-happuch wasn’t gravely ill when her mother took her home and that she might have died from her mother’s negligence. The school has also reported the doctor who allegedly said a used condom was retrieved from Keren-happuch to the Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria (MDCN).
With Keren-happuch’s mother and the school at dagger’s drawn, you would expect the police to take a genuine interest to find out the truth. But after two years on this case, it’s beginning to look like even if you beat the police on the head with the facts, they would still not recognise them. On occasions when the police are determined to work, they do very well, in spite of the challenges.
But when the police decide to bungle a case – which is more often than not – they make such a thorough mess that leaves no sensible margin of common sense whatsoever for either the process or outcome of the matter.
More questions than answers
How, for example, can the police explain that neither Keren-happuch’s mother who was squeezed to pay over N1 million for her daughter’s DNA nor her representatives were present at Queen’s Clinic when DNA was taken, whereas the school and the police were there? And how come Mrs. Akpagher who paid for the test can no longer have access to it?
How can the police explain that two years after Keren-happuch’s death, the matter is still languishing in the court, while police sources tell the press they are being leaned upon to kill the matter? How? And isn’t this malicious official negligence the same reason two years after Sylvester’s death, the police have also failed to do what is required to get the coroner’s report ready?
It’s not only the police that should be getting a beating here. The report in LEADERSHIP on Sunday also indicated that the House of Representatives in the 9th National Assembly took a casual look at the matter, and almost immediately abandoned it, since it’s not typically the sort of case that allows them to eat with two hands.
The current assembly, especially Senator Ireti Kingibe, representing the FCT and the House Committee Chairman on FCT, Muktar Aliu Betara, will do well to revisit the matter immediately.
Nothing will bring back Keren-happuch, of course. But this is a good test case for the new Inspector General of Police Kayode Egbetokun, who has promised that the force on his watch would turn a new leaf.
He can’t walk past this crime scene without justice for Keren-happuch’s memory. It was Keren-happuch yesterday and Sylvester the next day. The only incentive an abuser needs to get their next victim is for Egbetokun to do nothing about Keren-happuch and Sylvester.
Azu Ishiekwene is Editor-In-Chief of LEADERSHIP
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