Emeka’s haunting elegy of childhood in Biafra
In response to a piece I did on the war drums that seem to be engulfing our collective psyche today, one of my gentle readers, Nnaemeka Nnolim, businessman and media executive, sent me the manuscript of a book he is writing on recollections of childhood in Biafra. With his full permission, I extracted some excerpts from the manuscript to present a story that is deeply haunting.
Gradually our stock of food went down and I was initiated into eating cassava leaves. This meant that we children had to go on hunts for lizards, grasshoppers, cricket and termites. How to catch termites? It starts with a serious hunt for elephant grass, collected in palm sized bundles. The expedition leads to an anthill and the elephant grass is pushed into holes for the ants to bite. It is gradually pulled out onto a plate, cup or any receptacle. This process is repeated until enough is collected to make soup.
Rats were a delicacy and usually celebrated when caught. The same with lizards. When caught, they are roasted with the head cut off; gutted; red oil rubbed in and voila…meat. But rat head was a delicacy, the same with akpa nkwu, the snout beetle, red palm weevil or sago palm weevil. To catch these delicacies one must know how to climb a palm tree with or without support. And bear the pain of stinging ants. Akpa nkwu hides in crevices only the initiated can find. But when roasted, and sizzling, we know it is well worth the effort.
One day, I woke up to the announcement that all zinc roofed houses must be covered in palm fronds. This prevents enemy planes seeing the shining zinc roof of people’s homes. I did not know the meaning of this until the first enemy plane flew past. We all ran to the nearest tree as directed by civil defense. The noise was frightening and I later heard my mother and others wailing about the havoc caused by the plane. It killed many people at a market in Okigwe. This was my introduction to the Biafran grapevine popularly referred to as “radio without battery”. It is basically rumours spread to uplift morale of civilians or to stave off hunger or plain lies concocted to cause mischief. But convincing. Another is radio Biafra.
To the sound of heavy shelling and machine gun fire on radio, an announcer will coolly proclaim that it is Biafran forces decimating the enemy. It was also at this time I saw my uncle dipping expired batteries into salt solution, connected with wires into a radio set for power. I did not understand what the radio was saying but was particularly intrigued by the number of people clustered around it. Of course, children were not allowed to come close, but I do recall that when the battery goes out, it is again dipped in salt solution to recharge. Only then will we children be informed of the progress of the war.
It was around this period I heard the word “sabo”, meaning saboteur. Anyone suspected of the slightest infraction, real or imagined, was labelled a saboteur. In essence, fraternising with the enemy. Thus, a man coveting a neighbours land, wife or out of sheer jealousy or envy, will accuse another of being a saboteur and is promptly drafted for army service as the land or wife exchange hands. As I look back today, I shudder at the injustice meted out to innocent and under privileged in Umuchu.
We left our home village, Umuchu, in good stead and came back to a catastrophe. The primary school, churches and every available space was occupied by refugees. Lizards had disappeared. The same with rats and grasshoppers. Twenty persons instead of three or four now chase after a squirrel sized animal. Palm kernel replaced fufu for lunch. Cassava was non-existent. Everyone trooped to the relief points for succour. There were no cooking fires anywhere. Not even in our compound. There was no smell of cooking stew anywhere. No fried onions. We were now all refugees. This lack of food introduced a new disease – kwashiorkor. Children, adults walked about with oversized heads and or stomach on spindly legs with owlish eyes. Their hair is dirt brown and all are accompanied by flies.
Hovering above are vultures. It was not uncommon to see corpses at the primary school, church, along the road or on the way to the stream. They were quickly buried. No one wailed or mourned anymore. I lost count of bodies quickly wrapped in cloth, mat or palm fronds before burial. Babies, toddlers, children, adults, male or female. Parents abandoned children who could be seen opening their mouths full of flies without a sound coming out, dropping dead along the road. Adults moped about and everyone waited for relief.
On the home front, my grandmother was our tower of strength. She manufactured all sorts of food to feed us and made lots of native candles and black soap from palm waste to light up our home at night.
For food, anything that could get through one’s mouth was food. Maybe due to the scarcity of food or plain social anomie, there were lots of family wrangling. This time, people were dressed in rags. There were no new clothes on anybody. Second hand clothes from relief agencies have dried up. It was fashionable to wear torn clothes. Men grew hairs (afro) and beards.
And then suddenly, on a sunny January day, everyone appeared subdued. The war is over! Biafra is defeated. There was panic as we did not know what to expect from the enemy. How will the Godogodo treat us? Do they really eat people? Is it really true that they capture women, including reverend sisters? Women were hiding themselves and their children. We heard that the Nigerian soldiers capture women never to be seen again and the men shot. I do not know how it came about but myself and other children were ordered to get palm fronds and wave whenever we see Nigerian soldiers…. and smile. So it was the day an army truck rolled along our village road. We were all waving palm fronds vigorously with shouts of one Nigeria.
I came back to Enugu surprised to find my father’s house in one piece albeit pock marked with bullet holes and his prized books scattered on the floor.
Winston Churchill advised that we never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on that strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. “The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events. Antiquated war offices, weak, incompetent or arrogant commanders, untrustworthy allies, hostile neutrals, malignant fortune, ugly surprises, awful miscalculations – all take their seat at the council board on the morrow of a declaration of war. Always remember, however sure you are that you can easily win, that there would not be a war if the other man did not think he also has a chance”.
Fifty three years after; the drums of war are sounding again in Nigeria!