VICTIM OF WAR
By Nneka Okereke
Wednesday, June 08, 2011.
The three-year-old Biafra war that gripped Nigeria had finally ended, and everyone had returned to Ibom village except those who most likely didn’t make it through either the war or the journey alive. The entire village was littered with swollen dead bodies, the children were infected with the deadly kwashiorkor disease, and young women were taken away by the military soldiers deployed to the area on a peacekeeping assignment.
The old wooden floor creaked as Ikenna stepped across the threshold of his house. It was empty except for the hunting gun he hid inside the roof and the old mat nailed to the back of his front door; it was used to cover the countless holes eaten into the wood by termites. At the far end of his room were his clothes, torn into pieces by bush rats and piled up in a heap. He wandered through the scattered room in total darkness, hoping to find some money to support himself. The bleak and airless hollows smelled of rotten food, unwashed bodies, and feces. Echoing through the entryway were the sounds of human misery; coughing, sneezing, retching, and voices of lonely desolated souls venting their fury at the fates that had delivered them to their unsavory despair.
Ikenna himself looked like a total wreck. His face had the cracks of countless wrinkles, a gray, scraggly beard masked his jaw line, and his eyes were ravaged by hunger and abuse. He looked outside his window at the throng of bombarded houses and dead bodies heaped at each corner of every junction like the supports for an overhead bridge. He sat on the floor for a while, huddled against the cold, remembering crisp days when things were normal, and everyone in Ibom, happy.
Ikenna was not really concerned about the damage and loss from the war. He was enraged over the capture of his wife by one of the soldiers; Sergeant Makinde. Sergeant Makinde had diverged from his duties and had allowed room for phony sentimentality. He started off by converting people’s properties, and selling off the stockfish that was released by the government for the well-being of the kwashiorkor children. Sergeant Makinde had dirty, dark skin, a frightening face, and a bullying voice; no one had ever dared to talk back to him. Whenever he walked along the road, people made way for him to pass. He did not spend money on his food, women, or palm wine. He would only snap his fingers, and whatever he requested got to him before he put his hands down.
The war was over and there was no need for him to still be around. All he did was rock back in his swivel chair, raise his hand to his chin, and puff his cigar smoke into the air. Ikenna was not the only one who lost his wife to Sergeant Makinde. There were four of them, and none had the morale to approach Makinde or ask of their wives whereabouts. Unfortunately, Ikenna happened to be the last person that could approach Makinde;he had never fought in a battle nor won a wrestling match among his peers. The first time he tried to wrestle one of his mates, he got beaten so badly that he was unconscious for three hours.
Despite Ikenna’s Achilles' heel; (his lack of battle experience, and inability to win at wrestling) each time he tried to let the facts that Makinde was unbeatable and that no man had ever survived him in a fight sink into his head, the drive to fight him grew. He had been able to put up with losing the things the war had taken away, but the behavior of soldiers like Sergeant Makinde was unbearable.
While awake in the middle of the night, Ikenna was restless. He was thinking of how to save Alice from Makinde and couldn’t decide on a concrete plan. Maybe he should strangle him while he’s asleep or poison his palm wine; all that was easy to think of, but hard to accomplish. Suddenly, a bolt of anger flashed through Ikenna’s head, along with a new thought—something he had never thought of doing. He pulled out his gun, slung it across his chest, and headed for Sergeant Makinde’s house. As soon as he entered Makinde’s compound, his eyes met the sergeant’s. He was sitting alone in his front yard, a few meters away from his house, with a cup of palm wine beside him. He had only cargo shorts on, his chest was bare, and he was unarmed. Ikenna considered it perfect timing for taking him out: while he was alone, and unarmed, and when everybody had gone to bed. Looking at Makinde sitting there, with a bare chest, open hands, and a smile on his face, Ikenna pictured him being served with the dose of revenge he had prepared for him.
“I’ve come to take my wife home,” Ikenna said at once, pointing the gun at Makinde.
Sergeant Makinde looked at him circumspectly. He puffed his cigar and smiled.
“You don’t have the guts to shoot me. You’re only good with animals,” he said, still smiling.
“Well . . . you’ll be the first!” Ikenna said sharply. Though he was a bit scared, he didn’t care about the consequences of what he was about to do. He wrapped his hands around the gun, aimed it at Sergeant Makinde’s heart, and pulled the trigger. Bang! Instantly, the smile drained from Sergeant Makinde’s face as he dropped like a hunted elephant and landed on the floor. Ikenna wanted to make sure he was dead. He watched Makinde stretch his body and take his last breath, and with a sigh of satisfaction, he turned and walked back home. He wanted to find Alice but didn’t want people to see him around Sergeant Makinde’s house.
The morning had now fully broken; Ikenna lit his fire and sat distractedly beside it. He was awake all night waiting for Alice to come home. Makinde was dead, and there was no other reason for her to stay at his house. He had not sat there long when gentle footsteps approached the house and entered the passage. A finger tapping lightly at the door brightened Ikenna’s face, for he knew the motions to be those of Alice. She walked inside the room looking weary and sad.
“Have you heard?” she asked. “Sergeant Makinde . . . he is dead!” she said as her manner changed. Her face assumed the grim shape and color of a woman who had lost a child. She looked very pretty and cared for; her hair was nicely plaited, she wore a flowing blue satin gown, a stone-dotted hair pin, and flat, black sandals. Nobody would ever believe she had just witnessed the Nigeria-Biafra war.
“Yes I heard,” Ikenna said. He shook his head as if that was a shock for Alice herself rather than him. He expected her to jump at him and hug him tightly. She didn’t utter a word. She quietly walked to the end of the room, lay down on the mat, and curled herself up in a ball. Ikenna didn’t want to conclude that she was sad to leave Makinde’s house. Well, perhaps—Ikenna hoped—she was tired and needed to rest. He set the breakfast in readiness, but finding that she was not in a good mood, he waited for her, looking into the fire and keeping the kettle boiling with housewifely care.
Still sitting by the fireside, Ikenna dozed off. Though he did not sleep too long, he did not find Alice in the room when he woke up. Through the window, he watched the distant highway hoping to see Alice return on foot, delighted to welcome her; but no figure appeared. He hastily walked out to the highway, and yet there was no sign of her. He walked back home, looking shattered and annoyed. He waited and waited, until it was so dark as to render chimneys invisible, and yet she did not come home. It then dawned on Ikenna that Alice had left him and had obviously been happier with Makinde, as he had feared. Ikenna marveled at how a woman he had lived with for three years could choose a man she had barely spent a month with over him.
“Women and their surprises,” he whispered as a furious smile spread across his face.
Rather than sleep, he leaned beside the door, gazing into the blackness outside. The war had come and gone, and had taken away everything he owned, including Alice. The regard he had for Alice, and the new spring of hope he had for himself upon her return, was extinguished by the death of Sergeant Makinde. He thought she wanted to be with him as much as he wanted to be with her, but she let the prospect of another man’s death cause her to change from the sweet, fine wife she used to be to a total stranger.