No Love for Biafra
By Myles Idoko Ojabo
Monday, June 23, 2012.
Our love, up in roaring flames
Our voice, the body of an engine
Like engine boats, we drift
Drifting over the Niger
on the grave of his late father which was situated beside the family house he
lived in with his mother and brothers. He hated to be called an Igbo man because
of the life his father had lived. He hated every man that exhibited pride as an
Igbo. It was that selfless and appalling pride that sent his father to the
grave earlier than his time. Ozoemena drew up the sleeve of his oversized shirt
revealing a scar. The dark, vein-like blotch was the only inheritance his
barking father had left him. If Ozoemena hated his mother, it was only because of
the name she had given him. The meaning of the name, Ozoemena, spoke of a
broken affliction that her marriage had suffered.
On heading out
of the compound for the school where he heard a teacher was needed he met his
mother, who had a cluster of firewood over her head, coming back from the
‘Sorry Mama, I
can’t help with the firewood. I have to see Headmaster Ofoenagoro before the
‘My son, if you
are dressed like that going in search of a job, be sure that you will not get
cursing me, Mama?’
‘Listen to my
advice and go and put on one of your brothers’ shirts.’
‘Let’s see if
you are right or not. I’m going like this,’ he said pompously, raising his
shoulders and then groping the mildly rumpled shirt.
She watched him
walk away quickly in unyielding fuming strides. The shirt he wore swayed from
side to side embracing the pressure of a hasty breeze. She nodded her head,
sighed and walked into the compound. What can she do? If only she had enough
money to get him a better shirt from Mama Nneka’s boutique. It was almost a year
since it was rumoured that a certain Odumego Ojukwu would free Igbos in Nigeria
night, after she covered all the windows in her late husband’s obi with some banana leaves in
anticipation of the heavy storm that a certain traditional chief priest had
been warning everybody about, Ozoemena arrived back home. At first she thought
he had come with the menace and agony of the night, and searched his face for
his uncanny frown.
She watched him
fetch water from the jar to drink, and after a lengthy belch he burst into a
deafening laughter. ‘Ozoemena, please be quiet. Your brothers are already deep
asleep and have a long day tomorrow.’
laughing, sniggered and replied, ‘What you and my brothers wish me didn’t work.
I am now a teacher at Saint Mary’s Secondary School, Okigwe.’ He sent his
laughter bouncing and echoing through the house. This continued until after
midnight, adding to the sound of the persisting rain tapping heavily against
It was freezing
the next morning and she was in the market early. The shoemaker neighbour of
hers, who always shouted good morning, didn’t greet her and even ignored her
smile. ‘I heard your last son is now a teacher at Saint Mary’s,’ he would only
say, after she opened her store and began sweeping her frontage.
underneath the table where her basket of onions sat before replying, ‘Yes oh.
We can only give thanks to God.’
He wouldn’t say
more, even though he remained less busy that morning. Before she could spread
out her vegetables on the table, Mama Chichi arrived and told her about the
gossip she had heard from her neighbours. ‘They say Ozoemena used juju to get the job at Saint Mary’s.
People are angry about this oh.’
What else could
she do but shut her ears to the words that were about to take over the day. She
herself had been shocked when Ozoemena revealed the news. Days passed. Weeks
passed. And everyone in Okigwe had to embrace the intolerable truth that Ozoemena
was now a teacher.
from the market on a certain week day, the mother met some children
bare-chested and displaying a large board in front of the compound. On the
board was a sketched human face with a massive nose, and above were the words –
‘Ozoemena the Teacher’. She gazed into the compound, and there was Ozoemena
seated in his white oversized shirt, eating from a bowl of akpu on the stool in front of him. In as much as the children
laughed and read out the words on the board, he gave them no attention. The
mother dropped the basin she was carrying, loosened her wrap and retied it,
making it firmer. She picked up some stones. On noticing this, the children
took to their heels laughing. She chased them a distance before aiming at them.
Her efforts were futile.
‘How can you
let them insult you like that?’ she confronted Ozoemena.
He hissed and
replied, ‘Why should I care? Do I not have a massive nose?’
She nodded her
head disappointedly and went into the house. When he had finished eating he
washed his hands in a calabash bowl, and then brought in the basin of cassava
she had left at the entrance of the compound.
The next day he
ran back home from work tearing off his shirt in joy. He announced the biggest
news of his existence. He had won the heart of one of his female students.
‘Nwamaka is the daughter of a rich chief in Asaba. Her father was one among the
privileged Asaba men that have visited Oyibo
Ozoemena, who are you deceiving?’ his brother, Nurse Kandibe, whose face was
drawn and trounced, asked him.
‘Don’t call me
Teacher Ozoemena. The illiteracy in this house has to stop. I will make sure I
educate all of you including Mama. Because I am now a teacher doesn’t give you
the liberty to add ‘teacher’ to my name.
Everyone in Okigwe calls you Nurse Kandibe only because of their uncivilised
and barbaric understanding.’
should we call you?’ Maduka, his eldest brother, asked.
‘Call me Ozo
the Poet,’ he replied, smiling. ‘I used some romantic lines of poems to win
Nwamaka’s heart. Those lines put both tears and laughter on her face at the
‘Ozo the Poet!’
‘Ozo the Poet -
my foot!’ Nurse Kandibe added. ‘Maduka, we can’t believe him until we see him
with her. Only a mad girl will accept someone with your kind of nose.’
uncontrollably, his hands on his protruded stomach.
indeed cruel at times. Ozoemena had better pictures in his thoughts to nurture
and had to walk away.
dove that excretes love potions all over my heart,’ he sang, sighting her
approaching from a distance the next day after school. ‘The dancing damsel in
my dreams lighting up every dark part of my soul...’
shyly, looking at the hardened ground carpeted with tiny thorns and weeds. She
had agreed to meet with him in the forest behind the school building. Her hair was tightly woven. On her slim, tall
body the young growing breasts and widening hips were qualities he had told her
he could die for, on the cross like Jesus Christ. ‘The most beautiful of
Queens. More beautiful than Queen Cleopatra,’ he went on.
She hid her
face in his embrace, asking, ‘How many poems did you write for me today?’
himself, getting two rumpled sheets of paper out of his pockets. ‘I wrote four
exotic poems, my love.’
It was while
they were both squatted, while he was reading, giggling and coddling Nwamaka’s
attention, that Headmaster Ofonagoro lurched into their presence, the sound of
rustling grasses coming with him. The stout, bald-headed man, with cane in
hand, stamped his foot loudly, raising dust from breaking crispy leaves into
the air. ‘Ehe... Ozoemena... instead of doing what I hired you to do, you are
spoiling the girls...’
‘I am only reading her some poetry, sir.’
indeed...’ The headmaster said, beckoning his cane at them. ‘When I first heard
this, I didn’t believe it. I have been behind that iroko tree,’ he pointed, ‘...listening and seeing all that was
going on. On top of this, she is a boarding student and isn’t supposed to leave
the school premises.’
Nwamaka was on
her feet almost taking to her heels. She was shivering and tears were pouring
from her eyes.
shouted, ‘Stand there. I will teach you a lesson.’ He went toward her and
lifted the cane.
She closed her
eyes, squeezing more tears out. She didn’t feel the cane come down on her.
Instead she heard the sound of vigorous struggles over swishing dried leaves.
When she opened her eyes, to her surprise, Ozoemena had wrestled the headmaster
to the ground and was releasing a massive gale of blows. She had to flee.
dormitory her tears rained heavily upon her bed. What will she tell her father?
What will her mother say? Her stepmothers would now have a song to sing.
friend, who was on the opposite bunk that had faint rusts at its edges, lashed
her with venomous stares. ‘What is in him even attracts you? Is it his big nose
or the big white shirt he wears to class?’
understand,’ Nwamaka replied.
‘Am I blind,
Nwamaka? No girl in this entire dormitory will look at that man twice.’
‘And that’s the
difference between me and the rest of you. I am different.’ She sighed, rubbed
off her tears and rested her head on her pillow.
‘I am sorry,
Nwamaka, but your decision angers me. I feel so bitter. I wonder if you realise
the cost of this.’
The next morning
in the headmaster’s office, she stood with tears still in her eyes, her back
against the door while her father, wearing his chiefly Asaba hat and clutching
his noble walking stick, was seated listening to everything the headmaster,
with a swollen lower lip, said.
While in her
father’s car heading away from Okigwe, she sighted some women jumping in joy
and singing about a new Biafra. Her father tuned the car stereo to a broadcast
and for the first time she heard the name, Odumego Ojukwu. The man had declared
the South Eastern Region free from Nigeria. Her father said nothing. Just drove
whistling. She was scared to speak. When they got on the newly constructed
bridge over the river Niger and sighted the flag with the colour red and black,
he nodded his head and said. ‘There’s going to be war.’
continued preserving Nwamaka’s heart for himself, writing her poems and sending
them through some market boys that often came from Asaba to supply his mother
fresh bambara nuts. Nwamaka’s father could hawk Nwamaka away from Okigwe and
Headmaster Ofonagoro could sack him, but no one could stop his poetry from
steaming. She replied to him twice. In her first letter she claimed his poems
were her smiles. But the second letter was an agonising bomb blast in which she
revealed her father’s intention of marrying her to a soldier from the north.
laughed and laughed at Ozoemena’s frozen stare at the letter. ‘I know you have
been deceiving yourself.’
speechless at first. He drew closer to Ozoemena to read the words scrawled on
the sheet. ‘All Asaba girls are the same,’ he said. ‘Mama should have
enlightened you before you gave her your entire heart.’
When the moon
shone at its brightest later that night and Mama’s snore filled the house, he
turned on the lantern in his room, quickly squeezed two trousers and a shirt
into an old briefcase Maduka had given him, and left the house. He reached
Asaba in a noisy lorry the next afternoon. Nwamaka had told him their big house
was opposite the Anglican Cathedral and, fortuitously for him, there was no one
in Asaba that didn’t know where the Cathedral was. He had walked two kilometres
and Asaba dust had coloured the white long-sleeved shirt and brown khaki
trousers he wore. His briefcase was worse. He would beg the priests at the
Cathedral to let him do some washing so Nwamaka wouldn’t see him this
dirty. His timing was great but there
was no time for a wash. From his hideout between the two malaina trees in front of the house he could see the impassiveness clouding
Nwamaka’s face. She was already ceremoniously dressed, having numerous red
beads around her neck, and marching in a procession. After seeing the crowd of
people in the compound eating pounded yam, he decided to sneak in. He had some
drink like any other well wisher. Had some pounded yam since he was hungry and
watched a cultural troop dance impressively. Nwamaka’s eyes met his at the
point her father, with boisterous laughter, took her hand to give it to a tall,
slim man in a colourful kaftan. She wrenched her hand away. ‘I won’t marry this
song on the lips of the dancing troop stopped.
‘Who will you
marry then?’ her father asked, confusion and rage instantaneously settling on
fell on Ozoemena.
in the crowd reached for him. They dragged him out of the compound, his legs
rasping against the sandy ground. A really dark-skinned soldier with several
tribal marks on his face flogged him severely with a belt in front of the
Cathedral. Swollen, purplish marks appeared all over his weakened body. A
different soldier kicked his face when he fell flat on the ground and he could
only raise his head slightly to spit out a bloody tooth.
He thought he
heard Nwamaka scream. Since darkness had overtaken him he couldn’t search for
her face among the gathering of onlookers.
DURING THE WAR
As you drift north
I soar aimlessly on the Niger
Too rainy a month
Too dark the shore of light
While in the
back of the van lying half-conscious with the stench of Nigerian soldiers all
around him, he dreamt of Nwamaka. And in the dream he saw that she was being
dragged by the monster husband onto an aircraft. While these reeking soldiers,
chit-chatting and sniggering, were taking him perhaps back to Okigwe, their boss
was flying Nwamaka to the north. Ozoemena could only confuse his dreams and the
grubby stories of these soldiers. He felt he stank of death. It was obvious in
his gory state that he looked dead to them.
When they had
reached Okigwe, the moon was hiding behind the clouds. One of the soldiers
jumped off the van and asked a drunkard walking by the roadside for the
direction to Mama Maduka’s house. The house sat about sixty feet from them and
was beside a guava tree. They left
Ozoemena on a footpath, yards away from the house. And slowly the van ambled
who had wandered out to urinate near the broken wall beside his father’s grave,
had seen what looked like a bag of rice falling from the van. When he got out
of the yard the moon had appeared briefly.
He pushed the body to lie on its side and squatted staring at the face.
It was a human being. ‘Chineke!’ he
lamented. Darkness soiled his hand as he tilted the lifeless head. Blood was
oozing from the neck down into Nurse Kandibe’s cupped hand. Mama’s scream
jolted him. He hadn’t heard her footsteps at all when she came from behind.
Ozoemena on the bed in their late father’s obi,
he soaked a towel in the steaming bowl of water, squeezed it and cleaned the
wounds. Just before dawn Ozoemena opened his eyes, staring at the door. Nurse
Kandibe wasn’t sure Ozoemena recognised him. He watched Ozoemena struggle to
his feet before offering to help him to the toilet, draping Ozoemena’s arm over
his shoulders. Ozoemena walked in agony and could only piss a few drops.
He led Ozoemena
back to the bed, placed his head gently on the pillow and watched him go back
to the unusual state of slumber. For the first time in seventeen years Nurse
Kandibe couldn’t laugh at Ozoemena. He opened the bottle of the thick purplish
GV, dipped in a finger and gently drove it into his brother’s mouth finding the
swollen gums and the space a tooth had gone missing. Nurse Kandibe needed to
sleep to be strong for the next day since he was supposed to join the youths in
the neighbourhood in constructing some basements underground that would shelter
people in case bombs came raining. The
clinic where he worked had been closed down since it was rumoured a hospital in
Enugu had been blown up. He hoped Ozoemena would forget Nwamaka. Any sensible
Igbo man would only fight in defence of Biafra at this critical period.
health improved quickly. It was merely a month after he had been thrown off
that van and he could now stir and swallow akamu
on his own. He could limp to the pit toilet at the back of the house, and could
even pluck mangoes using the long stick his mother kept on the roof of their
house. Some Biafran soldiers arrived in
numbers surrounding Okigwe, increasing the town’s fear and horror. One evening,
Maduka brought home a soldier in a well ironed Biafran uniform.
‘I bring home
some good news,’ Maduka announced. ‘The men of this great family will declare
their loyalty to Biafra today.’
about it? Do I look like someone who could lift a gun?’ Ozoemena asked while
leaning against a door frame.
your situation, Ozo. Your brothers have both agreed to join the army to defend
this land. Whenever you feel well enough you can let us know... I don’t need to
convince you. You have suffered at the hands of these Nigerian monsters and
Onwubuariri is very right,’ Maduka added, nodding his head.
‘This is senseless. Even if I was as strong as Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, I will not join you
people. I cannot join a horde of nincompoops on their way to the grave.’
shouted his mother, who was filling the big pot with water by the side of the
becoming strong enough to handle a gun and able to help Mama in the farm
weeding the grasses on the heaps fostering yam tubers, he never considered
changing his mind about joining the army. One morning shortly after the first
cockcrow, Mama languidly got up from bed and headed straight to his room to
pass on the rumour about Obollo, which was now believed to be in the hands of
Nigerian forces. A possible and imminent hit on Okigwe was now a burden to
her. She was met with the faint smell of
a lantern’s fumes, an empty bed with turned back sheets and a flattened pillow.
She walked back to her room feeling heavy, her mind drenched in mud. Seated on
her bed beside the window she began to cry. She felt like a paper, adrift and
alone, wet and almost drowning. Her sons were all out there, in front of both
seen and hidden nozzles.
It was only
after a couple of days that bombs rained down from Nigeria’s fighter jets on
Okigwe. Mama snatched the sheets off her bed and ran underneath the star-like
lights of aircraft all over the dark sky and among screaming and scuttling
children and women on bare feet. Mama survived it, clutching shivering children
and some teenage mothers under the ground. She wasn’t unfortunate like her
sister, Mama Ndidi whose body a missile tore through. The pot on her head
filled with water fetched from the stream shattered half a yard in front of her
gory body. Why on earth would she go to the stream an hour before midnight?
After Nigerian soldiers had dug them out of their hiding underground, they were
all marched to a deserted secondary school where a Hausa soldier attained a
position in front of them and said, ‘We are friends. We are one Nigeria. Our
mission is to keep Nigeria one. ’
fear, silence and panic of her own people, Mama soon fell on her knees and
whispered a prayer for her sons. Her forehead was moist with sweat.
‘Hey woman,’ a
tall slender soldier shouted at her. ‘Get up and follow me.’
‘Chineke!’ She lamented quietly catching
a wink of this same soldier at one of his colleagues. This time she prayed in
her heart as she ambled after the soldier that God should cause her to
menstruate even though it had only been two weeks since the last one.
learner airplane scrambled into the sky and a tumble of cloud rested on some
bare hills. While she had been praying, Ozoemena was amidst some fellow Igbo
men packed in the back of a truck heading over the River Niger towards the
River Benue. The driver was a Tiv man who had told them about the absence of
war in Otupko and Makurdi.
‘To be sure...
very sure about your safety, I can get you all to Makurdi. Otupko is safe but
one can never tell if Ojukwu might want to move toward that direction provoking
more tension,’ said the man in a perceptive and thoughtful voice, after
collecting over 300 Nigerian pounds from one of them, a desperate man from
Onitsha whom Ozoemena had bumped into in Okigwe.
‘I heard our
Igbo poet, Christopher Okigbo, was killed in a village not far from Otupko by
Nigerian soldiers. There’s no way I am getting off at Otupko,’ the Onitsha man
said. ‘My family left the country ahead of me and I promised I would join them
as soon as I could but right now it all looks bleak.’
All of them,
apart from Ozoemena, were fleeing from war, from the crushing power of poverty.
They had no choice.
‘It’s better to
get to Makurdi. My sister’s husband said Igbos catch buses going to Cameroon
from there,’ another man said.
‘My fear is on
this road. Nigerian soldiers are bound to surprise us,’ a fair skinned man
squatted next to the Onitsha man said.
claimed to be the father of a respected Nigerian soldier. Any Nigerian soldier
should listen to him,’ Ozoemena said and cleared his throat. His furtive plan
was to find a lorry heading to Maiduguri from Makurdi. He had to find Nwamaka.
And of course,
they met a road block and were all ordered down.
The Tiv man
protested, ‘I am the father of Major-General Tsav...’
A full bearded
Nigerian soldier responded pointing a gun and pulling the trigger. Blood
spilled against Ozoemena’s face as the driver slumped to his knees. They were all
forced to lie flat on their stomachs. The soldiers, about seven in number,
searched their bodies.
heart was filled with Nwamaka’s images. So this was it. Death was staring
boldly at his face and even became restive flapping its wing inside him as
though a bee clinging on to the inside wall of dog’s nose. A chubby and
double-chinned soldier Ozoemena believed to be Yoruba, found some of the sheets
in his pockets. They had poems he had written while in deep thought shortly
after he had recovered in Okigwe. He watched the soldier smile and snort,
cheeks spreading like tearing a loaf of white bread, while he read through the
lines. Ozoemena tried to imagine how Christopher Okigbo could have been killed.
Perhaps tied to a car and driven around the village square somewhere in Idoma
were tied behind them and they were forced into the back of the same truck. Two
soldiers with their guns held firmly stayed with them all through the bumpy
ride that lasted five hours. In Makurdi, they were taken to a military
detention. Ozoemena had a cell to himself, and had eba and a watery soup once a day. On one hot afternoon, while
sweating and struggling to breath, positioning his nose in front of the small
cell window, he heard a sound at his door. It was unlocked and the
double-chinned soldier that had his poems entered. ‘Would you like to have some
As they walked
out of the gates, it came to Ozoemena’s realisation that the detention centre
was in a barrack. He saw the statue of a soldier perhaps clinging on to a full
blown parachute at the centre of a roundabout. There were lines of
indistinguishable brown houses on the street at the end of the roundabout.
‘Where did you
get those poems from?’ the soldier asked, commandingly, his face fixed right in
front of them.
‘I wrote them.’
‘Are you a
‘Not really. I
write for a woman I love.’
‘You do not
have to lie about who you are... Are you a poet?’
‘Only the woman
I love reads what I write... Yes, on one hand I am a poet.’ Ozoemena felt a
gentle wind hitting his face and noticed the soldier’s stare settling on him.
His sweaty face got drier. ‘Before the war she used to be my student. We had
fallen in love and my poetry became her idol. When the principal of the college
realised this, he didn’t only fire me but expelled her. Her name was Nwamaka.
Her father then married her off to a soldier, a northerner. During the wedding
in Asaba, I had surfaced and I received the most terrible omen that kept me in
bed for months until the war started. I was beaten senseless by soldiers. I
lost a tooth.’ He opened his mouth displaying the gap. ‘I couldn’t walk on my
own for nearly sixty days.’
‘You make a
soldier want to cry, my dear poet. Do you know you are treated differently
compared to the other Igbo men? I knew you were all non-Biafran soldiers but my
superior thinks otherwise. The reason I spare you of all the brutalities that
the others face is because of my wife. My wife likes the poems. It might
surprise you she is Igbo. Only a few know this because she has adopted my
culture. She speaks Yoruba like she’s really a Yoruba woman. I told her I wrote
them for her and she has never been so joyous since our wedding day. Now she
wants more and I have no other option than to come to you...’
‘I don’t know
her and understand what she likes...’
‘Write it as if
you are writing to Nwamaka, and I will adjust it to suit. That’s exactly what I
did to the other ones.’ The soldier smiled, his cheeks spreading. ‘I am a
specialist in adding ingredients, changing taste.’
found a new friend who provided him more food and candles and sheets at night.
Just before Christmas the soldier, who he now called Major Ibikunle, put him on
a military lorry filled with policemen heading to Maiduguri, wished him good
luck and waved his hand with tears in his eyes. Even though the blood of
Biafran soldiers might be encrusted beneath Major Dauda Ibikunle’s fingernails,
Ozoemena will try to post him more poems.
Once let off
the lorry in Maiduguri, the sun tore through his skin. The population of men
and women in respective kaftans and hijabs was a spectacle. A policeman had
cautioned him before the drop-off, telling him to be wary of Hausas. ‘About
three Igbo traders were hung from a tree and burnt,’ the policeman warned.
In the brown,
short-sleeved shirt gifted to him by Major Ibikunle, he sauntered through the
central market wondering where to start his search. The Major had told him
there was hardly a person in Maiduguri who wouldn’t know Nwamaka’s husband, Colonel
Mamman Baga. It wasn’t the case. He couldn’t even find anyone who could speak
English. And when he did, the banana-seller who gave him a banana for free said
he didn’t know any soldier with such a name.
He slept along
with some Moslems outside a Mosque in the market during the night after each
day’s fruitless wandering, befriending soldiers he met, inquiring from them if
they knew Colonel Baga. Then he would return to the Mosque to eat leftovers
reserved for him before sleeping. He began worshipping like his new friends
did, even though his beliefs still lingered at Saint Augustine, in Okigwe where
he was baptised. He got to know a few Hausa words after a month. One evening
after wandering about, one of his new friends pointed at a man saying, ‘That na your brother.’
It was a man
leaning against the body of a mango tree, fetching pints of snuff and throwing
it into his nostrils. He was nodding his head indulgingly when Ozoemena got in
front of him. The man, who wore a kaftan like any other Maiduguri man, didn’t
look Igbo at all and kept his beard like they all did.
‘Are you really
‘Only a few
people know... and I like it that way. It’s safer. Not that they might kill me
if they knew. It’s all for the sake of my business,’ Alhaji Maxwell said. ‘Someone
hinted to me about you before today. I can only be sure you came here because
of the war.’
to care about the war in this part of Nigeria. But I heard three Igbo men were
‘That’s a lie.
People here are friendly unlike the people in Kano. It was in Kano that Igbos
‘Where are you
‘I have a fleet of taxis in this town - that’s
my business. I pretend to worship their Allah and I also married a Maiduguri
woman,’ Alhaji Maxwell said, nodding his head. ‘How did you come to Maiduguri?’
he asked. He was tall and as skinny as a young girl, and didn’t have the
mystery of an Igbo trader.
to tell him of Nwamaka but changed his mind. He might sound irrational. At
least not now. ‘I was captured by Nigerian soldiers who thought I was a Biafran
soldier and was in detention in Makurdi for nearly six months. A kind Nigerian
soldier, who had an Igbo wife, had pity on me and sent me here in a lorry
filled with policemen.’
sniffed in more snuff and slightly tapped his head with his left palm. ‘I used
to have a big cloth factory in Kano. I knew going back to Biafra would be worse
after they burnt down my business. I had the knowledge that Gowon would stop
food from entering Igbo land and I had to use my head when almost every Igbo
man and woman was forced back on a train.’
already liked the man. There was something about him. An insane quality about
the his smile, and also a deep reassuring undertone to his voice
‘I will teach
you to drive. All my drivers are northerners. I cope with them, but with a lot
of difficulty considering what happened to me, and also what’s happening – the
AFTER THE WAR
Oh, my voice is silent
My body, a reservoir of passion and hate
A flame of deflation
With fields burning like hell
Even a six year
old Maiduguri boy, who before today couldn’t say a word in English, could now
say the phrase, ‘Nigeria is one again’. Ozoemena, in the taxi waiting for his
last customer of the day, could smell the hunger, destruction and dying fire
all the way from Igbo land. He could only hope Mama, Nurse Kadibe and Maduka
had survived the war. From the corner of
his eye he could also see the fair complexioned woman he called Nwamaka’s replacement in his heart. She
had only opened her shop in the afternoon and was now closing earlier than
usual. She was indeed as tall as Nwamaka. Had the same size breasts and hips.
It was a Friday, a day Alhaji Maxwell allowed him to close early. He tuned the
small world receiver in his hand, and when Gowon’s voice echoed through the
speakers, he turned it off. Nwamaka’s replacement brought the jingling iron
bars of her store to a close and inserted a big white padlock. He watched her
bring down the heavy tarpaulin that shielded rain. Clinging tight to her
handbag, she walked quickly in his direction.
‘Can you drop
me off at Baga Road?’ she said, bending slightly to catch his stare.
He raised his
eyebrow. A dream come true. She had never once come to him in spite of every
effort he made in the past to seek her attention. She had preferred Danladi or
Musa. None of these taxi drivers turned up today. It was his day. He stretched
over the passenger seat beside him, swinging the door open. She entered and he
started the car. ‘You are closing early?’
‘I have to. The
shop will be closed for a while...’
‘It just Friday
madam... I know you also open the shop on Saturdays.’
‘Nice of you to
He let the car
mooch into a pothole filled with fresh rainwater from last night. He braked and
at a snail's pace, sailed out settling to a nifty pace.
‘Madam, wahali, you resemble my long lost
She gave him a
firm look and said nothing.
‘I never loved
any woman like I loved Nwamaka. I look at your eyes and I think I am staring at
her. Your skin, sometimes, makes me wonder if Nwamaka has bleached. Same
height. Same movements.’ He felt stupid listening to himself as he made a right
turn but didn’t care.
bloody car, driver!’
He pulled over
after signalling for a while, waving at the car behind him. He waited for her
to dash out of the taxi but her palms only found her face. She had tears on her
A sort of
silence emerged between them. This silence was so loud and mingled with the
sounds of other moving taxis and blasting horns. ‘Why didn’t you walk up to me
and tell me this before today?’
He sighed. ‘I
wasn’t sure if you would like a taxi man. You dress well and look like a woman
with high taste for army officers and doctors. It was a military officer who
took away my Nwamaka.’ He stared deeply into her eyes, and in those eyes he
could see loss and also an adoring presence of pain.
She shook her
head in anguish. ‘Continue driving.’
Baga road, she asked him to wait while she got something from a white coloured
flat with a rusted roof. He watched her enter and afterwards come out. He
watched her trying to force open her door even after locking it with a key. She
came back carrying a bigger white travel bag. ‘Take me anywhere! And... I...
want you to tell me more about you.’
Arriving at the
neighbourhood where his one bedroom apartment was situated amidst similar
houses, which drivers like him and a few policemen occupied, he met the smiles
of his neighbours as Nwamaka’s replacement, whom he hadn’t even asked of her
name, followed. They both sat under a cashew tree that had a few unripe fruits
and stood before his door. He wanted to buy her a cup of kunu, but she shook her head, her gaze fixed on him. She was
obviously not interested in his poems in although he read her some poems with
squinting eyes over a sheet, his words flowing out of his lips urbanely. She
laughed so much, almost choking when he poured out his war story; his ordeal
while in pursuit of Nwamaka. She was interested in Biafra. She wanted to know
what was going on, being aware that all she heard on news was jargon. She spoke
Hausa fluently but said Katap was her first language.
‘I am a
Christian from Kaura.’
northerners were all Moslems,’ he said.
‘Even some of
the indigenous people of Maiduguri are Christians.’
He showed her
his small room, saying, ‘This is where a lonely Igbo man sleeps.’
here,’ she said, laughing.
He hit her
playfully, drew her body against his and tried to tickle her. In the poor light
of the room, especially where she had been standing before he pulled her, the
night seeped in and darkened the room. While feeling the warmth exuded by her
body, he noticed the deepening of the lines around her mouth. And through the
slightly open mouth, he could see that her tongue was still – a piece of red
warm flesh. She was smaller than he was but in the dark she seemed to mature in
size. He felt her grip. She squeezed his fingers until both their palms became
wet with sweat. The next morning he woke stretching his hand over the lean
mattress that hardly fitted the spring bed, to touch her subtle body but met
her absence. He jumped out of the bed, checked the spot on the ground she had
left her white bag. It was no more. He sighed and took the chewing stick he had
left at the edge of the window. Today he would be late for work. So much had happened. She had told him how
fibroids filled her womb giving people false impressions of pregnancies in the
periods of her two failed marriages. She had told him her name. And also about
Back at the
park in the market, the chewing stick still stuck in his mouth, he kept his
distance from the rest of the drivers who had formed a circle under a mango
tree for their morning gossip and loud guffaws. He would no longer be part of
their lousy and barbaric way of life. He now had a beautiful woman, and would
only amble toward the circle and announce the news which he was sure would
break their hearts and make them envious. He looked at his new lover’s shop. She
hadn’t arrived. He looked toward the circle of the drivers. Aliyu stared back,
threw his head forward and said something. They all laughed looking in his
direction. This annoyed him. He spat out some particles of the chewing stick,
put it away and got out of the car. He had to let the idiots know where they
‘I am a
different man now,’ he said to them boastfully. ‘That beautiful woman that owns
that shop is now mine...’ he pointed. ‘I will soon be a family man. Not like
you people that live fake lives talking about her and wishing the impossible to
happen. I now own her. In fact, she slept in my house last night.’
looked at themselves, perplexed.
‘I hope you are
alright,’ Musa asked.
‘Do I look
sick?’ Ozoemena replied with venom in his voice. He walked back to his car,
whistling, and sat on the bonnet. He glanced at the closed shop wishing that
his new found love would show up and hug him in front of the drivers.
would like to tell you something,’ Audu, one of the drivers, came after him
away. His ears willing to listen though.
might not be a Moslem like most of us here but we still have to respect her
soul. It is in our religion to respect the dead and not say terrible things.’
‘What are you talking
‘I am talking
about what you just told us.’
‘What has she
got to do with the dead?’
‘Don’t tell me
you are not aware of her death?’
settled on Audu. He nodded his head. ‘Were you the one who killed her?’
‘What kind of
question is that, Ozoemena? Do I look like a murderer?’
‘Then why make
up lies. Are you jealous of me?’
passed away on Thursday and I am asking you to respect her soul.’
‘How can you
say that about someone who spent Friday night at my house? Did I see a ghost?’
‘You must be
sick,’ Audu said, walking away back to the circle.
watched him say some words to the other drivers. Some of them nodded
disapprovingly and some looked down. A man riding on a bicycle with a bag
hanging from his shoulder slowed down in front of Filo’s shop and got out a
paper to paste on the wall. Ozoemena stormed toward the man asking, ‘What are
you pasting on the wall?’
doing my job,’ the man turned around and said. He pasted the paper, and rode
dumbfounded staring at the paper that that had the word ‘obituary’ scrawled in
capital letters. It displayed an almost washed-out photo of younger Filo seated
on a stool. It was stated that she died on Thursday, the 23rd of
April, 1970. He turned around facing the drivers who were all looking. His
palms came over his head as he squatted. He screamed and ran to his car. While
starting the car, some of the drivers made gestures, trying to stop him. But
his taxi roared, spluttered and hissed before settling to a roar. Ozoemena felt
tears prick his eyes as he lurched the car forward, heading for Baga road. In
front of her house was the same paper with the bold inscription ‘obituary’
glued to her door. He banged the door violently and then stepped away.
Pedestrians began to gather and stare. He noticed his legs shaking slightly and
then suddenly vigorously. He fell to his knees and darkness seemed to come over
him like a blanket.
When he woke
up, he found himself in a big foamy bed. Was this heaven? White curtains. Pink
walls. He couldn’t make out the faces around him. He raised his head and
struggled to move his legs.
‘I am glad you
are up now, Ozoemena.’
He widened his
eyes. What was Nurse Kandibe doing here sitting by his side? Where was he?
Where was this place? ‘Where am I?’
He heard a door
open, and Alhaji Maxwell walked toward the bed. ‘You fainted in front of Madam
Filo’s house, Ozoemena.’
and shook his head. ‘Is she really dead, Maxwell?’
She was hit by
a speeding vehicle on Thursday night. She passed away minutes after being
rushed to the hospital.’
up. A small slender woman in a hijab, who Ozoemena was sure was Alhaji
Maxwell’s wife, entered the room holding a tray that had a glass of water. At
first he thought he was thirsty but shook his head and gestured at her to leave
it by the bedside.
‘I took Filo to
my house on Friday and my neighbours witnessed this. I cannot lie,’ he said. He
lay back after he saw the exchange of glances between Alhaji Maxwell and his
‘Ozoemena, I do
not doubt that,’ his brother started. ‘I actually went to your house in search
of you yesterday and was told you had brought this woman home. After I found
Alhaji Maxwell who had been talking to your fellow taxi drivers, he managed to get
a copy of the woman’s obituary photo which was taken and shown to your
neighbours. They all said it was the same woman you brought home.’
‘You are trying
to tell me I met a ghost, Nurse Kandibe?’
‘We have heard
similar ghost stories in the past and before we conclude about who you actually
met, we have to ensure that your health is okay,’ Nurse Kandibe replied.
‘How are you
feeling,’ Alhaji Maxwell asked.
‘I feel a
slight headache. I can’t believe my life...’
brother, we will see the end of this,’ Nurse Kandibe reassured him.
he had to ask even though he doubted she was alive. He was ready to swallow the
worst of news, just after being battered hard by an excruciating puzzle.
health is the only good news I bring from home.’
‘I have to
leave you two for now. In case either of you need something, just call out. I
or my wife will come right away,’ Alhaji Maxwell said, and left.
sighed. ‘What Biafra used her eyes to see between 1967 and 1970 was really terrible,
my brother. Hunger killed more people than the Nigerian soldiers did.’ He
nodded his head. ‘Ozoemena, Maduka did not survive the war.’
Ozoemena’s eyes. He thought of Maduka’s laughter. How it echoed through their
house in Okigwe.
‘It was in Orlu.
When the Nigerian soldiers came there, I and some Biafran soldiers ran into the
bush. But Maduka and the one other brave sergeant remained and fought. They
both lost their lives. I and the others lived in the bush in deep fear and
hunger for thirty three days. We had to come out of hiding with our guns over
our head because of hunger, and the Nigerian soldiers took us into custody
until the war ended. Our mother was able to bear the news of our brother’s
death. She was the one who insisted I look for you. She said it is significant
to know if you were alive or dead.’
‘How did you
then find me?’
‘I had to find
Nwamaka to get to you.’
‘Did you find
‘I did,’ Nurse
Kandibe replied. ‘She will be here before nightfall to see you.’
missed a bit. ‘I have been in Maiduguri for nearly two years now and couldn’t
find her. And you come within two days and find her?’
‘When I came to
Maiduguri, I had to head straight to the military barrack because I knew that’s
where I could find her. I found the house and went right in. At first the
security wouldn’t let me in but she saw me from her window and came to let me
in. She was surprised when I told her you were in Maiduguri.’
What does she look like?’
different from the woman in the obituary picture. I think she had a baby
‘If he had been
around, I would have been shot right away. She said he was in Enugu ensuring
that all our Igbo brothers give up their weapons.’
She found it
hard pushing her way through the crowded street. There were so many buses and
cars honking and obstructing pedestrians and tangling up the traffic in an
incredible confusion. She raised her
hand to knock but stopped. It seemed a breath of the world stood before her as
a door. What was she doing here away
from her home where her baby could be longing for breast milk? She was only
being fair to Ozoemena. And just as his brother had said, it is only her that
can give Ozoemena back his life. She knocked. A broad-lipped woman in a hijab
led her in to meet Ozoemena’s brother and a slender looking man in deep
‘You are here
in time. That is the room.’ Nurse Kandibe pointed while the other man smiled.
It was a
similar door to the one she had just confronted. She pushed it open slowly and
went in. Ozoemena was lying still on his back wearing a brown two-pocketed
shirt and a pair of green trousers that were supposed to be long but only came
below his knees. She stepped closer and stared at him. He hadn’t changed except
for the brows that were now bushy, the lines beneath his ably closed eyes that
were now thicker and the hair which was shaved to the bone with a little fringe
left in front, making him look boyish. She shook her head, wondering what he
had endured because of her. Had he really slept with a ghost or perhaps he had
gone insane making stories up? She noticed his hands move slightly. She noticed
his eyes trembling open. She smiled. But was stunned when his fist violently
found her neck. She tried to pull his hand away from her throat, and didn’t
want to scream. One of his legs found the floor and he increased his grip,
shutting one of his eyes strongly. She managed to scream. Nurse Kandibe and
Alhaji Maxwell rushed in, pulling her away.
toward the window, away from the bed, breathing heavily and moaning silently.
‘Are you out of
your mind, Ozoemena?’ Alhaji Maxwell shouted.
slouched on the bed, covered his face with his fingers. ‘What’s wrong with me?
What’s wrong with me?’
her head, went toward Ozoemena and embraced him. He held her so tight and they
both cried vociferously.
made an attempt to go near them but Nurse Kandibe held him back. ‘Let us leave
later became laughter. Ozoemena had attacked her for no reason and both had
embraced each other for a good reason, being that loss had a chance to sit on
the throne for a short time. Their cries were due to unhealed wounds and now
the clamorous laughter was as a result of elation mingled with sorrow. Silence
soon lined the intensity in which he held her close. They must have fallen
asleep for a while still clinging onto each other. When she moved her body, he
asked, ‘Are you alright?’
replied. ‘What happened to your voice?’
‘The change was
a result of the wound your husband and his soldiers inflicted on me. I was so
beaten on that night of your wedding that I nearly cut my tongue into half with
my own teeth. I lost a tooth and couldn’t talk for months.’
‘I am so sorry.
I remember that day clearly.’ Tears were beginning to cloud her eyes again.
The clock had
attained a certain speed since she entered the room. She looked at it and
raised her brow. She had been here since seven pm and it was now two hours
after midnight. She would certainly spend the entire night with him. Her new
babysitter should be able to manage without her presence tonight. She watched
him get to his feet and reach for a faded black pair of trousers hanging on an
inserted nail on the wall. He got out some rumpled sheets from the pockets and
recited poems she had long missed and this brought more tears to her eyes.
Years had mellowed his charm and enhanced his looks.
She must have
smiled. During the rest of the night sleep enveloped her. Towards the early
morning hours a noise was suddenly forcing her awake. A noise of struggle and
restrained screams. When she opened her eyes sitting up, there were soldiers in
the room. One of them, with freckles of a carnivorous beast and sagging neck
muscles, was holding Ozoemena’s head while squatting and incessantly hitting it
on the hard concrete floor. This soldier’s hands, intricate machineries for
torture, forced blood out of Ozoemena’s skull. Nurse Kandibe and the man she
now knew as Alhaji Maxwell had been made to face the wall, their hands over
their heads and the soldiers pointing AK 47s at their backs. In shock, she
struggled to her feet and screamed on seeing the edge of a rifle landing on
Ozoemena’s head. She saw Ozoemena chest rise and fall, his black work-worn
hands clenching and splitting until his knuckles released a series of crackling
Myles Idoko Ojabo is a Nigerian writer based in Auckland, New Zealand.