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Once Nigerians, We Were Now "Biafrans of Igbo Descent"
On this unforgettable day, also a hair-dressing day for Bena, there was no sound of federal fighter planes in the sky; the sun over the village of Akokwa had just set, allowing members of my family to gather around the open courtyard behind our house.
As a child, you wouldn’t know that those moments are still wartime. Adults did not explain the inconsistencies—why, in the midst of hunger and anguish, families continued their daily lives, just as hate coexists with love.
Using a wooden comb, Grandma Elizabeth isolated moles, or hairs, on my sister’s scalp, tying the base of each chosen crop with black thread. Then she gnawed at the unused thread with her strong teeth, stained with chewing tobacco. A gentle breeze stirred the leaves of the orange tree in the middle of the courtyard under which we sat.
Udoka, my brother, came in with his flock of sheep, while I watched yams roast under a dwarf metal tripod. ‘Done for the day,’ he said, going straight to the kitchen and stooping to lift the lids of several bowls in search of food. – Chmchm, – he sighed.
Reacting to two pale faces, my mother said: ‘Soon, the small round yams will soon be made.’ On the flat-topped wooden stool where we sat, our backs were next to each other like identical twins and we took turns yawning.
Inches from Bena’s feet, under the orange tree where Grandma did her hair, six two-week-old chicks tagged along with their mother as she handed their beaks every scrap she found.
To the left of the orange tree and an arm’s length from the backyard fence was an above-ground water tank made of bricks. Squeezing between the tank and the fence was a papad. Standing next to it and frowning was Papa Idoeh. On top of the tree was my other sister, Ezinne; she was inches away from plucking an immature foot. The narrow-stemmed tree swayed to one side under its weight.
– Girls don’t climb trees, – dad shouted at her. I turned to look up. An oil palm belonging to Aunt Eunice hit my face, and I blinked.
Idoeh took advantage of me being disciplined to supervise her sleeping twin daughters, the youngest of my ten siblings.
In the village at that time, adults did not give reasons for disciplining children. Figure it out, they would say. In retrospect, the knock was an omen, the beginning of impending horror.
A sudden sound that was now familiar to all adults and some children erupted. The sound rose and fell like the ghost of a man who used to hit children on the head with his knuckles.
There they swarmed in the sky above our house: fighter jets, sent by Gowon, the then head of state of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
‘Don’t run, freeze where you are!’ my grandmother shouted. Movement meant a human target and the drop of a bomb.
On the ground, we turned into statues like termite mounds. At the top of the tree, Ezinne froze in place.
Killer jets descended to roof level, spun and circled the entire house like rabid kites, their wings tinkling louder than an aluminum toolbox.
Bloodshot eyes scanned several standing figures until, convinced they were lifeless, the pilots lifted their planes into the clouds, leaving only echoes of terror.
Enemy jets left for good, we melted, quickly returning to the usual false normality; frozen to death one minute, only to return to full life the next.
At the bottom of the papado tree, Ezinne found a beheaded knife with which she cut the fruit into four parts. Her fingers swept many slippery black seeds from inside the pods, and she handed one portion to me and the other to Udoka.
With newfound energy, Udoka stood up to face an amorous ram making a move on one of his sheep.
Taking off from under Bena’s feet where Grandma fixed her hair, the hen and her chicks ran to converge around Ezinne and the black fruit seeds on the sandy ground. Not knowing where the next meal would come from, they pecked furiously.
Returning to the backyard with his left hand touching his ear for better reception, Idoeh began to say to no one in particular: ‘Listen, listen, everyone listen.’
Since the war began, his hearing acuity had improved to match that of an owl, picking up sounds that no one else could perceive. It was an adaptation that many men developed to get a head start on enemy planes, as well as to hear the footsteps of soldiers when they came to do conscription into the Biafran army.
Now his ears caught a new sound. The noise increased in intensity, first resembling sounds made by angry mosquitoes, then those of hungry houseflies, and finally angry bees.
– Enemy jets! he shouted. – Those murderous pilots are not fools. They knew we were human. Villagers don’t get lucky twice in one day.’
Stomping through the backyard, and opening the courtyard gate, we ran across cassava, yam and maize farms to Ohiamgbede, the dense forest of Mgbede.
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