As Chizoba walked into his father’s compound, he was consumed with the nostalgia of what his life had been like before the war. He stared intently at his father’s obi which was situated at the centre of the compound. He remembered clearly how they had lived happily, though they were not rich; how his little siblings would scurry out of the house, giggling and then set off on a race during which they would run to the gigantic mango tree near the fence and whomever touched it first was hailed the winner. He would always sit on his father’s creaking reclining chair, used mostly for resting, outside the house, with Nneka, his younger sibling and the first daughter of his parents and view them exultingly.
He remembered the egwu ọnwa dance competition. He loved it and had never lost. His friends would always tease him by calling him ‘the dance warlock’ and saying, “Maybe you will marry Egwugu, the dance spirit.”
“That’s why he has a girl’s name,” one of his friends had said one day and Chizoba picked up a fight with him. The egwu ọnwa was one of the things he missed most.
His family had refused to accept Christianity, especially his father. They were so dogmatic about their religion and the precepts of their chi and the pronouncements of their chief priest.
Then his memory flicked to his family’s farm, their big farm and the major source of income for his family. He remembered his father’s carpentry workshop and his mother’s kitchen where different sizes of rats and cockroaches held court. He remembered the day a snake had nearly entered through the kitchen’s open window with no burglary proof or louvers. Luckily, he was in the kitchen that day roasting yam when he saw it. He had snuffed life out of the creature with the big cutlass he took out from an opening in the zinc. Though the kitchen was not so elegant and the walls were stained with black dust from burnt firewoods, so many delicacies were dished out from there. They were poor but never lacked food, owing to the fertility and great productivity of the soil in their big farm.
Chizoba was seventeen when the Biafran war broke out. The Igbos hardly slept due to the threatening sounds of gunshots and bomb blasts; and due to the fear of adding to the count of those whose houses were bombed, many camouflaged the roofs of their houses with palm fronds. The entire Igbo nation was in great turbulence but the turbulence within the citizens was much greater and making quicker moves to end many lives. Most of them stayed up, most times, throughout the night, thinking; they were scared of losing their loved ones to the war.
Chizoba remembered one fateful night, he had managed to sleep briefly when nature called him. He rose from his mat and headed for the old, termite infested, wooden door with his mpanaka. His father had promised to change the door before the war began but because of his habit of procrastinating, he didn’t. His wife had once accused him of not being able to make money like his mates because of his habit of procrastination. The door had made some creaking sounds as he opened it. He stepped out of the room rubbing his eyes with the back of his palm and ambled out of the house and towards the small bush close to the window of his parents’ room. He was almost done emptying his bladder when he heard some sniffing sounds coming from the room. He wanted to ignore it and mind his business. So, he took his mpanaka and started back for the house. Then, the sound came louder and louder and then like a wail. He stopped abruptly, dropped his mkpanaka and stalked to the window to eavesdrop. It was his mother. He listened carefully as his father consoled her with his motivational words.
“Obi m, don’t let this eat you up. It’s going to be alright. We mustn’t give up now because I know there is a great light waiting for us at the end of this tunnel,” he said assuringly.
“I’m not sure this will end without killing all of us. Who knows when those soldiers with blunt faces would knock on my door and demand for my own son? If they took Onowu’s last son, who am I that they won’t take mine?” she sniffed and continued sobbing.
Chizoba’s ears tingled. He wasn’t sure of what he heard but his ears heard right. “They took Chibuzor?” he said to himself in a whisper. He felt his calf burning in spite of the cold night. He became so scared that he heard his heart beat. He thought that was all until his mother let out the nut from its shell.
“Don’t you know they’ve taken Ikechukwu, Adinna’s only son?” she asked her already tired husband.
Ikechukwu was Chizoba’s best friend and had always been his dance mate in the egwu ọnwa dance competition. He couldn’t bear hearing anymore heart-rending and sour news from his mother, so he ran back into his room with his mpanaka lighting the way.
Ikechukwu was just fifteen years but spoke and acted like an adult, he was intelligent too and educated which was the major reason Chizoba got along with him well. Their discussions centered mostly on academics and the happenings in school. Chizoba, though not educated, learned a lot about school and the white teachers from him.
“If they took Ikechukwu who is fifteen, then what about me? I’m two years older than him, which means I’m not free.” The thoughts of what he had heard killed the sleep in his eyes. Throughout that night, he imagined what the life of a soldier was like and what his life would be like if he became one. He feared guns and hated war. How was he going to cope with those scary eyes of the soldiers fixed on him? How was he possibly going to kill his fellow human being? He imagined Ikechukwu’s life over there and felt a surge a pity in his heart for him.
Chizoba remembered his uncle, Jidenna who had promised to take him to Lagos the next time he would come back home, and at Lagos he would enroll him in high school. Chizoba and his siblings were not privileged to go to high school. Their education remained static after their primary education. His parents couldn’t push through further; it was evident in his father’s regular complaints, “Things are very hard in this country.” Chizoba and his four siblings had hoped much on their uncle to become their saviour. Jidenna ought to travel home to take Chizoba as he promised, during new yam season, but the war broke out long before then and he couldn’t push through with his plans.
Later, in the morning, Chizoba’s mother had called him to disclose her plans with his dad for him, to him. “You are leaving this place to my sister’s place in the next town, tomorrow morning. The war is closer here than there. And besides that, the Biafran soldiers are going house to house taking young boys from their homes to go into the war field to fight. This is to keep you away from the hungry eyes of the blunt soldiers,” she had said with much fretting.
He watched closely as her lips opened and closed rapidly and her hands shook. He waited patiently for her to mention Ikechukwu’s predicament to him but she didn’t. She knew her son loved him so much and it would hurt him to know that he had been taken. Chizoba’s father had left the house early that morning to a place he didn’t know.
After his mother was done speaking to him, he left angrily and headed outside the house. “How dare she hide it from me, pretending like all is well?” he said to himself angrily. Scarcely had he crossed the door to their house than a group of soldiers came into his father’s compound and unluckily, they bumped into him. There was no room for escape. He was sure their chi wasn’t smiling at them at all. He couldn’t escape to his aunt’s place anymore. He made to run, but they caught up with him, bundled him up and threw him into their green worn truck like some trash. His mother cried and pleaded with them, likewise his siblings but their hearts had been numbed, so they paid no attention to them.
Chizoba’s departure was bittersweet to him. Bitter, because he may never see his family again, especially his little sister, Chika, whom he loved most amongst his siblings and Oluchi his girlfriend; and sweet because he would see Ikechukwu.
Throughout the journey to other houses, where they had picked other young men of his village and to the thick bush where they were trained, he cried. He knew that may be the end of him. There were other cowards like him who didn’t just cry but wailed like babies.
Chizoba remembered vividly how Amuche, an albino boy had cried throughout the journey, during which some mucus from his nose glossed his lips and he licked them as though they were yummy. One of the soldiers had slapped him for acting childish and he started crying louder. His actions in the truck really pissed the soldier. He remembered how the frail and cowardly Amuche became rigid and a skilled shooter. Most of the soldiers got impressed by his quick ability to learn. Chizoba had met Ikechukwu there and their friendship continued.
After their very basic training due to lack of enough supplies, they were divided into groups.
Luckily, Chizoba found himself in the same group with Ikechukwu. Amuche was made the second head of their group before they were taken to the war field. Their group was taken to fight at the outskirts of their state. Amuche became friends with Chizoba and Ikechukwu.
Though Amuche was skilled in shooting guns and he killed many Nigerian soldiers, he was the first to die in their group. On that unlucky day, he had taken cover under a dead body, likewise most of them, as a strategic means of taking down the few Nigerian soldiers whom had ravaged that area. One of the soldiers had walked up to the body and kicked it severally to ensure it wasn’t a camouflaged death. Other soldiers did the same and when their commander got satisfied, he asked them to retreat from the bodies. Others retreated but the soldier who had walked up to the body Amuche was laying under, refused to retreat. He wasn’t sure that the body was dead; so, he took out his gun and shot the body repeatedly. Unluckily, two bullets pushed through the dead body and prodded Amuche’s chest and he whimpered loudly. The soldier heard the sound but before he could do anything, his commander, whom the sounds of his gunshots had alerted, turned to him and yelled, “Why are you wasting your bullets on a dead body? I said, retreat!”
“I heard a s—” Before he could complete his statement, gunshots rained on him from his commander.
“You don’t disobey me, fool!” he said angrily.
Then, he turned to leave and got his own rounds of gunshots from Chizoba who had seen what happened from under the body he had hidden himself. Other Biafran soldiers came out from underneath the bodies they had hidden and charged at the rest of the Nigerian soldiers. After a long while of shooting and killing, the Nigerian soldiers where reduced to a fewer number and they retreated. Some of the Biafran soldiers were killed in the fight as well.
Chizoba and others rushed to Amuche but, it was late. He lost so much blood and unluckily, one of the bullets had hit the left part of his chest, close to his heart. Chizoba and Ikechukwu wept bitterly on his behalf. After a minute silence for him, they left and continued with their hunt.
Chizoba drew in some breath with his eyes closed. He felt great victory within him. Though, he had lost his two friends who were more like brothers to him, Amuche and Ikechukwu, who took some bullets for him during the war; though, Ojukwu had passed the Ahiara declaration and the Biafrans had retreated, he was elated to had fought the battle, to had killed many enemies, who were not just the Nigerian soldiers but his fears. His name has been inscribed into the history book of Biafra. He was a hero, though he lost one hand and his people lost the battle.
He opened his eyes and smiles curved his lips. He looked up and saw his younger sister, Chika running towards him. “She’s now a big girl,” he said to himself. He flapped his only surviving arm open and embraced her. Her shouts of joy alerted the neighbors and they came out to know what was happening. He looked around in search for his parents, but they were no where to be seen around there. His other siblings ran to him with tears and joy.
Later, after all the jubilations, and all neighbours had gone back to their houses, he asked Nneka, who was most excited, “Where is mummy and daddy?” Nneka couldn’t let out the words from her mouth. So, she dropped down in tears. Chizoba got confused and asked, “Come on! Talk to me. Where are they?” She still couldn’t answer.
“Mum had a heart attack after you were taken and she died two days later. Dad, couldn’t bear living without mum, so he hung himself a week after her burial. His body was found hanging from the ụkwa tree at the back of the kitchen.” Uchenna, his younger brother managed to say with tears in his eyes.
Chizoba wasn’t sure of what he heard. He stared blankly at the air as a surge of weakness ran through him. He thought he was a hero but no, he wasn’t. He brought back the trophy for dead people. He secured his life and fought to come back to them but they made him look like a failure, they betrayed him. He wanted to cry but couldn’t, not before his siblings. He couldn’t show them his weakness, but he felt his energy sap. He wanted to speak but didn’t know what to say. All he could think about was Ikechukwu who gave his life to save him, to save his trophy. But it’s all a waste now.
“Where were they buried?” His lips finally unlocked. Each word was bitter as they left his mouth.
“At the back of the ụkwa tree,” Uche said. Chika refused to continue listening to their sad conversation as a healed wound was about to be pricked open in her heart. So she stood up and excused herself. Chidaalu, who was the last amongst them joined her sister, Chika and walked away with tears. Chizoba stood up to leave and Nneka observed the changes in him. Beards were around his mouth, and trickled down to his chin from his jaw. He had grown muscular and looked more masculine. He looked taller than he was when he was taken. His dark complexion was deeper and his Adam’s apple popped out more than it was before he left.
She watched him walk out through the door. None of them wanted to follow him. They believed he deserved some time with their parents, alone.
Chizoba stood before the heaps of sand that were over his parents’ carcass which were hidden behind the gravels. Their graves were close to each other. He stared intently at the graves with rage burning in him.
“Mum, dad, you disappointed me. You betrayed me! You should have hung on. You should have waited a bit longer. I fought to bring the trophy back to you and I did. I brought back myself! I’m alive, I didn’t die. You just wasted the death of Ikechukwu. I wish I was the one that died. Why? Why?!” He couldn’t hold back his tears. His energy sapped and he collapsed to the ground.
“Mum what did I do to deserve this? Daddy why couldn’t you hang on? You didn’t even consider your four other children. If I had died, what would have been their fate? If they had committed suicide, each, whom could I have come back to? Our family would have been a history by now. But they believed that I’ll come back.” He drew in some breath, sniffled and then, he continued.
“I’m sorry to disappoint you just the way you disappointed me. I will no longer serve your chi. I now believe in the white men’s God. He kept me alive, he saved me when your chi couldn’t.”
Chizoba had met a priest before Ikechukwu had died. He was one of the priests that brought them supplies in the bush they had hidden. He had met Chizoba crying in the bush where he had gone to empty his bladder.
“What’s it boy? Why are you here alone?” he had asked passionately.
Chizoba wanted to ignore him but he couldn’t. He really needed someone to talk to. “I’ll die! I will never see my family again!” he had said hopelessly and continued crying.
“No, you won’t die! Don’t say that. Don’t be so sure of your death when it hasn’t even approached you,” he had said reassuringly
Chizoba smirked and said, “What makes you so sure? I’ve watched my friends die before my eyes. Not one, not two but countless. The Nigerian soldiers are relentless and our supplies are limited, likewise our soldiers. I never knew I’d become a soldier one day. But I am now, struggling for my life.” The last words had felt much bitter in his mouth.
“Well I was sure of what I said when I said, ‘you will not die.’ God can protect you from dying,” he said with a broad smile.
“Which God? Is it the chi that had refused to hear me all the while I called. He couldn’t protect me from the Biafran soldiers that brought me here, how, then can he protect me from dying?” he had said sadly.
“Oh, no, no, not him. The God I am talking about is supreme. The chi you were calling was made by man, right?”
“Yes, my father said that it was made by his fore fathers and was handed down to him,” he had said and his eyes sparkled boyishly.
“That’s the major reason why it can’t hear you. It’s just an object made by man. But the God I’m talking about existed without being created or made by anyone. Rather, he made the whole universe through the words that came from his mouth.” The white priest had told him the story of Jesus according to the scriptures, sequentially. Chizoba listened to the story as it was intriguing and interesting. After the white priest had convinced him about the existence and love of God, Chizoba believed him. The white man introduced himself as Fr. Parker.
Later, during the night, he had prayed like the white man had taught him and asked God to save his life. He made a promise to God, to serve him if he would save him. He wanted to introduce his new found God to his family after the war, if he eventually got saved. But he was disappointed that his parents died without
knowing this God.
“Dad, I’ll take it from where you had stopped. But I promise, I’ll never be a coward like you. My siblings will not suffer again. You said I shall become a real man at twenty. I am twenty now, and I will fight to be a better man than you were. Mum, I understand you had a weak heart but I hope you rest in peace. I love you both,” he said and stood from the ground. He wiped his tears with the back of his palm and cleaned his face with the edge of his stained T-shirt. And walked back into the house. He was determined to remain brave, to take care of his siblings, to become the hero his father failed to be and to remain by the side of this God who has fulfilled his promise to him, though he had never set his eyes on him. All these he was eager to do now, that he has returned home.