It was in New Maroko, where I finally got a job in a decrepit high school, that Biafra caught up with me. I had been born after the Nigeria-Biafra civil war and had a poor knowledge of the horrors of the fighting. My one-armed father, too bruised by the war, hardly ever spoke of it. In my village, Sa’ra, where the imprints of the war were very visible, the villagers talked about it – when they did at all – as something in the past to which they would rather not return. They always made me feel that there was something about the war that was being left unsaid. I was therefore stunned the day Opio, a short man whose bulging muscles made him look as awesome, nevertheless, as a mortar, arrived in New Maroko, selling the memory of the war like painted candles.
He came marching in like a parade, with slithering snakes entwined around his body, singing in a booming voice a song I would never forget:
Agabanam ikwa mgbo n’Uzuakoli
Agabanam ikwa mgbo
Nwa ada m n’ebe
Si mgbo atukwala m n’obi-o…
I had instant goose pimples. There was an arching power in this snake charmer’s voice that exhumed a bloody story of defiance and death. I could hear in its timber the cries from the trenches, the charges through the grasslands, the thunder of mass-killers, the scampering for cover, the paling frenzy of mothers and orphans haunted by hunger and disease, the misery of teary sweethearts.
But Opio was not particularly interested in evoking the sorrows of the war in the manner I had supposed. He was a traveling spectacle, and he soon became known as Opio the Dance because he went about retelling and dancing stories of the war for coins and applause. He told about the stand in Uzuakoli and Uli, sang about the gore in Opi and Nsukka, danced the dare in Onitsha and Abagana, mimed the massacre in Sa’ra.
I sought him out. “What happened in Sa’ra?” I asked him, with bated breath.
“O, Sara!” he said in that booming voice that he had, this time like a lament, as he toweled sweat off his face with his fingers. “Death was in its big harvest season in Sa’ra.”
“What exactly happened there?”
“Where did you say you’re from?”
“Ask the graveyard then.”
“I don’t understand. Besides, graves don’t speak, you and I know that.”
“Didn’t you say you’re from Sa’ra? It will speak to you.”
I went home and told my father about Opio. “What does he mean? What really happened in Sa’ra? What is it that everyone would rather not talk about?”
“I thought you would never ask.”
“But you could have told me what happened, even without my asking,” I gently protested. I knew he never talked about the war, but I was impatient then.
“Sit down then,” he said, motioning me to a chair in the living room, his voice growing heavy, as if imminent with the fulfillment of a tortuous trust. “You have to understand that the war isn’t just a story to some of us. It is deeper inside. You have to be ready to appreciate what happened. Now, I’m going to tell you about the dogs of Sa’ra – and not for telling sake.”
I waited while he cleared his throat again and again.
“The war seized us by the balls. We had to fight or keep on running. Or rather we had to fight to keep from forever running. My parents were living in the North in those days, the main theater of the massacres. I lost my entire family there, in Sabon Gari. Everyone. Mother. Father. Brother. Two sisters. Aunt. Neighbors. A mob surrounded our compound one night, chanting ‘Ba mu so nyamiri’: ‘We don’t want nyamiri.’ The pogrom against Easterners, against us, had transformed from a hazy rumor to a sweeping arc of annihilation. That organized mob neither wanted us in the North nor on the face of the earth. They set the house ablaze; whoever escaped the arson was set upon with crude weapons and pounded like yam or impaled like fish.
“I only survived because I was not there. I was a church worker at the time, and it was Saturday night. I had gone for rehearsals in view of a special Sunday mass. Somehow, the news found its way through the doors of St Savior’s Church. When we learnt that Sabon Gari was up in flames, with several mobs making the rounds and stoking the embers, not even Father Adam Nwankwo’s counsel that we should remain in the church until the danger was over could calm our panic. It was just as well because one of the mobs eventually burnt down the church and first shaved the father’s carefully cultivated beard, as if they did not want him to be mistakenly received in the heaven of mullahs and sheiks, before they set on him with sticks and daggers. He fell reciting the Litany of the Faithful. Was that still religion or belief? I often wonder.
“Well, we lit out for our various homes. I never arrived because there was no home for me to come back to. What was left were charred corpses and smoking debris, emitting the acrid smell of roasted flesh. I had left that same house only a few hours ago, still standing and pulsing with life. In those few hours, my life changed terribly. Tragedy is swift in its time management.
“The only other person that survived that raid was Azuka, a cobbler who was a kind of half-breed in that his mother was from the North. Although he had been discarded at birth, he had the right features under the circumstances. When he looked death in the face, Azuka decided he would rather live a Northerner than die an Easterner. He forgot all his resentment about his maternity and convinced the invaders that he was one of them who had only come to our compound to levy a debt. It was not an easy thing for him to do, I understand. But Azuka could speak both languages flawlessly, and he was a man who could tell a lie better than the truth.
“Seeing that the invaders were still skeptical and that his fate hung in the balance, he actually partook in mobbing his next-door neighbor. It was a terrible story for me to hear, about the man who had always announced loudly to us: ‘We are one.’ But in a war there are always two or more sides, never one. He instantly became Dan Azumi that night, and part of a world that he had always denounced.
“Sabon Gari was the strangers’ ‘new town’ where we were supposed to be safe and free. All that changed. It became like a corral where some of the early atrocities announced themselves brazenly. As the killings overwhelmed the ad hoc resistance, panic spread – and the homeward flights to the East. To us, then and forever, home would always be more than an address in some strangers’ quarters. Much more. I too fled from the North, but I had already lost my heart in the charred ruins of Sabon Gari. Those ruins made a soldier of me.
“I became a foot-soldier in Biafra, and I worked with a relief agency. But that was later, after I lost my firing arm at Opi. We were at the fore of the sector that was meant to stop any military invasion from the North. If I had made the choice myself, that was where I would have chosen. The war knocked that sleepy area awake in a bad sort of way. It was the setting for some of the fiercest firefights. But it gave me a good chance to get back at some of those who had emptied out my life. Every bullet that found its target was like a personal victory. I was young, bitter and rather reckless, a very dangerous mix. But the past, as I re-learnt, is ever beyond recovery, beyond vengeance even.
“One of my colleagues then was Achike – my best friend, as you know. He had fled from Lagos at the beginning of the war and had promptly volunteered. He fought as well as the rest of us, but the great thing about him was that he held on tenaciously to his humor, like a spinning dancer carried on by the momentum of a dance that had ended. Of course, there were several times that he too lost his humor, but he always recovered ahead of us.
“Another of my colleagues was Christopher. He was a poet. When he came to Opi, I had never read anything that he had written. After Opi, after his death in the war, I have not been able to bring myself to do any such reading. He was a colorful character, with both a great passion for life and the ultimate dare to be himself. He said he had come to Opi through a labyrinth of blood to trigger the poetry of bullets. He had such a great passion for Biafra that he wanted to be right there in the front. ‘The federal troops will have to march over my dead body to get beyond Opi,’ he would say. Very sadly, they did just that.
“When Christopher fell, a certain spirit ebbed away among us. He had tried to be all things, and he left a deep impression on all of us. He was a great one for marching songs that fired the spirit. For him, the war was so personal that he sang ‘O my home’ as ‘O mine home.’ He was only a lieutenant and the war was still in its early days, but his spirit lasted through those years of carnage. He had named the Opi sector the ghost line. ‘Any federal soldier who aspires beyond this point is on his way to ghosthood,’ he would say. We called him the Ghost-killer, following Achike’s example, the sort of dry humor that sometimes helped us to rise above our recurring fears. Make no mistake, son, the typhoon of war can also make the most courageous of men cringe. We fought for life. We sang about death. But we would rather not have been forced to choose between life and death.
“Christopher was the first and only person I’ve ever met who said that he had credits in his dreams, like in the horror films especially. The great dream he had then was of a glorious Biafra. Almost every time he recounted this dream, it had a different director. If the war ended on the negotiating table, the director would be a committee of diplomats. If it ended on the battlefield, it would be Ojukwu the leader. Never, in those dreams, did the war end in our defeat.
“He had his in-between phase though, as we called it, when a great loneliness of the spirit descended on him. He would speak to no one then but pace about, his gun always near at hand, reciting lines of poetry:
So would I to the hills again
So would I
to where springs the fountain
there to draw from
He seemed to live in the past-future at such times. He was indeed a man who could move in fascinating ways across time zones. I believe now that he had the premonition that he would not survive the war and was so restless because he wanted to get so much done in the time he still had.
“I lost my arm in the same night raid that claimed Christopher’s life, and then I spent some time in a makeshift military hospital recovering. I floated about in those days, almost forever lost in a world of dreams – each one directed by Christopher himself. This probably kept me sane. The worst thing about that period was the howling. There was ever a steady supply of wounded soldiers and a biting scarcity of everything else. Surgery was common. Anesthesia was not. So, you can imagine the howls of several wounded soldiers being cut up by hard-pressed doctors, like in an ancient abattoir. Death was as ugly as it was often ungenerous with speed. There was enough pain in the air to make one deaf.”
He paused and began to clear his throat again. I wiped my brow, heaved a sigh, and waited patiently.
“One night, they brought in a soldier who howled so very horribly that it was such a relief when he suddenly ceased in mid-trajectory. He was dead. He was a huge man, more than an adequate deterrent to any enemy soldier, if all that had been required was physical strength, but the federal soldiers had better – and more – guns. I dreamt about him afterwards, even bigger than his huge self, leading a major assault deep into enemy lines, through a labyrinth that had been charted by Christopher himself – and succeeding where we had failed.
“And then I had to leave the hospital. I had not healed, but I was no longer bleeding and the space was required for the freshly wounded. Things were already at that stage even in the early phase of the war. We were rich in defiance or spirit, never in provisions. For me, the war was technically over. But I wouldn’t have it that way. I went to work with a relief agency. It was a different kind of war, not the one I would have chosen, but it was an important war effort. We toured the villages trying to get food and medicines across to people. And it seemed to me that the deeper we went into our new country, the greater the number of children with stomachs distended by kwashiorkor.
“It wasn’t easy getting the food and drugs to the people that really needed them. There were ‘attack’ traders who would rather buy off whole consignments and resell at incredible prices. Sometimes, they succeeded. Some other times, it took someone like me to foil their plots. But it was a battle that would not go away. A lot of our people had fled Eastwards with only a bag of salt and rice. Of course, much more was required for sustenance – and wartime has never been the time for cultivation. So, the relief agency was like a traveling salvation. Sometimes, we had too little to give out, but even that always loomed large to the receivers. When our people speak of eating sand as the worst form of poverty, it is an idiom with an added story behind it.
“In that fashion, I traveled all over Biafra. It was like going from one horror chamber to another. In one village, a furious hail of bombs had sealed the mouth of a bunker in which a number of families had taken refuge. By the time an excavation succeeded, all those sheltering in the bunker had been asphyxiated. In another village, a furious strafing had caused an epidemic of ‘artillery shock’ or partial deafness. In another, food had become so scarce that the villagers feasted on nkakwu, the shrew, and on almost every other thing – both living and dead. By the time we arrived, brutally raped mothers were giving birth to ‘bush babies,’ more or less. Some types of shock had become paroxysms of madness. A masquerade carrier, stunned by the extinction of his family, put on the village’s night masquerade and appeared at noon in the village square; he collapsed there. Another man tried to bring down a warplane with a catapult; a direct hit scattered him, in morsels, over the face of a scoured earth, leaving behind his catapult and a niggardly testimonial of unspeakable pulp. A militia actually brought down a plane with the local ogbunigwe bomb, but a few of the men were so consumed with fury or overtaken by excitement that they could not keep away from the consequent conflagration. We were like missionaries in a hooting apocalypse traveling from one disease pandemonium to other forms of evil deaths.
“The only people who appeared to be sitting pretty were the foreign mercenaries, who fired a few shots a week and spent the rest of the time polishing their boots or calculating their profits. They even had drinking clubs that were soon, and easily, converted to flesh markets. Starvation has never been a worthy haggler.
“It was the most horrible of times. I saw too many simple dreams beheaded, buried in the dust and passed over; heard too many cries for aid that curled like smoke towards a shut heaven’s gate; listened to too many stories that told of renewing and sundering scars. Still, we advanced, beating our heads against the narrow path between the impossible and the improbable. When we finally got to Sa’ra, the horror exceeded itself. We didn’t know, and could not have known, about the plan by the federal troops to assassinate Ojukwu. Their attempts at Umuahia, our wartime capital, had failed. For some reason, they believed Ojukwu was in hiding at Sa’ra at the time. And they figured that the best way to kill him was to wipe out everyone within the vicinity. Until then, Sa’ra was one of the places still spared of the widening horror, so the villagers were more relaxed than people in many other places. They figured they were too deep in the forest for the war to show up without a mask.
“One morning, the entire Nigerian air force – or so it appeared – descended on the village, determined to bury it and everyone within. The strafing was the most concentrated in the war. By the time the planes finally left, the village was wet with blood, and about half of our people were dead. That is why there is no family in Sa’ra that came out of the war complete. Ojukwu himself was safe; he had only passed through Sa’ra.
“We arrived in time for the burial. Many of those who had fled deeper into the bush or into the bunkers stayed right there, only venturing out briefly to ferret for any kind of food. Until then, no one in Sa’ra ate dogs; they were considered filthy for the soup pot. But quite a number of them survived the bombing, and even the ones that did not seemed better fare under the circumstances than human flesh. They were the choicest food available, and I believe some of them were actually eaten raw by men and women half-crazed by starvation. Our provisions arrived rather late, and virtually no one was inclined to take the risk of venturing towards us. They couldn’t be sure we were not another face of death. We built one monstrous grave and buried the dead within. There were so many that we had to keep expanding the size of the grave, always with an ear attuned to any danger signals in the sky. In between the scares and the dashes for shelter, the burial took a whole day and night.
“Something very unusual happened afterwards: no grass ever grew above that grave until the end of the war. There are many conjectures, but perhaps the truth is that some of the villagers took care that the earth above the grave remained fresh. That vast grave is the desert that the villagers speak of as the one that our ancestors crossed into Sa’ra. And Sa’ra is an abbreviation for Sapara, to merge or bond or cling, not the Sahara desert. It is a way of retelling a deeply painful story to take away the edges of the pain. It was the desert that crossed our people instead. When they speak of the wild dogs that ran around the desert, which our ancestors curried with spices, they mean the dogs that pawed that huge grave in those wild days, the dogs that became like wartime spices. Because we cannot forget, we invented a way of remembering. But, as you know, our people would rather not speak of these things at all. Speech is good, but it has its own terrors.
“The war ended for me in Sa’ra. It was the place that I once more dreamt the Christopher dreams. In one, the grave spewed out the dead, armed with spectacular guns and singing menacingly the song that Christopher especially loved to sing at Opi – about shooting down Gowon, the Nigerian leader, from the sky. He would sing that song, with his gun aimed at the sky and with Achike mimicking the relay of anti-aircraft gunfire. In the dream, the guns actually explode, and warplanes rain down from the sky. But then there is my missing arm, and the dogs of Sa’ra – what they became – to remind me that it was indeed a dream, even with Christopher directing. And there is usually Christopher’s voice reciting mournfully, above the din:
The arrows of God tremble at the gates of light,
the drums of curfew pander to a dance of death
“It took another year for us to accept that we had lost the war. I couldn’t bear to return to the North, so I came to Lagos with Achike, carrying the suspended price on all our heads. I no longer have the Christopher dreams, but I have not altogether outgrown the shivers down my spine. I still think of Christopher, what could have been, and the unkindness of war. A war never ends, son. The first bullet echoes forever, ricocheting from the noise of old wars to the fury of ones foretold. Sometimes, the sound peters out, but the guns continue to smoke nevertheless.”
We sat in silence for a long time. It was as if I had looked deeply into his eyes and seen with a haunting clarity the turmoil that still tormented him.
“‘Not for telling sake,’ you said,” I managed to say eventually, from a hazy distance. “What is left?”
“There are no easy choices as such. I have now opened the door to a memory of things that should never be forgotten – and isn’t best remembered the way that Opio does. What do markets speak of after the buyers and sellers are gone? That was something that Christopher said to me the night before he was killed. He was speaking of the market of spirits and memories. He always saw the world as that kind of widening marketplace. I do too, even more so now. Life!”
His voice, which had been breaking, finally cracked, and he got up and hurried out, his missing arm glowing in my imagination as it had never done. I had never known him like that, but then I had never known the gravity of the story that he had kept bottled up within him all these years. I sat alone, brooding, for a long time. The clock chimed midnight, and I was no longer only flesh. I was in a tumultuous ghost land tormented both by biting snakes and abbreviating air raids, in the thick of the fighting and the different stages of dying as well, wondering: what does one do with such a heritage of memories? That night still grows in me.
The poetry excerpts in the story are from Labyrinths; with Path of Thunder by Christopher Okigbo. But the Christopher in the story does not embody the true story of the life and death of Christopher Okigbo.