MY STOLEN SELF, A Nigerian/Biafran War experience.
What did we know about wars? We were little then but we still remembered the Catechist advising our parents to make medals, inscribed with our names, the names of our parents and where we came from for us to wear round our necks, that sounded funny but the Priests and the Catechist sounded damn serious. #War was coming seems to be the clear message, there was apprehension, palpable tension, and confusion among the people in Obigbo, our little community but the radio stations gave my dad assurances and hope for a better future in our country. My dad was a full time #farmer; he had migrated from Etiti near #Umuahia to Obigbo-Asa which was on the outskirts of #Port-Harcourt as you move from Aba to Port-Harcourt.
He got himself a plot of land, where he built his own house and got married to the daughter of a fellow migrant, making this community the place of birth of all his children including me. My dad doesn’t believe in gossips, for him the truth only comes via the radio, so even when the songs changed from that of assurances for a better future in our country to that of solidarity to the #Aburi Accord he wasn’t bothered at all, as long as his goods are still being sold, it is the responsibility of the Army and Politicians to maintain security not him but soon enough war was on our borders but the Army won’t stop with their assurances. Everything now was crystal clear, the panic level soared, we became citizens of another country, our flag changed, so did our national anthem but our location didn’t.
We are now the nationalist, defending our home land from them; the bloody federalist. Stories of wars were rife, you can find people huddled together discussing it, but we didn’t know nothing and so we were afraid of nothing, everything only increased our curiosity until soldiers started entering our community with severed hands of enemy soldiers and saboteurs, you will hear people saying they saw it but little kids like us hand no chance of seeing such. The exodus began gradually, people started to send home some of their belongings, children and wives, but if the vehicle is unlucky to run into an Army road block, they are promptly sent back with assurances that nothing will happen, my father at a point decided with some migrants that it is time for their children to leave, so they hired a bus, which was covered with green leaves, we were giving loads of water-leaf vegetables and we pretended as if we were go to sale them in a nearby market, until we crossed the check points and got to a nearby bush where our bus was parked, completely covered with green palm fronts, we all entered into the vehicle and it took the bush parts to ensure that we do not run into more check points, that was how we got home to Etiti, our place of origin, only the kids though.
My parents were still in Obigbo when Port-Harcourt was attacked gradually, actually from our position as my mum told us later, they started pushing from the #Khana speaking areas and then moved towards #Afam, sending those like my parents living in Obigbo on the run. Even at that my Dad still believed that everything would be just fine, he trusted the words of the nationalist and when my Mum decided to take home with her some of our properties, he promptly refused and had them packed into his almighty boxes and cupboard, locked everything and came back with a bunch of keys, hoping to return after the temporary skirmishes that eventually became a thirty months long war of untold sufferings, my parents had to trek on foot all the way from Obigbo to Etiti later, my dad carrying nothing but a big bunch of keys, still believing that at the end of the war, he would return to salvage all that he had left.
My Dad had relocated to some town near #Nunya, where he was doing some menial job and was sending the little money he could get for our family’s upkeep, my mum had gone to the market one day and on her way back, she met my former teacher at Obigbo, she was now one of the refugees living in my community having came down from Obigbo as well. She was single, not poor and hailed from somewhere in the then mid-west but was teaching at Obigbo before they fled, those days we call them ‘’Miss’’ unlike now that female teachers are called “Aunty” in every school. As someone we already knew and who is now residing in our community, she became our family friend to the extent that she at one time requested that I be allowed to stay with her and my Mum obliged her. Staying with my teacher in my village was fun; she helped me academically, and also allowed me visit my parents at will, she was very nice to me.
One day, Miss asked me to accompany her to her sister’s place and I agreed but when the time came, I noticed that she had actually packed up everything she had, I insisted on obtaining permission from my parents but she refused, she told me that we will be back soon so I agreed and entered the vehicle, little did I know that I had been stolen for good. She took me to a place I later got to know was called ‘’#orsu-ihitte-ukwa” the spelling may not be accurate. Initially she treated me nicely, bought me clothes and I was very happy until one day she told me that I am now her daughter and she is my mother and that I should forget about my village and my parents because she was going to give me everything I desire, that I am a child she had acquired from the war. I told her that I cannot be her daughter because I had a mother who she begged before I came to stay with her and that she should take me home but she got angry, she removed all the clothes on me, laid me down and flogged me till my buttocks was swollen. Even after all that, I continued to call her Miss instead of mother; she was infuriated and began to maltreat me in other to make me bulge.
Seeing that her floggings were not working, she began to send me to hawk garri around the village, she starved me most times as punishments and in response I began to chew her #Garri any time am hungry and after doing that I would beg people for drinking water but she found out equally that the quantity of the Garri that I do bring home after sales in addition to the quantity sold were not measuring up to the total quantity I was given to sale, it was usually short of about one or two cups and in response, in addition to starving me, she began to beat me up every night until I got used to being beating up. One day, I went to a ‘’mama- put’’ that is a road side food vendor who was my customer and gave her extra cups of Garri after she had made her normal purchase from me.
Instead of paying for that, I asked her to give me some food to eat in its place and she gladly obliged. I was afraid of telling her my full story because my aunty may get to know about it and I don’t know the consequences for me. That evening when I got home, my aunty discovered that more cups of garri where missing, she flogged me as usual and sent me to bed thinking that I was being starved but unknown to her I was well fed by the mama-put woman and was better prepared this time for her beating, as a matter of fact, deep inside me, I was smiling to myself and what happened that day became a regular practice.
One day I had gone to the stream to fetch water when I overheard some people saying that the war has ended and that they would be travelling back to their home town in Umuahia, I was so glad because I knew that my house was close to Umuahia. I then told Boniface -a boy who was staying with the sister to my Miss, actually I got to know that Boniface came from somewhere near my community, he was related to the husband of the sister to my Miss, who we came to meet at Orsu ihitte ukwa, he was not there against his will- that we need to follow these people when they are going but he refused and instead reported me to my Miss, who called me in for questioning that night. She demanded to know if that was what I said and I said yes, she asked if I knew my way home and I said no, she got angry again, she got me naked and flogged me until my buttocks as usual were swollen and I wailed out of pain but I was undeterred. The next night, I begged our land lady to leave the gates open for me, that I intend to leave the next morning, I equally told her my story and she had pity on me, she asked if I can find my way home and I said yes.
I must have slipped out of the gate as early as 3am, because I never met anyone on my way, hawking garri round the town has giving me the opportunity to scan the town and find the route from which we entered the town, making useful inquiries, such that the moment I escaped, I headed for that direction swiftly without looking back, I ran as much as my tiny legs could carry me until I got to ‘’Eke Ututu’’ their market, I was so afraid approaching the market, it seems there was a huge fire burning in the center of the market but I was determined not to turn back, I continued till I went through the market without seeing any fire but when I looked back it appeared to still be there, I was scared and so I ran again until I got exhausted then I went to sleep on the door step of a nearby house.
I heard a noise in my sleep but before I could open my eyes, a hand grabbed me, and without thinking, I pulled back forcefully, freed myself and ran as fast as I could, the voice shouted ‘’who are you,’’ ‘’stop,’’ ‘’come back,’’ but I disappeared, my heart pounding, I did never stopped again until I met a man and his family who were travelling and so I joined them, they were surprised because I was too small to be travelling alone at that time of the morning, and so they asked me some questions, and I told them my story as we were travelling together and they all had pity on me.
When we got to a certain junction, they said I should continue on the other direction while they take the other one because they are going to a village called #Umuaka and so we parted ways.
After I left them, I continued walking alone until I started seeing other travelers going about in different directions by then it was already mid day, then I saw I group of soldiers travelling together on foot, one of them was holding a beautiful parrot on his hand and they were speaking pidgin English and probably Hausa language, it was obvious that they were #Hausa people, that was how we refer to all northerners in the east. So when I came close enough to them I told the one holding the parrot that his bird was beautiful in pidgin, they glanced at me and he smiled, so I requested that he allow me to carry the bird for him and he did, so I walked with them. I was so happy walking with them for I said in my mind that should my Miss appear suddenly to try and force me back, I would tell the soldiers and they would use their gun to shoot her down, so I felt very protected and very happy too walking with them. Some times when we are passing through a community, people would rush out to stare at us, I would hear them saying, ‘’ oh! Look at this poor little girl, the army people had abducted her as well, but what will they do with so small a child? The soldiers saw them but did not understand what they were saying because they said it in Igbo language.
We got to a junction, and the soldier collected back his parrot and gave me ’’shiny abua” two penny,-the Nigerian money then in coins- he told me to continue going straight and asking questions that I will get to my village but that they are taking the other route because they are going to a place called #Abagana, I never heard such a name before, so I continued alone till it was dark, I rested once again in front of a locked house but this time I was too scared to fall asleep, I might have dosed off a few times but I never really slept until it was morning and I jumped back onto the road and continued. Again I saw a man travelling with his family and I joined them, the man had a bicycle, his youngest child was sitting atop the bicycle while the back seat was carrying a load of household items, his older children and his wife were walking behind him as he pushed the bicycle, walking beside it. We continued to walk along until I begged them to wait a little for me, so that I can defecate in the nearby bush and they did, even their children used the opportunity to urinate.
The moment I stepped into the bush, standing in front of me was a pot that looked rather longish, I have never seen that kind of pot before but I was happy, since am not carrying anything while everybody is carrying something, I decided that I will take this one to my mum at least, so I moved closer to retrieve it, then I discovered that things unknown to me where loaded inside so I went and informed the family about my new discovering and the man shouted with such a high pitched voice, he almost cried, he thanked God for saving my life and that of his family who were standing a few centimeters from the place I vied into, even his wife shivered and tears stood their eyes, they said that what I saw was not a cooking pot of any sort but was an #Ogbunigwe, a kind of local landmine or bomb put in place by the #Biafran soldiers against the invading federal troops. I did not know what an Ogunigwe was, but I definitely had heard about bombs and it effects so we hurried up immediately and left that area.
We continued our journey until we got to a market called ‘’#Eke-ezela’’ and they took another direction and directed me the other way, I continued on that way until I saw a man who said that he was going to Umuahia, I was so happy and I joined him. We walked and walked till late in the night but I did something bad which I did regret till this day. We got to “#Orie-Agu” market, my heart was beating so hard once again but this time with joy and then we got to our own market “#Orie-Mbara” and I thanked the man and told him that I have gotten to my village and so could find my way to our house. He begged to follow me to our house so that he can pass the night there, since it was late in the night but I refused, I in fact begged him not to follow me to our house because it was too late at night, I didn’t know why I had to say that but the man left and I had been regretting it ever.
I made my way quietly to my father’s compound, everyone had gone to bed, then I knocked on the door of our house and shortly the door opened, it was my mother, she could not believe her eyes, she shouted out of joy and everyone woke up and came running towards the door, she grabbed me tightly against her chest and took me inside the house, they all surrounded me as I sat down, including my father who was away when my mother obliged the request of my Miss to have me stay with her. When she suddenly disappeared without a trace and my dad came back to find out that was missing, all the blame went to my mum in fact, and some mischief makers in the village accused her of selling me in exchange for salt which was a very rare and expensive commodity during the war. I was too weak and too hungry to talk, but I was so happy to be home, to see my parents and my siblings again, my mum served me some food and after eating I fell into a deep sleep.
I woke up very late the next morning to discover that I could not move my legs any more, they were as heavy as anything and swollen to the extent that I thought it would burst open any moment, I was treated for weeks before I could use my legs again, that was the story of my “stolen self”.