Half of a Yellow Sun
[Ed. Note: This story was originally workshopped at the Zoetrope
Virtual Studio and originally published by Virtual Studio member
Beverly Jackson in her stellar online literary magazine Literary
The Igbo say that a mature eagle feather will always
It was the kind of day in the middle of the rainy season
when the sun felt like an orange flame placed close to my skin, yet it was
raining, and I remembered when I was a child, when I would run around on days
like this and sing songs about the dueling sun and rain, urging the sun to win.
The lukewarm raindrops mixed with my sweat and ran down my face as I walked
back to my hostel after the rally in Nsukka. I was still holding the placard
that read remember the massacres,
still marveling at my new—at our new—identity. It was late May, Ojukwu had just
announced the secession, and we were no longer Nigerians. We were Biafrans.
When we gathered in Freedom Square for the
rally, thousands of us students shouted Igbo songs and swayed, riverlike.
Somebody said that in the market outside our campus, the women were dancing,
giving away groundnuts and mangoes. Nnamdi and I stood next to each other and
our shoulders touched as we waved green dogonyaro branches and cardboard
placards. Nnamdi’s placard read secession
now. Even though he was one of the student leaders, he chose to be with
me in the crowd. The other leaders were in front carrying a coffin with nigeria
written on it in white chalk. When they dug a shallow hole and buried the
coffin, a cheer rose and snaked around the crowd, uniting us, elevating us,
until it was one cheer, until we all became one.
I cheered loudly, although the coffin reminded
me of Aunty Ifeka, Mama’s half-sister, the woman whose breast I sucked because
Mama’s dried up after I was born. Aunty Ifeka was killed during the massacres
in the north. So was Arize, her pregnant daughter. They must have cut open
Arize’s stomach and beheaded the baby first—it was what they did to the
pregnant women. I didn’t tell Nnamdi that I was thinking of Aunty Ifeka and
Arize again. Not because I had lost only two relatives while he had lost three uncles
and six cousins. But because he would caress my face and say, “I’ve told you,
don’t dwell on the massacres. Isn’t it why we seceded? Biafra is born! Dwell on
that instead. We will turn our pain into a mighty nation, we will turn our pain
into the pride of Africa.”
Nnamdi was like that; sometimes I looked at him
and saw what he would have been two hundred years before: an Igbo warrior
leading his hamlet in battle (but only a fair battle), shouting and charging
with his fire-warmed machete, returning with the most heads lolling on sticks.
I was in front of my hostel when the rain
stopped; the sun had won the fight. Inside the lounge, crowds of girls were
singing. Girls I had seen struggle at the water pump and hit each other with
plastic buckets, girls who had cut holes in each other’s bras as they hung out
to dry, now held hands and sang. Instead of “Nigeria, we hail thee,” they sang,
“Biafra, we hail thee.” I joined them, singing, clapping, talking. We did not
mention the massacres, the way Igbos had been hunted house to house, pulled
from where they crouched in trees, by bright-eyed people screaming Jihad,
screaming Nyamiri, nyamiri. Instead, we talked about Ojukwu, how his
speeches brought tears to our eyes and goose bumps to our skin, how easily his
charisma would stand out among other leaders—Nkurumah would look like a plastic
doll next to him. “Imakwa, Biafra has more doctors and lawyers than all
of Black Africa!” somebody said. “Ah, Biafra will save Africa!” another said.
We laughed, deliriously proud of people we would never even know.
We laughed more in the following weeks—we
laughed when our expatriate lecturers went back to Britain and India and America,
because even if war came, it would take us only one week to crush Nigeria. We
laughed at the Nigerian navy ships blocking our ports, because the blockade
could not possibly last. We laughed as we gathered under the gmelina trees to
discuss Biafra’s future foreign policy, as we took down the university of nigeria, nsukka sign and replaced it with university of biafra, nsukka. Nnamdi hammered in the first
nail. He was first, too, to join the Biafran Army, before the rest of his
friends followed. I went with him to the army enlistment office, which still
smelled of fresh paint, to collect his uniform. He looked so broad-shouldered
in it, so capable, and later I did not let him take it all off; I held on to
the grainy khaki shirt as he moved inside me.
My life—our lives—had taken on a sheen. A sheen
like patent leather. We all felt as if liquid steel, instead of blood, flowed
through our veins, as if we could stand barefoot over red-hot embers.
I heard the guns from my hostel room. They
sounded close, like thunder funneling up from the lounge. Somebody was shouting
outside with a loudspeaker. Evacuate now! Evacuate now! There was the sound of
feet, frenzied feet, in the hallway. I threw things in a suitcase, nearly
forgot my underwear in the drawer. As I left the hostel, I saw a girl’s stylish
sandal left lying on the stairs.
The Igbo say who knows how water entered the stalk of a
The air in Enugu smelled of rain and fresh grass and hope
and new anthills. I watched as market traders and grandmothers and little boys
hugged Nnamdi, caressed his army uniform. Justifiable heroism, Obi called it.
Obi was thirteen, my bespectacled brother who read a book a day and went to the
Advanced School for Gifted Children and was researching the African origin of
Greek civilization. He didn’t just touch Nnamdi’s uniform, he wanted to try it
on, wanted to know exactly what the guns sounded like. Mama invited Nnamdi over
and made him a mango pie. “Your uniform is so debonair, darling,” she
said, and hung around him as if he were her son, as if she had not muttered
that I was too young, that his family was not quite “suitable,” when we got
engaged a year ago.
Papa suggested Nnamdi and I get married right
away, so that Nnamdi could wear his uniform at the wedding and our first son
could be named Biafrus. Papa was joking, of course, but perhaps because
something had weighed on my chest since Nnamdi entered the army, I imagined
having a child now. A child with skin the color of a polished mahogany desk,
like his. When I told Nnamdi about this, about the distant longing somewhere
inside me, he pricked his thumb, pricked mine, and, although he was not usually
superstitious, we smeared our blood together. Then we laughed because we were
not even sure what the hell that meant exactly.
The Igbo say that the maker of the lion does not let the
lion eat grass.
I watched Nnamdi go, watched until the red dust had covered
his boot prints, and felt the moistness of pride on my skin, in my eyes. Pride
at his smart olive uniform with the image of the sun rising halfway on the
sleeve. It was the same symbol, half of a yellow sun, that was tacked onto the
garish cotton tie Papa now wore to his new job at the War Research Directorate
every day. Papa ignored all his other ties, the silk ones, the symbol-free
ones. And Mama, elegant Mama with the manicured nails, sold some of her
London-bought dresses and organized a women’s group at St. Paul’s to sew for
the soldiers. I joined the group; we sewed singlets and sang Igbo songs.
Afterward, Mama and I walked home (we didn’t drive, to save petrol) and when
Papa came home in the evenings, during those slow months, we would sit on the
veranda and eat fresh anara with groundnut paste and listen to Radio Biafra,
the kerosene lamp casting amber shadows all around. Radio Biafra brought
stories of victories, of Nigerian corpses lining the roads. And from the War
Research Directorate, Papa brought stories of our people’s genius: we made brake
fluid from coconut oil, we created car engines from scrap metal, we refined
crude oil in cooking pots, we had perfected a homegrown mine. The blockade
would not deter us. Often we ended those evenings by telling each other, “We
have a just cause,” as if we did not already know. Necessary affirmation, Obi
It was on one of those evenings that a friend
dropped by to say that Nnamdi’s battalion had conquered Benin, that Nnamdi was
fine. We toasted Nnamdi with palm wine. “To our future son-in-law,” Papa said,
raising his mug toward me. Papa let Obi drink as much as he wanted. Papa was a
cognac man, but he couldn’t find Rémy Martin even on the black market, because
of the blockade. After a few mugs Papa said, with his upper lip coated in white
foam, that he preferred palm wine now, at least he didn’t have to drink it in
snifters. And we all laughed too loudly.
The Igbo say the walking ground squirrel sometimes breaks
into a trot, in case the need to run arises.
Enugu fell on the kind of day in the middle of the harmattan
when the wind blew hard, carrying dust and bits of paper and dried leaves,
covering hair and clothes with a fine brown film. Mama and I were cooking
pepper soup—I cut up the tripe while Mama ground the peppers—when we heard the guns.
At first I thought it was thunder, the rumbling thunder that preceded harmattan
storms. It couldn’t be the Federal guns because Radio Biafra said the Federals
were far away, being driven back. But Papa dashed into the kitchen moments
later, his cotton tie skewed. “Get in the car now!” he said. “Now! Our
directorate is evacuating.”
We didn’t know what to take. Mama took her
manicure kit, her small radio, clothes, the pot of half-cooked pepper soup
wrapped in a dish towel. I snatched a packet of crackers. Obi grabbed the books
on the dining table. As we drove away in Papa’s Peugeot, Mama said we would be
back soon anyway, our troops would recover Enugu. So it didn’t matter that all
her lovely china was left behind, our radiogram, her new wig imported from Paris
in that case of such an unusual lavender color. “My leather-bound books,” Obi
added. I was grateful that nobody brought up the Biafran soldiers we saw
dashing past, on the retreat. I didn’t want to imagine Nnamdi like that,
running like a chicken drenched by heavy rain. Papa stopped the car often to
wipe the dust off the windscreen, and he drove at a crawl, because of the
crowds. Women with babies tied to their backs, pulling at toddlers, carrying
pots on their heads. Men pulling goats and bicycles, carrying wood boxes and
yams. Children, so many children. The dust swirled all around, like a
translucent brown blanket. An exodus clothed in dusty hope. It took a while
before it struck me that, like these people, we were now refugees.
The Igbo say that the place from where one wakes up is his
Papa’s old friend Akubueze was a man with a sad smile whose
greeting was “God Bless Biafra.” He had lost all his children in the massacres.
As he showed us the smoke-blackened kitchen and pit latrine and room with the
stained walls, I wanted to cry. Not because of the room we would rent from
Akubueze, but because of Akubueze. Because of the apology in his eyes. I placed
our raffia sleeping mats at the corners of the room, next to our bags and food.
But the radio stayed in the center of the room and we walked around it every
day, listened to it, cleaned it. We sang along when the soldiers’ marching
songs were broadcast. We are Biafrans, fighting for survival, in the name of
Jesus, we shall conquer, hip hop, one two. Sometimes the people in the yard
joined us, our new neighbors. Singing meant that we did not have to wonder
aloud about our old house with the marble staircase and airy verandas. Singing
meant we did not have to acknowledge aloud that Enugu remained fallen and that
the War Research Directorate was no longer paying salaries and what Papa got
now was an “allowance.” Papa gave every note, even the white slip with his name
and ID number printed in smudgy ink, to Mama. I would look at the money and
think how much prettier than Nigerian pounds Biafran pounds were, the elegant
writing, the bold faces. But they could buy so little at the market.
The market was a cluster of dusty, sparse
tables. There were more flies than food, the flies buzzing thickly over the
graying pieces of meat, the black-spotted bananas. The flies looked healthier,
fresher, than the meats and fruits. I looked over everything, I insisted, as if
it were the peacetime market and I still had the leisure that came with choice.
In the end, I bought cassava, always, because it was the most filling and
economical. Sickly tubers, the ones with grisly pink skin. We had never eaten
those before. I told Mama, half teasing, that they could be poisonous. And Mama
laughed and said, “People are eating the peels now, honey. It used to be goat
The months crawled past and I noted them when my
periods came, scant, more mud-colored than red now. I worried about Nnamdi,
that he would not find us, that something would happen to him and nobody would
know where to find me. I followed the news on Radio Biafra carefully, although
Radio Nigeria intercepted the signal so often now. Deliberate jamming, Obi
called it. Radio Biafra described the thousands of Federal bodies floating on
the Niger. Radio Nigeria listed the thousands of dead and defecting Biafran
soldiers. I listened to both with equal attention, and afterward, I created my
own truths and inhabited them, believed them.
The Igbo say that unless a snake shows its venom, little
children will use it for tying firewood.
Nnamdi appeared at our door on a dry-aired morning, with a
scar above his eye and the skin of his face stretched too thin and his worn
trousers barely staying on his waist. Mama dashed out to the market and bought
three chicken necks and two wings, and fried them in a little palm oil.
“Especially for Nnamdi,” she said gaily. Mama, who used to make coq au vin
without a cookbook.
I took Nnamdi to the nearby farm that had been
harvested too early. All the farms looked that way now, raided at night, raided
of corn ears so tender they had not yet formed kernels and yams so young they
were barely the size of my fist. Harvest of desperation, Obi called it. Nnamdi
pulled me down to the ground, under an ukpaka tree. I could feel his bones
through his skin. He scratched my back, bit my sweaty neck, held me down so
hard I felt the sand pierce my skin. And he stayed inside me so long, so
tightly, that I felt our hearts were pumping blood at the same rhythm. I wished
in a twisted way that the war would never end so that it would always have this
quality, like nutmeg, tart and lasting. Afterward, Nnamdi started to cry. I had
never even considered that he could cry. He said the British were giving more
arms to Nigeria, Nigeria had Russian planes and Egyptian pilots, the Americans
didn’t want to help us, we were still blockaded, his battalion was down to two
men using one gun, some battalions had resorted to machetes and cutlasses.
“Didn’t they kill babies in the north for being born Igbo, eh?” he asked.
I pressed my face to his, but he wouldn’t stop
crying. “Is there a God?” he asked me. “Is there a God?” So I held him close
and listened to him cry, and listened to the shrilling of the crickets. He said
goodbye two days later, holding me too long. Mama gave him a small bag of
I hoarded that memory, and every other memory of
Nnamdi, used each sparingly. I used them most during the air raids, when the
screeching ka-ka-ka of the antiaircraft guns disrupted a hot afternoon
and everybody in the yard dashed to the bunker—the room-size hole in the ground
covered with logs—and slid into the moist earth underneath. Exhilarating, Obi
called it, even though he got scratches and cuts. I would smell the organic
walls and floor, like a freshly tilled farm, and watch the children crawl
around looking for crickets and earthworms, until the bombing stopped. I would
rub the soil between my fingers and savor thoughts of Nnamdi’s teeth, tongue, voice.
The Igbo say let us salute the deaf, for if the heavens don’t
hear, then the earth will hear.
So many things became transient, and more valuable. I
savored a plate of cornmeal, which tasted like cloth, because I might have to
leave it and run into the bunker, because when I came out a neighbor might have
eaten it, or given it to one of the children.
Obi suggested that we teach classes for those
children, so many of them running around the yard chasing lizards. “They think
bombings are normal,” Obi said, shaking his head. He picked a cool spot under
the kolanut tree for our classroom. I placed planks across cement blocks for
benches, a wooden sheet against the tree for a blackboard. I taught English,
Obi taught mathematics and history, and the children did not whisper and giggle
in his classes as they did in mine. He seemed to hold them somehow, as he
talked and gestured and scrawled on the board with charcoal (when he ran his
hands over his sweaty face, they left black patterns like a design).
Perhaps it was that he mixed learning and
playing—once he asked the children to role-play the Berlin Conference. They
became Europeans partitioning Africa, giving hills and rivers to each other
although they didn’t know where the hills and rivers were. Obi played Bismarck.
“My contribution to the young Biafrans, our leaders of tomorrow,” he said,
glowing with mischief.
I laughed, because he seemed to forget that he,
too, was a future Biafran leader. Sometimes even I forgot how young he was. “Do
you remember when I used to half-chew your beef and then put it in your mouth
so it would be easier for you to chew?” I teased. And Obi made a face and said
he did not remember.
The classes were in the morning, before the
afternoon sun turned fierce. After the classes, Obi and I joined the local
militia—a mix of young people and married women and injured men—and went
combing, to root out Federal soldiers or Biafran saboteurs hiding in the bush,
although all we found were dried fruits and groundnuts. We talked about dead Nigerians,
we talked about the braveness of the French and Tanzanians in supporting Biafra,
the evil of the British. We did not talk about dead Biafrans. We talked about
anti-kwash, too, how it really worked, how many children in the early stages of
kwashiorkor had been cured. I knew that anti-kwash was absolute nonsense, those
leaves were from a tree nobody used to eat; they filled the children’s bellies
but gave no nourishment, definitely no protein. But we needed to believe
stories like that. When you were stripped down to sickly cassava, you used
everything else fiercely and selfishly—especially the discretion to choose what
to believe and what not to believe.
I enjoyed those stories we told, the lull of our
voices, until one day; we were at an abandoned farm wading through tall grass
when we stumbled upon something. A body. I smelled it before I saw it, an odor
that gagged me, suffocated me, left me light-headed. “Hei! He’s a Nigerian!” a
woman said. The flies rose from the bloated body of the Nigerian soldier as we
gathered around. His skin was ashy, his eyes were open, his tribal marks were
thick, eerie lines running across his swollen face. “I wish we had seen him
alive,” a young boy said. “Nkakwu, ugly rat,” somebody else said. A
young girl spat at the body. Vultures landed a few feet away. A woman vomited.
Nobody suggested burying him. I stood there, dizzy from the smell and the
buzzing flies and the heat, and wondered how he had died, what his life had
been like. I wondered about his family. A wife who would be looking outside,
her eyes on the road, for news of her husband. Little children who would be
told, “Papa will be home soon.” A mother who had cried when he left. Brothers
and sisters and cousins. I imagined the things he left behind—clothes, a prayer
mat, a wooden cup used to drink kunu.
I started to cry.
Obi held me and looked at me with a calm
disgust. “It was people like him who killed Aunty Ifeka,” Obi said. “It was
people like him who beheaded unborn babies.” I brushed Obi away and kept
The Igbo say that a fish that does not swallow other fish
does not grow fat.
There was no news of Nnamdi. When neighbors heard from their
sons or husbands on the front, I hung around their rooms for days willing their
good fortunes to myself. “Nnamdi is fine,” Obi said in a tone so normal I
wanted to believe him. He said it often during those months of boiled cassava,
months of moldy yams, months when we shared our dreams of vegetable oil and
fish and salt.
Because of the neighbors, I hid what little food
we had, wrapped in a mat and stuck behind the door. The neighbors hid their own
food, too. In the evenings, we all unwrapped our food and clustered in the
kitchen, cooking and talking about salt. There was salt in Nigeria; salt was
the reason our people were crossing the border to the other side, salt was the
reason a woman down the road was said to have run out of her kitchen and torn
her clothes off and rolled in the dirt, wailing. I sat on the kitchen floor and
listened to the chatter and tried to remember what salt tasted like. It seemed
surreal now, that we had a crystal saltshaker back home. That I had even wasted
salt, rinsing away the clumpy bottom before refilling the shaker. Fresh salt. I
interspersed thoughts of Nnamdi with thoughts of salty food.
And when Akubueze told us that our old pastor,
Father Damian, was working in a refugee camp in Amandugba, two towns away, I
thought about salt. Akubueze was not sure, stories drifted around about so many
people being in so many places. Still, I suggested to Mama that we go and see
Father Damian. Mama said yes, we would go to see if he was well, it had been
two long years since we saw him. I humored her and said it had been long—as if
we still paid social calls. We did not say anything about the food Caritas
Internationalis sent to priests by secret night flights, the food the priests
gave away, the corned beef and glucose and dried milk. And salt.
Father Damian was thinner, with hollows and
shadows on his face. But he looked healthy next to the children in the refugee
camp. Stick-thin children whose bones stuck out, so unnaturally, so sharply.
Children with rust-colored hair and stomachs like balloons. Children whose eyes
were swallowed deep in their faces. Father Damian introduced Mama and me to the
other priests, Irish missionaries of the Holy Ghost, white men with
sun-reddened skin and smiles so brave I wanted to tug at their faces and see if
they were real. Father Damian talked a lot about his work, about the dying
children, but Mama kept changing the subject. It was so unlike her, something
she would call “unmannered” if somebody else did it. Father Damian finally
stopped talking about the children, about kwashiorkor, and he looked almost
disappointed as he watched us leave, Mama holding the bag of salt and corned
beef and fish powder he had given us.
“Why was Father Damian telling us about those
children?” Mama shouted as we walked home. “What can we do for them?” I calmed
her down, told her he probably just needed to talk to someone about his work
and did she remember how he used to sing those silly, off-tune songs at church
bazaars to make the children laugh?
But Mama kept shouting. And I, too, began
shouting, the words tumbling out of my mouth. Why the hell did Father Damian
tell us about those dying children, anyway? Did we need to know? Didn’t we have
enough to deal with?
Shouting. A man walked up the street, beating a
metal gong, asking us to pray for the good white people who were flying food in
for the relief center, the new one they set up in St. Johns. Not all white
people were killers, gong, gong, gong, not all were arming the
Nigerians, gong, gong, gong.
At the relief center, I fought hard, kicking
through the crowds, risking the flogging militia. I lied, cajoled, begged. I
spoke British-accented English, to show how educated I was, to distinguish
myself from the common villagers, and afterward I felt tears building up, as if
I only had to blink and they would flow down. But I didn’t blink as I walked home,
I kept my eyes roundly open, my hands tightly wrapped around whatever food I
got. When I got food. Dried egg yolk. Dried milk. Dried fish. Cornmeal.
Shell-shocked soldiers in filthy shirts roamed
around the relief center, muttering gibberish, children running away from them.
They followed me, first begging, then trying to snatch my food. I shoved at
them and cursed them and spat in their direction. Once I shoved so hard one of
the men fell down, and I didn’t turn to see if he got up all right. I didn’t
want to imagine, either, that they had once been proud Biafran soldiers, like
Perhaps it was the food from the relief center that made Obi
sick, or all the other things we ate, the things we brushed blue mold from, or
picked ants out of. He threw up, and when he was emptied, he still retched and
clutched at his belly. Mama brought in an old bucket for him, helped him use
it, took it out afterward. I’m a chamber-pot man, Obi joked. He still taught
his classes but he talked less about Biafra and more about the past, like did I
remember how Mama used to give herself facials with a paste of honey and milk?
And did I remember the soursop tree in our backyard, how the yellow bees formed
columns on it? Mama went to Albatross Hospital and dropped the names of all the
famous doctors she had known in Enugu, so that the doctor would see her before
the hundreds of women thronging the corridors. It worked, and he gave her
diarrhea tablets. He could spare only five and told her to break each in two so
they would last long enough to control Obi’s diarrhea. Mama said she doubted
that the “doctor” had even reached his fourth year in medical school, but this
was Biafra two years into the war and medical students had to play doctors
because the real doctors were cutting off arms and legs to keep people alive.
Then Mama said that part of the roof of Albatross Hospital had been blown off
during an air raid. I didn’t know what was funny about that but Obi laughed,
and Mama joined in, and finally I did too.
Obi was still sick, still in bed, when Ihuoma
came running into our room. Her daughter was lying in the yard inhaling a foul
concoction of spices and urine that somebody said cured asthma. “The soldiers
are coming,” Ihuoma said. She was a simple woman, a market trader, the kind of
woman who would have had nothing in common with Mama before Biafra. But now she
and Mama plaited each other’s hair every week. “Hurry,” she said. “Bring Obi to
the outer room, he can hide in the ceiling!” It took me a moment to understand,
although Mama was already helping Obi up, rushing him out of the room. We had
heard that the Biafran soldiers were conscripting young men, children really,
and taking them to the front, that it had happened in the yard down our street
a week ago, although Obi said he doubted they had really taken a
twelve-year-old. We heard, too, that the mother of the boy was from Abakaliki,
where people cut their hair when their children died, and after she watched
them take her son, she took a razor and shaved all her hair off.
The soldiers came shortly after Obi and two
other boys climbed into a hole in the ceiling, a hole that had appeared when
the wood gave way after a bombing. Four soldiers with bony bodies and tired
eyes. I asked if they knew Nnamdi, if they’d heard of him, even though I knew
they hadn’t. The soldiers looked inside the latrine, asked Mama if she was sure
she was not hiding anybody, because that would make her a saboteur and
saboteurs were worse than Nigerians. Mama smiled at them, then used her old
voice, the voice of when she hosted three-course dinners for Papa’s friends,
and offered them some water before they left. Afterward, Obi said he would
enlist when he felt better. He owed it to Biafra and besides, fifteen-year-olds
had fought in the Persian war. Before Mama left the room, she walked up to Obi
and slapped his face so hard I saw the immediate slender welts on his cheek.
The Igbo say that the chicken frowns at the cooking pot,
and yet ignores the knife.
Mama and I were close to the bunker when we heard the
antiaircraft guns. “Good timing,” Mama joked, and although I tried, I could not
smile. My lips were too sore; the harmattan winds had dried them to a bloody
crisp during our walk to the relief center, and besides, we had not been lucky,
we got no food.
Inside the bunker, people were shouting Lord,
Jesus, God Almighty, Jehovah. A woman was crumpled next to me, holding her
toddler in her arms. The bunker was dim, but I could see the crusty ringworm
marks all over the toddler’s body. Mama was looking around. “Where is Obi?” she
asked, clutching my arm. “What is wrong with that boy, didn’t he hear the
guns?” Mama got up, saying she had to find Obi, saying the bombing was far
away. But it wasn’t, it was really close, loud, and I tried to hold Mama, to
keep her still, but I was weak from the walk and hunger and Mama pushed past me
and climbed out.
The explosion that followed shook something
inside my ear loose, and I felt that if I bent my head sideways, something
hard-soft, like cartilage, would fall out. I heard things breaking and falling
above, cement walls and glass louvers and trees. I closed my eyes and thought
of Nnamdi’s voice, just his voice, until the bombing stopped and I scrambled
out of the bunker. The bodies strewn about the street, some painfully close to
the bunker entrance, were still quivering, writhing. They reminded me of the
chickens our steward used to kill in Enugu, how they flapped around in the dust
after their throats had been slit, over and over, before finally lying quiet.
Dignity dance, Obi called it. I was bawling as I stared at the bodies, all people I knew,
trying to identify Mama and Obi. But they were not there. They were in the
yard, Mama helping to wash the wounded, Obi writing in the dust with his
finger. Mama did not scold Obi for his earlier carelessness, and I did not
rebuke Mama for dashing out like that either. I went into the kitchen to soak
some dried cassava for dinner.
Obi died that night. Or maybe he died in the morning. I
don’t know. I simply know that when Papa tugged at him in the morning and then
when Mama threw herself on him, he did not stir. I went over and shook him,
shook him, shook him. He was cold.
“Nwa m anwugo,” Papa said, as if he had
to say it aloud to believe it. Mama brought out her manicure kit and started to
clip Obi’s nails. “What are you doing?” Papa asked. He was crying. Not the kind
of manly crying that is silence accompanied by tears. He was wailing, sobbing.
I watched him, he seemed to swell before my eyes, the room was unsteady.
Something was on my chest, something heavy like a jerry can full of water. I
started to roll on the floor to ease the weight. Outside, I heard shouting. Or
was it inside? Was it Papa? Was it Papa saying Nwa m anwugo, nwa m anwugo.
Obi was dead. I grasped around, frantic, trying to remember Obi, to remember
the concrete things about him. And I could not. My baby brother who made
wisecracks, and yet I could not remember any of them. I could not even remember
anything he said the night before. I had felt I would have Obi for a long, long
time and that I didn’t need to notice him, really notice him. He was there, I
believed he would always be there. With Obi, I never had the fear I had with
Nnamdi, the fear that I might mourn someday. And so I did not know how to mourn
Obi, if I could mourn Obi. My hair was itching and I started to tear at it, to
feel the warm blood on my scalp. I tore some more and then more. With my hair
littering our floor, I wrapped my arms around myself and watched as Mama calmly
filed Obi’s nails.
There was something feverish about the days
after Obi’s death, something malarial, something so numbingly fast it left me
free not to feel. Even Obi’s burial in the backyard was fast, although Papa
spent hours fashioning a cross from old wood. After the neighbors and Father
Damian and the crying children dispersed, Mama called the cross shabby and
kicked it, broke it, flung the wood away.
Papa stopped going to the War Research
Directorate and dropped his patriotic tie into the pit latrine, and day after
day, week after week, we sat in front of our room—Papa, Mama, and me—staring at
the yard. The morning a woman from down the street dashed into our yard I did
not look up, until I heard her shouting. She was waving a green branch. Such a
brilliant, wet-looking green. I wondered where she got it; the plants and trees
around us were scorched by January’s harmattan sun, blown bare by the dusty
winds. The earth was sallow.
The war is lost, Papa said.
He didn’t need to say it though, we already knew. We knew when Obi died. The
neighbors were packing in a hurry, to go into the smaller villages because we
had heard the Federal soldiers were coming with truckloads of whips. We got up
to pack. It struck me how little we had, as we packed, and how we had stopped
noticing how little we had.
The Igbo say that when a man falls, it is his god who has
pushed him down.
Nnamdi clutched my hand too tightly at our wedding. He did
everything with extra effort now, as if he were compensating for his amputated
left arm, as if he were shielding his shame. Papa took photos, telling me to
smile wider, telling Nnamdi not to slouch. But Papa slouched himself, he had
slouched since the war ended, since the bank gave him fifty Nigerian pounds for
all the money he had in Biafra. And he had lost his house—our house, with the
marble staircase—because it was declared abandoned property and now a civil
servant lived there, a woman who had threatened Mama with a fierce dog when
Mama defied Papa and went to see her beloved house. All she wanted was our
china and our radiogram, she told the woman. But the woman whistled for the
“Wait,” Mama said to Papa, and came over to fix
my hat. She had made my wedding dress and sewn sequins onto a secondhand hat.
After the wedding we had pastries in a café, and as we ate, Papa told me about
the wedding cake he used to dream about for me, a pink multilayered cake, so
tall it would shield my face and Nnamdi’s face and the cake-cutting photo would
capture only the groomsman’s face, only Obi’s face.
I envied Papa, that he could talk about Obi like
that. It was the year Obi would have turned seventeen, the year Nigeria changed
from driving on the left-hand side of the road to the right. We were Nigerians
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