Wednesday, March 29, 2017 10:52 pm
By EC Ejiogu
On Saturday, March 18, 2017, joined by a host of friends, relatives, kit and kin, well-wishers, our village and town’s folks and countless others from all occupations, my seven surviving siblings and I gathered with the clergy and congregants of the Assembles of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, (ARCCG) where our dearly beloved mother was a lifelong member, and committed her remains to mother earth in our compound and village, Ubonukam, Onicha, Ezinihitte. On the morning after, I received telephony calls from some people present at the occasion. There was the one from, Ms Ogechi Okafor, the ophthalmic nurse who assisted and took care of Mama, five or six years ago, when she was admitted at the Federal Medical Centre, (FMC) in Owere for a cataract eye surgery procedure. Nurse Okafor was still her dutiful self. This time, she expressed her concern over my profuse tearing throughout virtually the entire duration of the burial church service and at the grave side during the interment.
I have also heard from a couple of relatives who were struck by the number of times that they observed me open and peep into Mama’s casket during the church service and at the grave side. Their correct observation being that it was unusual of me because at the occasion of my father’s burial, which they also witnessed, in 2011 I was more composed and seemed to have held myself together.
What these concerned callers couldn’t imagine was that their observation was my own acts of questing for closure on the transition of the last of the two individuals who represented so much in my life. People seek and achieve closure on the death of loved ones differently.
During one of the conversations that I often hold every other time on the Skype social medium with Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the Kenyan novelist and writer, since 2013 when we met and became good friends, he once suggested that I should approach the book I planned writing about my late father, a World War II veteran who enlisted in the Royal Signal Corps and served in East Africa in the period 1941-44, like I am discovering him. I didn’t disclose to Ngugi who once intimated me that he was quite close to his own mother, that I planned to find catharsis over the loss of my father in the act of writing that book. It was my last name Ejiogu, which Ngugi revealed to me that it translates as the elephant in his Kikuyu language, which his mother fondly called him, that helped bring us together before we became friends.
Ngugi could not have been more intuitive and accurate in his suggestion to me. Throughout his life time, my father was an avid diarist. He left a trove of archival paperwork—the delight of any worthy research historian—on his life as a pupil teacher sequel to earning the standard six school certificate, his enlistment in 1941 at the Enugwu depot, into colonial Britain’s West African Frontier Force, (WAFF) where he was assigned to the Royal Signal Corps because of his superb educational qualification, journey by sea with 25 other enlistee signal corpsmen, through the Gold Coast, and South Africa to East Africa where they underwent training in first class wireless operations, and were deployed for service until 1944, etc. My initial forays into Papa’s archival papers and diaries have been exciting and filled with discoveries., only that I haven’t began to write that book yet.
In Mama’s case, my situation and indeed story are stark contrasts. My nuanced relationship with her was rather complex. It is one, which is encapsulated in countless episodic events that I experienced during our lives together as mother and child that still bonds me to her. It has made the grieving process excruciating for me. Any wonder then why I am finding it tasking to come to terms with her peaceful transition on that thirtieth day in August last year?
Each time that I experience one episodic flashback or another in that consanguineous relationship, it tends to tug hard at my emotions and transport me to the notion that she is still here. Although opening and peering into that casket was meant to convince me that Mama had departed for good, still I couldn’t find the much-desired closure by so doing.
Which brings me to the current effort that I make here committing some of those episodic flashbacks about her to paper.
My Family’s Personal History of Biafra
Some of my cherished episodic flashbacks on my nuanced relationship with Mama take me to the Republic of Biafra and the war that the Yakubu Gowon-led military junta levied on the young republic and its citizens after its declaration in May 1967 and how it elicited the most endearing mothering acts of care and nurture from her towards us, her children and even others that came her way during the war. Those episodes and the story they encapsulate, culminate in my own family’s personal history of Biafra. The enormity of the landmark dimensions of the Biafra war is such that there are as many personal histories of Biafra as there are survivors of the war and the trying events that precipitated it.
I was already four, and pushing to five years of age when the quest for self-preservation by the Igbo necessitated the declaration of the Republic of Biafra by Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. He responded to the Mandate from the Elders and leaders of thought in the then Eastern Region in reaction to several traumatic events that included the horrendous pogroms of individuals of Eastern Region origin who were resident in parts of Nigeria’s north and even west.
I still recall vividly that my impressionable sense of awareness picked bits and pieces of that declaration and the goings on in Biafra from family members because it changed our lives. My immediate senior sister, Tina and I were hurriedly put on a commercial kai-kai bus that was operated by one of our town’s men, his name was John. He brought us home to the village from Port Harcourt where we resided with Papa who was then employed as a wireless operator with British oil multinational, Shell BP.
It is also noteworthy to mention that Papa equally lost that beautiful new home subsequently in the Abandoned Property saga. Yes, our family was dispossessed of the home that he erected with some of his hard-earned salary working with Shell-BP. When Port Harcourt fell to the Gowon junta’s advancing troops, like all other residents of Port Harcourt and inhabitants of the Niger delta and coastlines, Papa was displaced and compelled to return first to our village, in the Biafra heartland. He never was recalled by Shell-BP. He also lost his new home, which was declared an “abandoned property” by official act of the junta in retribution.
That act of unjustifiable dispossession by the Gowon junta of Biafrans who owned property in all parts of Nigeria prior to the war inserted a young lieutenant, David Mark when he was appointed secretary to the Abandoned Property Commission by the junta at the war’s end, into that episode of my family’s personal history of Biafra.
Another interesting part is that David Mark who eventually retired from Nigeria’s army with the rank of a three-star general cut his teeth in public service on that role he was assigned to play in that vengeful segmental unit of the Nigerian supra-national state so deceitfully called the Abandoned Property Commission. Mark is still in public service. He was Senate president at Abuja. He is still a senator today, representing his community in Benue province. But the twist is that Mark’s own people in the Middle Belt part of the upper Niger basin are currently afflicted with the menace of murderous Fulani herdsmen who are actively determined to displace them for good from their own ancestral homeland. These days, hardly a week passes without a story in the print or social media about rampage killings of innocent individuals in Middle Belt communities by Fulani herdsmen. History matters. Or doesn’t it?
Although the Gowon junta was yet to levy and begin the prosecution of its total war against the new Biafra republic at the time that Tina and I were hurriedly transported back to the village, technically, we were part of the waves of internally displaced people that arrived the Igbo homeland from all over Nigeria because of the insecurity of life and limbs that afflicted them in the pogroms of 1966 and 1967. Back in the village, Mama became the centre of the lives of us all her children.
In the ensuing months after the high intensity war on Biafra sparked off and heated up, our village and the adjourning provinces in the entire Biafra heartland became inundated by internally displaced persons, mostly women, children, and the elderly who fled their ancestral homes and sources of livelihood in Biafra’s Niger delta, coastal, riverine, and upland provinces. The sudden pressures that those imposed on non-existent resources of all sorts was overwhelming. The humanitarian crisis that ensued was horrendous and overwhelming.
As upsetting as these became to the lives of people, I didn’t sense any snap in Mama’s composure and compassion towards us or the displaced individuals who resided amongst us during that time. This observation was true about the other adults around us. People shared the little they had. No day passed without several displaced people stopping by at our home in the village to ask for food. Sights of nursing mothers with raggedly clad children in tow were common place. Every one of them who showed up at our meal times always partook with us.
The sea and air blockade of Biafra by the Gowon junta compounded the human misery and resultant catastrophe due to hunger and starvation that ravaged the people, especially the young, elderly and women. The scarcity of foods and nutritious nourishments especially proteins took its toll on people. Children, pregnant and nursing mothers, and the elderly were the hardest hit. The haunting figures of kwashiorkor ravaged youngsters and elderly were visible everywhere.
One evening, Mama returned from the daily Obizi twilight market where she sold crayfish and shreds of dried fish and gave us a shackled full-grown lizard and encouraged us to roast it up and eat. My younger maternal cousin, Bede who was quite skilled in village life style made a small open fire on which he handily gutted, cleaned, and roasted up that lizard for us. He cut off and threw away the head. He simply told us that it was inedible. Although salt had become a scarce kitchen item at the time due to the blockade, Bede sprinkled a little of it on the lizard as he roasted it. For a creature that we never imagined was edible, the whitish meat tasted quite good for a lizard, and we liked it.
Mama had been sold on the idea by her two lady friends who she shared shed space in the market place with, that lizards, which were being hunted and peddled for sale everywhere were good protein substitute. After that first time, the lone lizard that Mama brought home for us from time to time, which we roasted and ate, and the several other improvised dietary protein substitutes that she added to our meals helped protect my siblings and me from the ravaging kwashiorkor epidemic that took fatal hold of Biafra’s vulnerable population for the war’s duration.
The enormity of open-heartedness and magnanimity with which Biafrans accommodated and supported fellow Biafrans who were displaced from their ancestral homes was astounding. Mama’s receptive kindness to those that came by our home still incites peace in my heart even to this day whenever I recall the episodes that I witnessed.