The Biafra Recruiters: Memoirs of the Nigerian-Biafra Civil War, 1967-1970

The village of Eziama was like England

From early morning people would troop in, some from far away, to hear him sing— ‘Eziama is a village like the rural areas of England—‘

Occasionally, when he felt kindness in his heart, he would shout out to his son, Lazarus, ‘Bring kola nut and alligator pepper.’ Laz knew where to find kola nut and alligator pepper, and how to bring them. Then Papa would invoke the ancestors, speak a few sentences in idioms, break the kola nuts and pass them around.

He never minded when the visitors challenged him, or even when they pointedly said, ‘Our elder, Papa Sylvester Ughere, you sing about England even though you have not set foot in it.’

‘Just because I haven’t been to England does not mean I can’t imagine England; how many times must I tell you’ and he would point fingers at the withdrawn faces of his visitors, ‘that an old man knows nearly as much as God?’

With their mouths busy chewing nuts and pepper, the visitors would back off and continue to listen to the song of how the village of Eziama is so beautiful, and how Eziama shall stay beautiful forever.

It wasn’t like anybody doubted how serene Eziama village was. Though the houses were clustered, small, dense shrubs separated one cluster from another. Mango, pear, and cashew occupied Eziama like vagabonds, their branches and their leaves crossing over to lean and kiss without permission.

Palm trees, coconut trees and breadfruit trees towered overhead. Kola nut trees, groundnut plants, cassava leaves, cocoyam and other creeping plants occupied the ground and the spaces above.

Now and then tall, majestic trees called ‘orji’ would shoot off into the heavens, adults calling on children to watch as their top branches swayed with the gentle movements of the rarely seen African eagles.

Still, there were many places in Eziama where termites found spaces to build hillocks, from where they sent out soldiers to roam freely.

From Papa Ughere’s living room, if the visitors looked, even casually, through one of the wooden side windows, past a few trees, they would see Kamsi Udumiri.

Kamsi was the man who married a woman so beautiful the people of Eziama wondered if such a being had any need to sit on the toilet. Together, Kamsi and the beauty had one daughter and four sons. Idoh was the first of the sons, and Gilbert the last.

Before the war, Eziama had generous soil, and every man and women knew how to use hoes, machetes and sickles. Men who did not farm still did something practical; they healed with herbs, they set the broken bones of children who had fallen from palm trees, and some became rainmakers.

A few years later, once a single strand of hairs showed up under Idoh’s chin, Kamsi summoned him. ‘My son, this land is no longer as productive as it once was; besides, “nobody stands still to watch a masquerade.”‘

With that understood, Idoh packed and left Eziama. He settled fifty miles away, in the town of Onitsha. Soon he had achieved enough to do what every father in Eziama could be proud of. He married, had children and built a house, whose front gate was guarded by two ornamental creatures. With their mouths open and blood dripping from the corners, people quickened their pace when they walked by.

Lazarus knew his days in the village were over when Idoh left. ‘You are growing so rapidly, like a weed, that this house can no longer contain father and son,’ Ughere told him one night, after the last guest had gone and his voice was hoarse from admiring Eziama.

A week or so passed, and Ughere sent Lazarus to a missionary school. From there he later went to the University of Nigeria Nsukka, where he learned the mysteries of European healing.

July 1967: Everything changed for Lazarus. Nsukka came under artillery bombardment by an infantry battalion of the Nigerian armed forces. Doctor Laz was among the last to leave, only departing when the town was under the daily barrage of artillery shells and vultures began to descend from the sky.

October 1967: On the rumor that Nigerian armed forces were shooting their way from the town of Asaba and would attempt to enter Onitsha via the Niger Bridge, Idoh first sent his wife and his children home. Days went by and it occurred to him that he too must leave for Eziama.

Suddenly Eziama became a melting point. Many years had passed since Idoh and Laz saw each other. Like friends do under unusual circumstances, they were eager to reach back to the past. Initially they met very often, but later less frequently as the war moved closer, from the towns to the villages.

For many months after the war began, the young men who were the only perfect fit for battle had bled and died. In the absence of any more young men, the recruiters began conscripting teenage boys before they could grow a single strand of hair under the armpit. A few days later they also began conscripting old men, already constrained by arthritis.

Every day they spent hiding from recruiters. Certain nights Idoh would take the backyard bush path to meet Lazarus. They would talk about Eziama when they were kids. How they would wrestle in the woods; how they would peel the back of coconuts and take turns to slam them on a dug-out hole in the ground, looking to see who was strong enough to crack it open first; how they would walk the narrow street in front of Idoh’s house, which twisted like a long, curled snake, and how their mission to reach the two low stone platforms that marked the end of the narrow road seemed interminable.

Laz would remember how, on the low platform, they would sit side by side trying to figure out where next to wander, whether to go down to Orie Market or to go to Iyiba stream, but still not deciding until darkness enveloped them. They would only react with a dash home when a long cane at the end of an invisible hand whacked first Idoh across the head, and then Lazarus.

Digital Editor

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