“Eeeeeeee! Bebi m eeeee!” The woman screamed. The veins in her neck were knots of rope squeezing the scream from her throat. On cue, my sisters and I burst out laughing.
“Rewind it again!” we cried. My elder sister obliged and we all laughed again as the woman, her voice hoarse, threw her hands on her head and cried for her dead baby. The camera moved behind her to a swollen-bellied baby lying in a man’s arms. The man gritted his teeth, grunting. The child’s eyes rolled back into hollowed-out temples, white with thin black arcs showing under its eyelids.
It wasn’t so much the woman we were laughing at, as much as the peculiarity of her cries. We didn’t understand. I for one, was four.
As the woman’s wails faded away, the song we called the ‘Mummy song’ but which is actually titled ‘Ije Enu’ came up underneath it. And with it, my introduction to Celestine Ukwu.
We have been very fortunate, my family. On both sides, we didn’t really lose anyone in the war. All five of my mother’s brothers went away to the front lines and all five of them came back. All my father lost was four years when he could have been going to University learning how to save lives but which he spent building ogbunigwe bombs to destroy them instead. I would like to think that it gave him great insight as a surgeon.
My great-uncle’s loss was often recounted with great gnashing of teeth on his part. He lost all of his property in Port Harcourt when the Nigerian government saw it fit to reward the war efforts of the non-Biafran side with Biafrian loot, to hear him tell it. My uncle would get particularly agitated as he told of knocking on the door of his many properties and being told in no uncertain terms where to stick his ‘landlordship.’
It wasn’t until I was sufficiently grown up that I heard that woman’s “Eeeeeeee! Bebi m eeeee!” cry for exactly what it was; despair, pain, sorrow all wrapped up in one. It wasn’t until we were grown that our parents told us about the comrades they had lost, childhood friends and neighbours who they might have inadvertently inhaled as they burned or tasted as they blew up next to them in tunnels or bushes. I understood that they feared to tell us these stories as children because they did not want us burdened with the knowledge of such atrocities. Or maybe it was a different kind of fear; a lot of Igbo families did not trust the government, they were afraid of the army and the police was certainly not their friend as the Nigerian motto claimed. There was always a risk that we would repeat what we heard so our parents just didn’t talk because they did not wish to invite trouble.
I began to gnash my teeth long after my great-uncle died as I thought of all that property taken away from him, how he died poor and nearly broken in my village Oba, so small that it escaped the war altogether but not so much that it did not have more than its fair share of refugees or draftees or lost sons.
I understood the bitterness; why some people will never allow intermarriage in their families from either side and – though it is not my philosophy – how hard it is to convince them otherwise, how much of a numpty you will look if you even try. Where do you start preaching the message of unity from, born more than a decade after the war ended? How can there be any sort of healing when nobody is willing to acknowledge from either side what went wrong? When wounds are still fresh from where people had their hopes and dreams and desires torn, cut or ripped clean away?
Where I come from, people still count their riches in Biafran shillings. They say ‘During the war I was so-and-so’, and they spit when they recount handing over their hard-earned money for a measly amount of Nigerian naira. All fingers of the hand were not supposed to be equal but after the way, they were all cut down to size.
And through all this, the one thing I came away with was a deep, abiding love for Celestine Ukwu, a wise man, a philosopher. A man whose music for me, has become more than just the soundtrack to horrific images of the Nigerian-Biafran War (Vol 1-3). His message of peace and togetherness speaks not just to a bygone era but to what we can be if only we put our minds to it.
I am not sure I could watch that woman screaming now. I hope she found some peace in her life.