Ije Enu: Wartime and the music of Celestine Ukwu.

“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.

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.

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15 thoughts on “Ije Enu: Wartime and the music of Celestine Ukwu.

  1. This song makes me visualise rural Igboland dissected by the road tarmac and women carrying firewood on their heads with babies strapped to their backs.

    Not sure where the image came from, perhaps a movie I watched or something.

  2. Loved this post. A lot of people do not want to acknowledge what happened. When I read There Was A Country and watched a documentary on Biafra, I found it sad what happened to Igbo people. The genocide, the hunger, moving around to escape the Nigerian army, losing their property and after the war only being entitled to 20 pounds in their account regardless of the deposit. My dad lost a family member in the war and I don’t even know whether my mum lost any family members. I do know that my dad was young during that period and he was one of the children that suffered from Kwashiorkor.

  3. The controversy over Chinua Achebe’s book brought so much info and pro-justice emotions to the fore for me. My parents have always been quiet about Biafra and the events surrounding it. Yet when i think i had two siblings born between 67-70 (4kids prior to that) I wonder how they coped.

    “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?”

    I wrote a quite emotive post about post effects of Biafra pointing out the above – but i didn’t feel i had the right to write it. Your real life examples was what mine lacked.
    Thank you for sharing.

  4. I fully empathise with everything u’ve written here. I was brought closer to this history after reading “half of a yellow sun”. My Dad gave me the book. He couldn’t finish. I’m sure it brought a lot of memories to him. Memories that he has never shared with any of us. Your family was lucky, mine weren’t. We lost a whole generation to the war. All of my Dad’s uncles from both sides. It is a testament to their strength that the family got back to its feet. But back to the Music! The ije enu album is one of my fav albums. The lyrics and the groove is just timeless. Something u never get from today’s artist. My fav song is “mmaduabuchi.” What’s yours?

  5. And this is the most awesome piece ever!!. My mum told me about the war when I was 12; I developed a hate so strong for the yoruba’s. It took years to fade away. Her dad was accused of treason by the Federal troops and shot in the village square. TRAGIC!

  6. @naijaecletic i feel ur pain, although my family was lucky to escape such horror….my maternal grandma was yoruba and my maternal grandfather was a policeman…they had to flee from lagos and come back to the village and my grandmum had to learn the igbo language to avoid being captured and killed….because of snitches that wanted quick bucks and food just to give up a life

    Thanks Nwunye…this is really deep and should remind us of how precious life is considering all that is going on with all the terrorist groups we have in NIgeria….DALU SO

  7. What a privilege it is for me to stumble upon real people like u! I have just read ur posts and I’m utterly astonished to learn all these. I don’t ve much experience or knowledge of d war. My dad was abroad in Germany and my mum’ family fled to a safe place. Somewhere in Anambra called Ekwulummili. All they lost was their faithful dog called lion. My grand father bless his soul was made to kill the said dog. Just about a week later d war ended. My parent met and married in 1974.
    From knowledge and experience I can tell u all that people are the same all over d world! brutes, animals, sadists, kind people, good people ect.
    The wickedness experienced by us from d northerners can be found in us too.
    War is a bad bad thing. Horrific and horrendous.
    I’m from Enugu state but I could find an Hausa brother or Yoruba sister.
    We re who we re purely by accident of birth. We could ve been born Chinese or Hausa. It’s not d tribe but what’s inside us.
    Celestine whom I like to consider my soul mate preached love all d way. Hate is too heavy. Love though not as passionate as hate is certainly more powerful and satisfying.
    Thank u all for this awesome platform.
    God bless u. Have an amazingly peaceful and happy new year!

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