Tag Archives: Biafra

Happy-people-who-look-after-children Day!

I must have woken up on the wrong side of my bed or else, Mother’s Day is really starting to grate.

As children my sisters and I would strip the church bushes of all their flowers for my mother because yes we loved her, but maybe out of some childish notion of guilt also; to make up for all the nasty things people said behind her back.  She didn’t have the same Mother’s Day as all the other women in our church.

Our mother was Catholic. We were not.

In recent times I have called to wish her a happy day but have done nothing special for myself. Today, I have woken up to a lot of smugness and it is starting to annoy me.

Don’t get me wrong, raising a child is very, very hard. Trying-to-crack-a-palm-kernel-with-your-teeth hard. Walking-on-hot-coals hard. Heck some mornings I wake up and wish I was still in labour. Raising a child is especially hard when – like me and so many other mothers here – you don’t have help and are trying to work/working from home. I am not trying to diminish this. But something about today has got my goat.

I think that a lot of times in trying to celebrate one group, we isolate lots of others. ‘Being a mother is the most important job in the world’ is starting to sound like it should come with a ‘But’.  A friend sent me a lovely message today that ended ‘If God didn’t think you could be a mum, he wouldn’t have let you have kids’ or something. I beg to differ. Have you ever seen a child suffering from drug or alcohol withdrawal? Abused kids? Sexually molested ones?

So what am I saying? I am saying that today maybe we should celebrate not just mothers biological or adoptive, but all child-rearers and carers, guardians. We should celebrate people who are trying to have kids, or who have lost the kids they have carried sometimes to term. We should think of ‘aunties’ and’ uncles’ who teach our kids things we cannot because everyone has a special something to contribute to the upbringing of a child.

We should celebrate those who teach them to blow bubbles and to paint, those who read to them and watch them so that parents can have a life outside the family unit, those who love our kids and treat them like theirs, those who raise them and feed them and clothes them and pay their school fees when their birth mothers are daunted by the task and their birth fathers have followed their erections out the door, grandmothers and grandfathers who give illegitimate children the protection of their names (in African societies).

Let’s celebrate people everywhere who are trying to keep children alive; strangers running from conflict in South Sudan and from heavy fire in Syria. Let’s celebrate those  strangers that tried to help children in the Westgate Massacre and those that hid children during the Biafran war and the Holocaust.

Maybe we should scrap Mother’s Day and Father’s Day or merge them into ‘Guardian’s Day’. That way we can also celebrate people who chose not to have kids, because without them to keep the balance, Mama Ngozi in my village would not be able to bear the 12 kids she needs for farm work.

I’m off. Chores beckon as per usual. But just in case anyone is asking, I would like for the clocks NOT to go forward in the UK on ‘Mother’s Day’. Losing an hour is not my idea of a good time.

Want to see the Half of a Yellow Sun film for FREE? Here’s how.

So, I have got 7, that’s right 7 tickets to see Half of a Yellow Sun on Thursday, the 20th of March at 9pm at the Institute of Contemporary Art here in London.

(I think it is on Sunday the 16th at BFI but you have to pay for that, so if you have no patience, you could see that instead.)

Now to the catch, because there is one. This offer is available as part of a discussion titled ‘Art: Business ‘Coexistence or Contradiction’ which AABRU ART is hosting. The discussion will last from 7.15 – 8.15 pm, followed by drinks from 8.15 – 9.00pm at which point the film will start. Not a bad night eh? And like I said before, it’s FREE.

The panel will feature HOAYS film director Biyi Bandele, Baroness Lola Young of the House of Lords and the BBC’s Nkem Ifejika whom you all know is a business reporter. You have Nkem to thank for the tickets! To get a ticket (one per person please. I will be checking IPs.) just answer the following question:

  • Who is Elnathan John and how is he connected to the director of HOAYS Biyi Bandele?

That’s it! Good luck, Jonathan.

Aabru Art is hosting a week-long series of events on contemporary West African Art.  Click here for more information.

This is what working in my house sounds like.

Yesterday one of the mums in the new playgroup I tried out with Tot asked me what I did and I told her.

“Really? How do you work? What does he do when you work?”

“He plays by himself,” I said.

“Oh.” I could see her regard me out of the corner of her eye, trying to consider whether the ‘worthiness’ of being an’ artist’ outweighed her suspected neglect of my offspring. And whether – maybe – she should call someone.

“What language is that you’re speaking to him?” she asked instead.

“Igbo. It’s a Nigerian language.”

“I read a book about Nigeria recently,” she started slowly.

“Yeah?” I responded, knowing what she was going to say.

“Yeah, it is called ‘Half of a Yellow Sun.'”

Of course. “That’s about Igbo people.”

“I thought it might be! My goodness. Do you know, I knew nothing about the Biaf…Biafra? at all before that.”

I knew then she would not call social services. And I thanked God for the book which had enlightened her.

But to answer your question Mother-at-playgroup, this is what it sounds like when I am trying to do some work. I forgot the recorder as soon as I put it on which is why it runs for as long as it does (3 minutes). It was meant to be shorter.

It starts off with me reading back what I have just written after I switch on the recorder, hence the bit of silence from me while Tot babbles on.

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.