It was the kind of day in the middle of the rainy season when the sun felt like an orange flame placed close to my skin, yet it was raining, and I remembered when I was a child, when I would run around on days like this and sing songs about the dueling sun and rain, urging the sun to win. The lukewarm raindrops mixed with my sweat and ran down my face as I walked back to my hostel after the rally. I was still holding the placard that read Remember the Massacres, still marveling at my new — at our new — identity. It was late May, Ojukwu had just announced the secession, and we were no longer Nigerians. We were Biafrans.
When we gathered at the Freedom Square for the rally, thousands of us students shouted Igbo songs and swayed, river-like; somebody said that in the market outside our campus, the women were dancing, giving away groundnuts and mangoes. Nnamdi and I stood next to each other and our shoulders touched as we waved green dogonyaro branches and cardboard placards. Nnamdi’s placard read Secession Now. Even though he was one of the student leaders, he chose to be with me in the crowd. The other leaders were in front carrying a coffin with NIGERIA written on it in white chalk. When they dug a shallow hole and buried the coffin, a cheer rose and snaked around the crowd, uniting us, elevating us, until it was one cheer, until we all became one.
I cheered loudly, although the coffin reminded me of Aunty Ifeka, Mama’s half-sister, the woman whose breast I sucked because Mama’s dried up after I was born. Aunty Ifeka was killed during the massacres in the North. So was Arize, her pregnant daughter. They must have cut open Arize’s stomach and beheaded the baby first — it was what they did to the pregnant women. I didn’t tell Nnamdi that I was thinking of Aunty Ifeka and Arize again. Not because I had lost only two relatives while he had lost three uncles and six cousins. But because he would caress my face and say, “I’ve told you, don’t dwell on the massacres. Isn’t it why we seceded? Biafra is born! Dwell on that instead. We will turn our pain into a mighty nation, we will turn our pain into the pride of Africa.”
Nnamdi was like that; sometimes I looked at him and saw what he would have been two hundred years before: an Igbo warrior leading his hamlet in battle (but only a fair battle), shouting and charging with his fire-warmed machete, returning with the most heads lolling on sticks.
I was in front of my hostel when the rain stopped; the sun had won the fight. Inside the lounge, crowds of girls were singing. Girls I had seen struggle at the water pump and hit each other with plastic buckets, girls who had cut holes in each other’s bras as they hung out to dry, now held hands and sang. Instead of ‘Nigeria we hail thee,’ they sang, ‘Biafra we hail thee.’ I joined them, singing, clapping, talking. We did not mention the massacres, the way Igbos had been hunted house to house, pulled from where they crouched on trees, by bright-eyed people screaming Jihad, screaming nyamiri, nyamiri. Instead, we talked about Ojukwu, how his speeches brought tears to our eyes and goose bumps to our skin, how easily his charisma would stand out among other leaders — Nkurumah would look like a plastic doll next to him. “Imakwa, Biafra has more doctors and lawyers than all of Black Africa!” somebody said. “Ah, Biafra will save Africa!” another said. We laughed, deliriously proud of people we would never even know, people who a month ago did not have the ‘ours’ label as now.
We laughed more in the following weeks — we laughed when our expatriate lecturers went back to Britain and India and America, because even if war came, it would take us only one week to crush Nigeria. We laughed at the Nigerian navy ships blocking our ports, because the blockade could not possibly last. We laughed as we gathered under the gmelina trees to discuss Biafra’s future foreign policy, as we took down the ‘University of Nigeria, Nsukka‘ sign and replaced it with ‘University of Biafra, Nsukka.’ Nnamdi hammered in the first nail. He was first, too, to join the Biafran Army, before the rest of his friends followed. I went with him to the Army enlistment office, which still smelled of fresh paint, to collect his uniform. He looked so broad-shouldered in it, so capable, and later, I did not let him take it all off, I held on to the grainy khaki shirt as he moved inside me.
My life — our lives — had taken on a sheen. A sheen like patent leather. We all felt as though it was liquid steel, instead of blood, that flowed through our veins, as though we could stand barefoot over red-hot embers.
The Igbo say — who knows how water entered the stalk of a pumpkin?
I heard the guns from my hostel room. They sounded close, as though thunder was being funneled up from the lounge. Somebody was shouting outside with a loudspeaker. Evacuate now! Evacuate now! There was the sound of feet, frenzied feet, in the hallway. I threw things in a suitcase, nearly forgot my underwear in the drawer. As I left the hostel, I saw a girl’s stylish sandal left lying on the stairs.
The air in Enugu smelled of rain and fresh grass and hope and new anthills. I watched as market traders and grandmothers and little boys hugged Nnamdi, caressed his Army uniform. Justifiable heroism, Obi called it. Obi was thirteen, my bespectacled brother who read a book a day and went to the Advanced School For Gifted Children and was researching the African origin of Greek civilization. He didn’t just touch Nnamdi’s uniform, he wanted to try it on, wanted to know exactly what the guns sounded like. Mama invited Nnamdi over and made him a mango pie. “Your uniform is so debonair, darling,” she said, and hung around him as though he was her son, as though she had not muttered that I was too young, that his family was not quite suitable, when we got engaged a year ago.
Papa suggested Nnamdi and I get married right away, so that Nnamdi could wear his uniform at the wedding and our first son could be named Biafrus. Papa was joking, of course, but perhaps because something had weighed on my chest since Nnamdi entered the army, I imagined having a child now. A child with skin the color of a polished mahogany desk, like Nnamdi’s. When I told Nnamdi about this, about the distant longing somewhere inside me, he pricked his thumb, pricked mine, although he was not usually superstitious, and we smeared our blood together. Then we laughed because we were not even sure what the hell that meant exactly.
The story was gotten from and continues at Zoetrope
- Chimamanda Adichie’s New Novel Drops in May 2013 (clutchmagonline.com)
- The Defeated Write History: Chinua Achebe’s There Was a Country (themillions.com)
- “Half of a yellow sun” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (sagirlwrite.wordpress.com)
- Chimamanda Adichie: Achebe on Biafra (lrb.co.uk)
- Things Left Unsaid: Chimamanda Adichie Reviews ‘There Was a Country’ by Chinua Achebe (1pageweekly.wordpress.com)
- Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (anastasiaruth.wordpress.com)
- Chinua Achebe reflects on Biafra, but for whom? (africasacountry.com)
- Mass arrests over Biafra protest (bbc.co.uk)
- The trouble with Achebe (vanguardngr.com)
- biafra (3quarksdaily.com)