On this unforgettable day, also a hairdo day for Bena, there was no sound of federal jet fighters in the sky; the sun over the village of Akokwa had just set, permitting members of my family to congregate around the open backyard behind our house.
As a child, you wouldn’t know that those moments were nevertheless wartime. Adults did not explain the inconsistencies—why, in the midst of hunger and anguish, families carried on with their daily lives, just as hate coexists with love.
Using a wooden comb, Grandmother Elizabeth secluded moles, or crops of hair, on my sister’s scalp, tying the base of each chosen crop with black thread. Then she would gnaw off the unused thread with her strong teeth, stained from chewing tobacco. A gentle breeze stirred the leaves of the orange tree in the middle of the yard under which we sat.
Udoka, my brother, walked in with his flock of sheep while I was watching yams roast under a dwarf metal tripod. ‘Done for the day,’ said he, going straight to the kitchen and bending down to lift lids off several bowls in search of food. ‘Chmchm,’ he sighed.
responding to two sallow faces, my mother said, ‘Soon, the small round yams will be done soon.’ On the flat-top wooden stool where we sat, our backs abutted like conjoined twins and we took turns to yawn.
Inches away from Bena’s feet, under the orange tree where Grandma was doing her hair, six two-week-old chicks tagged alongside their mother as she transferred to their beaks every fragment she found.
Left of the orange tree and an arm’s length from the backyard fence was an above-ground water tank made of bricks. Squeezing itself between the tank and the fence was a pawpaw tree. Standing beside it and frowning was Papa Idoeh. On top of the tree was my other sister, Ezinne; she was inches away from plucking an unripe pawpaw. The thin-stemmed tree swayed sideways with her weight.
‘Girls do not climb trees,’ Papa yelled at her. I turned to look up. An oily palm belonging to Aunt Eunice whacked my confront, and I blinked.
Idoeh took the opportunity of my being disciplined to check on her sleeping twin daughters, the youngest of my ten siblings.
In the village at that era, adults did not give reasons for disciplining children. Figure it out, they would say. In retrospect, the smack was an omen, the beginning of an impending horror.
A sudden sound that was now familiar to all adults and some children had erupted. The sound rose and fell like the ghost of a man who used to knock kids on the head with his knuckles.
There they were, swarming in the sky above our house: fighter jets, sent by Gowon, the then head of state of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
‘Don’t run, freeze where you are!’ my Grandma shouted. Movement meant a human target and the drop of a bomb.
On the ground, we transformed into statues like termite mounds. On top of the tree, Ezinne froze into place.
Killer jets came down to the level of the roof, turned, and circled the complete house like rabid kites, their wings jangling louder than an aluminum toolbox.
Bloodshot eyes surveyed several standing figures until, convinced they were lifeless, the pilots jerked up their planes into the clouds, leaving only echoes of terror.
Enemy jets gone for good, we thawed, returning quickly into the usual sham normalcy; frozen to death one minute, only to return to complete life the next.
Down from the pawpaw tree, Ezinne found a decapitated knife with which she sliced the fruit into four parts. Her fingers swept numerous slick black seeds from inside the pods, and she handed one part to me and the other to Udoka.
With a newfound energy, Udoka rose to confront an amorous ram making a move on one of his sheep.
Taking off from underneath Bena’s feet where Grandma was fixing her hair, the hen and her chicks ran to converge around Ezinne and the black fruit seeds on the sandy ground. Not knowing where the next meal would come from, they pecked furiously.
Returning to the backyard with his left hand cupping his ear for better reception, Idoeh began saying to no one in particular, ‘Listen, listen, everybody listen.’
Since the war began, his hearing acuity had improved to match that of an owl, picking up sounds no one else could perceive. It was an adaptation many men developed to have a good start on enemy planes, in addition as to hear the footsteps of soldiers when they came to enforce conscription into the Biafran army.
Now his ears were picking up a new sound. The noise increased in intensity, first resembling sounds made by angry mosquitoes, then those of hungry houseflies, and finally enraged bees.
‘Enemy jets!’ he cried. ‘Those murderous pilots are no fools. They knew we were humans. Village people don’t get lucky twice in one day.’
Stampeding by the backyard, and jarring open the backyard gate, we ran across cassava, yam and corn farms towards Ohiamgbede, the thick forest of Mgbede.