by: Maureen Onuigbo
Three poems that remind us how some places and events imprint themselves on us so strongly that they become part of who we are…
Painting by MURAINA OYELAMI (NIGERIAN, BORN 1940) ‘Biafra War’
After The War
January 15 1970. They told us the war was over. Our loads heaved on the ground, we stretched and sighed. No more running, no bombs, no guns, no kwashiorkor. Surrounded by soldiers, none with the cordon of the rising sun, all Nigerians, no rebels or vandals, because the war was over.
Ravaged and ravenous, amid rumors of ethnic genocide, tattles of “conscription” of women and girls, we trekked back to our ancestral hearths occupied by Nigerian soldiers. When will they vacate our homes into their barracks? Were they conquerors, or were they neighbors, fellow citizens, since the war was over?
We learned their tongue, Sanu, Yaya gida, Lafia kalua, Ba komi, Yo wah. We laughed when they laughed, hushed when they were loud, silent when they brawled, and they brawled frequently, these soldiers, drunk with victory, when the war was over.
The shot rang out at midday. “Leave my wife alone,” the sergeant yelled at the officer in a pool of blood in my father’s parlor. Cocks crowed, hens flew, goats bleat amok. Mothers yelled out their children’s names, maternal authority masking their dread. A gunshot closer than we knew in the thirty-month war, which they said, was over.
The soldiers tied their sergeant to a stake in our village square as we watched them mete swift military justice to an errant one of their own. Attention! Aim! Fire!
A bloody show for us vanquished Biafrans, when the war was over.
Ramrod straight he stood in defiance of bullet and death, a grimace on his face like a mosquito buzzed by. At the elbows his forearms rose slowly, palms to the sky, a maestro beckoning applause, a crescendo in a dark opera. Fire! Arms flopped down, head dropped, he was still. They called it “the first firing squad after the war.” We looked about and asked “The first? But the war is over.”
The crimson sand bore a message of fear sent well and received well. Indoors the ex Biafran soldiers hid venturing out only at night. The village boys walked behind the Nigerian soldiers, “Master, master, you want something? Master, you like my sister, my mama, master, make I wash your clothes, clean your house?”
They said, “the war is over.”
They fluttered down, little white specks.
How could they have formed this huge mass of white burying all within sight?
Relentless they flew down as I watched nose-pressed on the cold windowpane.
Steely sky, cloudy white ground. Everything switched.
No wonder all was gone, the hustling and bustling.
My mind darted
to the Equatorial sun on my back, ocean breezes along Bar Beach,
to promises made to my mother, quick and eager to board the plane.
“Yes, I’ll wear my sweater always.” I told her.
“The Harmattan is very strong abroad,” she’d said.
From all I did not do right, to all I should have done and all I would do,
and on and on like a whirlwind spiraling down a vortex,
to rest on that fleeting point in time which we call now.
the falling snow,
the icicles forming down the roof before my window,
to my breath.
Now in, now out, over and over
until my boundaries disappeared and I was intact no more.
I beamed home where my back burned from the scorching sun
In the snowstorm.
From the highlands of Guinea she springs
Like a headstrong child who knows it all
She takes the opposite route home
Flowing northeast when the ocean lay nearby southwest.
At Timbuktu she lets herself be kissed for the first time.
The Sahara burns her lips.
She learns her lesson, turns away, southeast through Mali, Niger, Nigeria,
Her name on every mouth, a loose woman of ill repute, they call her,
when all she wants is to find herself.
In Kainji she is arrested for disorderly conduct and does her time in the dam.
Subdued and sober, she continues to Lokoja where she gives her hand to a complete
stranger from a different place, a different tribe, all by herself.
From the Benue, she learns to laugh and to sing again.
Together they dance due south through Onitsha.
Here she is old and wide, weary from age and a long journey.
She is heavy with silt of wisdom. She walks slowly with a cane.
Silently, she flows.
She has seen much, heard much, endured much but says very little.
She is on her way through the delta to her home, the Atlantic Ocean.
Maureen Onuigbo emigrated to the United States from Nigeria. She was a child refugee in Biafra, the source of “After The War.” She lives in Dexter, MI with her husband and two children. She is a physician and writes in her spare time. She is currently a student at the online writing certificate program at Stanford University. She working on her first novel, “The Americanization of Mmeri.”