2 Chapter 1
Ifunanya did not come back.
What had started as the beginning of a blissful life ended up as the beginning of pains, sorrow and loss that would dog her all her life; the beginning of a ruined future of a family about to be born. It was a moment of bliss shattered by the most terrifying sounds that she had ever heard, sounds that haunted her for the rest of her life.
It was not entirely Ofala's fault. As always, she was eager to escape from what she had nicknamed nkporo-ulo-nso, Churchprison, especially on evenings when her father was not in a prayer or some other meeting at the Church. She hated the house: its shape, paint and the dank, stifling air it exuded at night.
Kalu had the oddest house in Okigboli. He had chosen to be different, and, but for Nwamaka, the difference would have been too bizarre for all members of the family—except for Kalu himself—to live with. It was long, like a church building, and only the sizes and position of the windows, one front door and a small one to the backyard through the kitchen, made it different from the Presbyterian Church, Okigboli, where he was an evangelist.
More than its shape, what made the house really bizarre was its paint. Kalu had insisted on painting the house sparkling chalk-white, inside and outside: the outward proclamation of his spirituality. Nwamaka stoutly resisted this until Kalu decided he would use sky "heaven" blue on the outside and "spirit" white inside. Spirituality, after all, was a thing of the heart; it came from the inside, he argued.
'Then you will have to be cleaning the house yourself,' Nwamaka protested.
'Because it is not the Holy Spirit that is going to live in this house! You have small children crawling and running all over the place. You cannot paint any part of your house white.'
'But this is the time to lay the foundation for spirituality in the children,' Kalu persisted.
'Then you will live with them without me in this house, Nna'anyi. I will remain in the old round hut. I have no energy to carry on with this debate any longer,' she said with a tone of finality and walked away.
Frustrated, Kalu decided he would settle for a compromise, if Nwamaka had any.
'Let's have a dusty yellow inside and a sky blue outside.'
Kalu was furious. 'What kind of combination is that, Nwamaka? The inside is more important to God than the outside. Dusty yellow is ridiculous!'
'Yes, but the house is for us and the children.'
'Alright. Alright, we do the inside sky blue and the outside yellow, dusty or not.'
Over the years the elements wore out the colours: the outside had turned white on its own and the inside dark-brown. He had planned to repaint it—for the sake of the children—before the rains set in proper. But the preparations for the war had caused his resources to dwindle, and then the war broke out, and put a stop to his plans.
Ifunanya had taken permission, ostensibly, to see Ofala off to his house. But once they were out of sight and sure that no one would hear them, he started saying sweet things to her, things she had heard from him before, but which sounded different and sweeter that night. That was how he steered her into the bush. Bliss was in the air until the first blast shattered it.
Gbooooooooom! The aerial bombardment of Okigboli had commenced.
The ground went up in flames as it shook violently, tongues of fire leaping, licking and flying everywhere like giant shooting stars. The tree under which they stood—on whose trunk they leaned—was trembling and shrieking, and threatening to fall.
The sound of these explosions reverberated and rolled like a physical thing riding the waves of the wind, like something that would crush them under its sheer weight. The number of the flying and falling stars increased. The smell of smoke suffused the air.
The explosion completely drowned the cries of fear from children and the shouts of the adults, calling on people to run in this or that direction. It simmered and gradually died down into deadly silence. But the silence was short-lived.
It was about 8 o'clock in the evening when things started to change. Ofala bit on Ifunanya's ear softly as he whispered that they veer off and sit under the big udala tree that was the playground of children and sometimes the adolescents, in the daytime.
'Are we children?' she asked. But she was only pretending because she liked the idea.
'Yes; for this evening, only.' The ground under the tree was damp and smelled of rotten leaves,
but the lovers did not mind. Ofala was, in fact, dead to the smell.
He pulled gently, and she followed. He started to fondle and romp her as they approached the tree. His voice became unsteady and his hands trembled a bit. In the two years they had courted, he had never behaved like this—as if he was seeing her for the last time, and was therefore desperate to make love to her.
'I'm shaking all over, Ify,' he confessed. 'I can feel you,' she said without betraying any emotions. 'I am as hard as a stone now.' 'I can feel you,' she repeated, her voice flat.
He was pressing her against the tree. Her hand went down and tried to pry him off. But it was a weak, ineffectual attempt.
'I'm about to break into pieces, Ify.' His voice was more desperate now.
'You'll be okay, my dear. Tomorrow is just hours away.'
'My tomorrow is here, Ify. Besides, it will not make any difference.'
'Oh, please! Offy, please! It will make a big difference to me.
Tomorrow is here, Ofala.' Calling his name in full suggested that she meant business. But he,
too, meant business. 'Ifunanya, please! Just this once. In ten minutes we are out of here.'
His right hand moved and played between the ridges on her head. 'What do you mean, "just this once"? What happens from
'The ceremonies will make us too tired and take away the excitement, Ify. Let's do it now, please!'
His left hand was playing with the beads around her waist and she was beginning to respond, the urge to resist becoming tenuous. The hand moved up and worked on her lean blouse, and then her wrapper. Her resistance had completely broken down.
'Of –fa–l–laaaa!' Obinna's voice rang out from a distance, with a doleful din. The hand stopped moving and Ifunanya became frigid again.
'Of – fa– la –a! Where are you?'
The mass in his groin deflated fast like a burst balloon. She felt him draining like sand through her fingers, much to her relief.
'Who is that?' 'My cousin,' he replied. 'Your cousin?' 'Yes, from my father's side.' 'In this town and I do not know him?'
'No. But he has been around for a week. He came to honour us.' 'Ah! How nice! And he has been around for a whole week, yet I
have not met him?'
'It is my fault,' Ofala admitted. 'He came to represent our uncle, Father's younger brother. But it is good that you have not met him,' Ofala added, laughing.
'Why? He is your cousin, you said.'
'Yes, but he is the taller and fairer version of me, and even more handsome, they say.'
'You are a coward, Offy.'
'Better to be a coward and have you rather than lose you to someone else.'
'In the night like this I wouldn't have made out the difference; he is you; complete with the voice!'
'Everybody says so. Our fathers were like twins, they say. And we did not know each other until Obinna—'
'O–o–o fa–a al–l–a!' Obinna screamed again and the mighty trees
of Okigboli echoed it.
The voice was now distant, faint and ominous, making Ofala's heart skip a beat.
Obinna had passed them unnoticed and walked deeper into the town. He had gone to look for Ofala at Kalu's house, where he had told him he was going, but was told that Ofala had left with Ifunanya. Obinna had then assumed that Ofala and Ifunanya must have gone to the town square.
'I will introduce you to him,' Ofala said. 'And if he is going to be around for a while, I will leave you in his care until I return.'
'I am sorry, my father is able to take care of his daughter,' she said, pushing off his hand that had returned to work, his front hard as a stone again.
'Feel me, Ify. Unless you want to kill me,' he pleaded, rubbing his hardness against her covered thighs, 'you must let me do it now.'
'Offy, Offy, I beg you!' But it was obvious her defences had broken down every inch. She was now trembling like a leaf. Ofala's mouth moved from her neck and found a nipple.
Her breath began to grow short and fast. She did not know when the wrapper dropped to the ground. She did not know when she flopped onto it, her breath shorter and faster still.
As his left hand undid her blouse, Ofala's right hand was peeling off the right leg of his khaki trousers and underwear at the same time. Done with the right leg, his right hand moved to Ifunanya's waist, to work on her underwear, as the left hand now descended to discard his trousers and underwear from the left leg.
That was the time the first explosion happened. And as they sprang up, the second, and then the third, and . . .
They were momentarily dead while the explosions lasted.
Four massive explosions, one after the other, and in quick succession. It was on a day and time that Okigboli was at its busiest: the evening of their market day, when the residents of Okigboli—men, women and children—were slowly clearing up their wares.
The half-naked couple scrambled to their feet. Ifunanya started to run away from Ofala, then turned and ran back to him, wrapper in hand.
'It is over, Ofala! I am dead!'
'No! You are not, and you will not die.' 'What do I do now?' 'Go home. Run home and be safe. I'm going back.' 'Where? Going back where?' 'To the camp in the forest, where my colleagues are.' 'Won't you go home first? What about your people?' 'They will understand; they should.' 'Offy!' but her voice was now cold and dreamy. 'Hmmn,' he muttered.
'Will you come back?' 'Of course, I will. For you, I will remain alive and come back.'
The noises were everywhere now, but his voice rang out, clear and reassuring. She was feeling a little more composed now.
'For you, I will remain . . . sealed, until you return.' Her voice was laden with emotion.
'Please go home, now,' Ofala pleaded. 'Run as fast as your feet can take you!'
Ifunanya started to run.
She had barely taken ten strides when the fifth, loudest and the most frightening explosion ripped through the town. She crashed to the ground, scrambled to her feet and started off again, blindly, her burning eyes shutting and opening continuously. She ran until she had the blazing crash.
As the flames illuminated Okigboli, the ground troops moved into action. But Okigboli, like many other Biafran towns, was ready for battle. After all, it was next in the line of fire, as the major town north of it had fallen only four days before.
Ofala was in the detachment of the Biafran army detailed to defend Okigboli. Knowing that the town was in danger, the Regimental Sergeant Major was reluctant to let any of his men stray about. Moreover, he did not see anything urgent about getting married in a time of war. He was therefore disinclined to recommend his release. Ofala pleaded that his wedding, which was to come up at the
weekend, had been planned a long time before the war.
'Can it not wait for a month or two?' the RSM asked. 'This foolish war will end in no time at all, young man.' He had argued with a conviction that Ofala could not understand.
The RSM was an old and very experienced officer who had retired from the Nigerian army just the year before. He was a no-nonsense man, feared by all the soldiers, including the junior officers. He had not received any of his retirement benefits when the war broke out.
'I just want to take her, Oga. Even if it is for two days. So that I can leave her with my seed.'
The old man laughed. 'You seem to see yourself as the Superman, don't you? What if it does not happen in two days?'
'I know it will happen, Sir. It runs in the family.' 'Say that to the rifles,' the RSM said with a wave of the hand. 'Once I do that, Sir, I will be ready to fight and die for Biafra. But I
assure you, Sir, that we shall win this war. We will!'
This had hit the RSM like a bolt. The young man's voice was so sincere, and so committed that the older man was moved. But he knew that the Biafra cause needed more action than emotions, more practical steps than sentiments.
'Three days will do, Sir. The eve, the actual day, and the day after. I will be back on the fourth.'
'Are you an only son?' the RSM asked.
'No, Sir. My father alone can give you a whole Section, if we include the women and those that died young,' he smiled, 'plus those we do not know.'
'You remain here,' the RSM said sternly and turned away.
The Admin Officer had assured him that if he got the RSM's nod, he would not need to wait for the Commanding Officer's approval, as the C.O. himself was a difficult man to deal with. Even the RSM did not like to deal with him often.
'I will surrender a week's allowance, Sir,' Ofala said under his breath.
The RSM turned back and beamed a smile that faded away as quickly as it had appeared. Ofala looked serious and pained. The offer was attractive, but what about the Biafra cause he had always preached to his men? And yet, he could not neglect the offer, or the pleading eyes
of this desperate young man. This was war after all, and anyone could die any moment.
'Alright. Three days. No more. From tomorrow, but you can leave this evening.'
It was Ofala's turn to smile. He could hardly believe his luck.
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Giving him the evening was a bonus.
'But you know what it means, don't you?' the RSM asked, jolting him. 'Go to the Admin Officer and formalise it. Your pass begins tomorrow. If the need for your presence arises this evening, I HAVE NOT given you any pass. Understood?'
He had clearly understood the RSM's emphasis. Now his hard- earned pass had come to nothing.
But that was the least of his problems. All his plans, all the money, the labour, and the many animals slaughtered! All that had come to nothing, and he would not even get to eat one piece of the meat. But the worst was that he could not plant . . .
Ifunanya's image flooded his mind and blinded his vision. The cacophony in Okigboli increased.
The battle for Okigboli had begun. But in Ofala's mind, there were two battles.
He melted into the night, his boots in his hand.
Ifunanya had obtained her parents' permission to "see Ofala off " for as long as she wanted. Kalu and Nwamaka had relaxed the reins, believing that with less than twenty-four hours to go, Ifunanya would not want to defile herself. Why would she, having been such a decent and patient girl for two years?
They started to worry as soon as the first shell exploded. Women, children and the elderly were running home from the market or wherever they were. Fortunately, all of Kalu's children were busy at home except Ifunanya whose wedding they were busy preparing for.
'Did I not say it?' Kalu started to blame Nwamaka. 'I said it; that this boy will bring bad luck to the family! He will be the cause of my daughter's death!'
'What are you saying, Kalu?'
'Did I not say that the wedding should be postponed? If you had agreed with—'
'When you were collecting the bride price, you did not remember that she would have to leave home one day, did you?'
'Bride price! What has his miserable bride price got to do with my daughter's life?'
'Bride price is the one that did not agree with you, not me. Bride price gave Ofala the right over your daughter!'
'When she's still in my house?' 'Yes, Kalu, Yes!' Kalu was defeated and his worry increased.
Okigboli was now in total confusion. There were gunshots everywhere and terrible screams continuously tore the air. In the circumstance there was only one thing Kalu could do: turn to his God, the God he had trusted and worshipped these many years.
He declared a vigil. It lasted until it was time for the bell to ring, to announce the church morning prayer, but no bell rang.