‘My Lord, we, the ordinary folks of Oputeland, caught in the trap of war at dawn, were robbed of our quiet night, and the prospect of our seeing daylight again seemed a mirage. We strained our ears very hard to hear the kernel of the dispute across the table. But we could neither make head or tail out of it. Shouldn’t an egg be broken on its head or not? Or indeed, should it be eaten in its yolk or be allowed to hatch and watch the chick grow into a cockerel that would announce the break of yet another day?
‘At first, we were amused and thought the whole argument stupid. My Lord, why should grown-up men engage in such mindless frivolity when the state lay prostrate from lack of apparent leadership? Did they not have better things to talk about all day at the Presidential Palace? But soon our amusement turned into bewilderment when the ugliness of the situation began to dawn on us. Little did we know that at the seemingly harmless beginning of that stupid argument eight years ago, a hole had been blown into the hull of our canoe, and the water was merely rising to ankle depth. It was indeed a time when sensible men should have begun to bail out the water to stop the canoe from capsizing and drowning the rest of us in it.
‘We the ordinary folks of Oputeland who saw the futility of the proceedings at the palace did not have a voice strong enough to shout down the madness. We should have told them to put out the crackling embers so our only hut made of thatch roof would not be consumed in the conflagration soon to erupt and engulf us all.
‘Well, we could not stop those who claimed to rule us from what had become an obvious madness at ego-trip. They could not restrain themselves either. Nobody could, not even their international friends, who always expect the worse of us so they could lend a hand one way or the other to facilitate our doom. Soon the drums of war began to beat; blood began to boil in the veins of young men soon recruited to amplify the friction.
‘Erovie, which occupied the throne, insisted it was its birth right to continue to do so. But Urhuto disagreed. It argued that they also have a right to the Palace pie. That it should be given a chance to share the cake of state already baked by international oil companies operating in the land for which Erovie has had more than a fair share over the years, and largely for their own benefits. They argued that there was a skewed logic to the balance of power in Oputeland in favour of Erovie, and that things must change one way or the other.
‘Urhuto argued that since Erovie had monopolised power since independence and produced successive leaders ever since, Oputeland had been the worse for it and that no meaningful development had come to lift the majority of the people from abject poverty. For them, a time had come for a change of guard so others could project their ideas for the good of the commonwealth. But Erovie insisted on clinging onto power and kept promising to do things better.
‘The rest as they say, my Lord, is now bitter history as this respected Panel and Oputeland already know.’
At that moment of my submission, I could not restrain the tears that had welled up and kept flowing after my opening. My pregnancy in its advanced stage hung hugely in front of me, and I hugged it with both arms. The Reconciliation Panel chairman, a retired clergyman with a gentle soul, asked me to sit down to recollect myself. I sat and wept freely. My two sisters, who sat on either side of me, just held me close and rocked me in their arms.
In fairness, they had warned me of the danger of exposing myself to the whole world by testifying at the Panel set up to reconcile all those aggrieved as a result of the fratricidal war that raged over our country for eight long years. The war ruined everything – lives, careers and whatever development efforts we had made since independence 40 odds years ago.
My two sisters had feared that testifying at my advanced stage of pregnancy would affect me and might even put my child in grave danger. We had all been witnesses to the emotional outpouring the Panel had wrought in many who had gone before to testify. Every day we listened to the multiple atrocities the war wreaked on innocent people; how their lives were turned into what they were not and its scares deeply branded. They were tales of woes, tales of a people gravely dehumanised and senselessly slaughtered just to assuage other people’s greed for power. The ferocity of the war was something we could not forget; it branded itself so deeply into our soul and became the demon we must exorcise if we were to move forward. This Panel seemed the perfect arena for such exorcism. I couldn’t fail to take advantage of it.
But my sisters had wondered what I stood to gain by telling the whole world my private shame and tragedy at having suffered unfairly and unjustly in a war I did not cause but from which I suffered so much violence?
But I disagreed with them. What did they know? They were well outside the country studying when our war raged; they had no idea what it was, what we suffered, how we survived it. So, I pointed out to them that silence wasn’t the best option either even in the most shameful situations, even though you happen to be at the receiving end as the innocent victim. That indeed, I was never the one that started the fire that consumed me; and that if nothing else, my shame was the collective shame of our nation, of Oputeland, and of those whose greed and inordinate quest for power for its own sake dragged us into a senseless war.
Indeed, what good had Erovie’s long stay in power brought to Oputeland? The country still remained backward and undeveloped. In spite of the vast natural and material wealth Oputeland was blessed with, there was still hunger, poverty, disease, joblessness and life remained brutish for a vast majority of the people. Only a handful of the rogues in power were entitled to the mineral wealth of my land. So, why would I not expose the tragedy their greed brought us? Why should they rest easy in their inhumanity to the rest of us?
Moreover, women suffered so much during the war; yes, women like me and many others who bore the brunt of a war they did not cause. The men made us see and experience unspeakable evils and silence wasn’t an option for most of us who must poke fingers of innocence at their bloodied eyes.
I reminded my sisters that the collective silence of women has always been the trump card held up by cowardly, beastly men to perpetuate all forms of evils against womenfolk all over the world in crises situations, especially in Africa’s conflict situations. I reminded them that men rape women and still have the effrontery to charge them for sexual provocation; they prostitute women and charge them for waywardness. Men sell us to other men and shamelessly collect what they call bride price in the name of marriage and then they traffic us for their profit. Men imprison women in their kitchens and frivolously engage in senseless horse-trading in the name of politics, of divide and rule and fan embers of vain nationalism and virulent ethnic cleansing. Finally, I told them that men circumcise women to tame what they call women’s disruptive passion so they could have a bursting harem to flatter their masculine vanity!
It was all so unfair, I cried out to my sisters. Why? Because we have not mustered the guts to spill it out on men’s faces and made them eat their sordid vomit. I told my sisters that women had kept silent for far too long so much so that we have had our hairs shaven in our absence!
I intimated my two sisters that all mothers before us failed us by their uncommon acquiescence and that they were too shy and timid to ask uncomfortable questions that are at the heart of women’s unfair share of woes in our land, and elsewhere. But that we must begin to ask the hard questions we had until now failed to ask if only to smash the balls of malefolk, who loath the collapse of the status quo. Indeed, women must begin to ask the whys of their lives and situations. And if nobody did, I firmly told them, I was volunteering to ask those questions publicly, starting from this Panel. In any case, I wasn’t about to allow my sisters restrain me from doing what I needed to do: go public with the collective shame of Oputeland! For in my shame and the suffering that the people of Oputeland went through during the war lay whatever redemption there was ever to be gained. So, we could finally say, ‘never again’, and a mark of a new awakening in our land.
Just then, the Panel chairman’s gavel banged. I was jolted back into reality from my reflections. I took a deep breath in and braced myself for the rest of my testimony before the panel. ‘Will Emamezi resume her testimony, please? His Lordship’s voice was gently prodding. ‘I’m sure she has regained sufficient calm to continue. We emphasise here at this Panel that nothing must be held back so that the attempt at national reconciliation and healing can be total.’ Then he signalled me to continue.
‘As you all know, my Lord’, I started in a clear voice. ‘Women are international property. They have no fixed abode or community, no known boundary and creed of their own to hold. They go wherever the men in their lives say they should go. It is the men who fan the embers of hatred, of nationalism, of tribe and religion. Women, like the chameleon, blend in easily to wherever they find themselves and are easily assimilated into their host communities or even beliefs. But my Lord, we mother the world and the men in it! Yet women are the first victims and targets of men’s madness after they had unleashed violence on the world.
‘Yet we know that the birth pangs of a woman in labour or the first screams of a newborn as he gulps air into his lungs transcend any known boundaries or beliefs. Knowing what it is to bring a child into the world, women are careful not to waste life on the altar of some senseless pride and defence of faceless, blind beliefs or tribal identity. We, women, protect life with all we have, my Lord, and do not waste it the way men do in quest of vain heroism.
‘What do men care, anyway? Their contribution to life is, at best, one long thrust, a violent spasm of lust and ill-digested climax, a mad quest to conquer some feminine weakling that burns itself out even before it starts. To most men, to stand between a woman’s thighs is a matter of pride, mere ego-trip, a reassurance of a flagging virility. Life, the making and preserving of life, is of least consideration.
‘The making of a life amounts to very little to most men when stirred to war to spill blood. So, Oputeland went to war – with Erovie pitched against Urhuto. Suddenly, darkness fell on the land.
‘We live on the small border town of Egelunu. It became the first theatre of war, the fierce battleground. Urhuto launched the first offensive and caught Erovie off-guard in the attack. Erovie had to beat a hasty retreat as Urhuto pushed them back to the periphery of the Palace city. It happened so quickly Egelunu found itself under rebel enemy control before they realised it. It happened one early dawn. I was still 14 then, and lying on my bed. Our mother’s room was just across the living room, her door standing slightly ajar.
‘Then we heard footsteps running and voices barking orders from across the street. Our mother hurried across to us in our room and we hurdled together in a corner, too terrified to ask questions. Then the guns began to crackle, and the bombs began to boom. There was wailing in the air and thunder-clap and sheer horror let upon our world. It was just too terrifying for words.
‘“Oh, Ozaudu!”’mother wailed.
‘Ozaudu was our elder brother; he had gone to join the heady campaign on the side of Erovie. He just left home one day and we began to see him speaking as the head of Erovie campaign teams. The pain on mother’s face at that dark dawn told of a mother suffering the loss of a son still alive. It was a war that she didn’t understand but which she was certain would soon consume her son. We felt her pain, too. We did not know if we were going to see him again. The guns sounded so close and so loud we felt nobody would escape.
‘Hard banging on our door; we froze. We thought our end had come. Soldiers with big guns broke down our door and burst into our room and looked at us with bloodshot eyes. They pulled mother away from us, me and my youngest sister. One of the soldiers pushed my sister to the parlour and shut the room door behind us; it was just the two of us. Dead with fright, I followed his motions dumbly with eyes popping off their sockets.
‘He leaned his gun to the wall. Then he began to unbuckle his belt, then his fly came loose. Soon, the khaki uniform slipped to the floor, and he grabbed me by the hair and pulled me back up against my bed. I felt a dumb daze as he violated my tender body with his animal fury. I felt the horror and brutality of his evil act from far away, my mind already numbed from the abomination. I felt so far removed from the scene of my violation, as if my body was mindless, as if my body belonged to someone else. Indeed, it just wasn’t me. How could it be me, stretched out on the bed with some beast shoving daggers between my thighs? I felt sorry for those thighs, whoever had them.
‘Just then, in my faraway consciousness, I heard noises and the single scream of a woman’s voice. “Nooooo!” I screamed back in response in my unconscious mind and then I blanked out.
(To be concluded)
By Anote Ajeluorou