“All is fair in love and war”
– John Lyly’s Eupheus
There lies the road to Ohazife village, where Obulu-Nne, the goddess of my left foot rules over the lush land and its rustic people and I often wish I could go back, walk down that dirt road and roam through the part of my childhood that was left behind.
Such a beautiful yet short-lived childhood I had there that it keeps calling me back, long after I’ve turned into a man.
It is natural for me to feel this way, for I am a cultural mulatto; a half-caste of two tribes- my left foot treading lightly on Igboland, while I stand heavily on my right- Ibibioland. In these parts, a child’s true root lies not where his umblicus is buried but where his paternity resides, so Ikot-Abasi-Nsit, a village in the crude oil spilled and soaked plains of Ibom Clan in the heart of Ibibioland remains my fatherland. Yet, that does not undermine the fact that I am an amalgam of these two sands. As I grew under the shadows of these diverse cultural backgrounds, I felt their life forces shaping me into a peculiar person.
I was born in 1971; immediately after the Exodus which resulted from the War. Growing up in an impoverished and disease inundated after-war Biafra (all results of government policies) made us great rumour-mongers and story-tellers, for many a tale was humorously told. There were stories of kwashiorkor -potbellied- children who hunting snails in farmlands were blown into bits by incendiary land mines left behind by the hastily vacating Nigerian Army. This made us wonder how an otherwise cherished hunt became a death sport. But these children never stopped. The demand for protein was higher than the risk of being pulverized by land mines and thus becoming protein for scavengers and wild beasts. It was a risk worth taking.
Though I was not present, I know every gory detail of that war like I know the back of my hands. After all, I was born of those same circumstances that caused the war.
Is it not the thing about tribe and that little dint in the tongue which segregates language that caused that war?
Was it not same that tore my father from royalty, forced him to become a denizen in his fatherland after eloping with my mother to Ohazife?
In those early times, my father while playing draught with his newly acquainted Igbo friends under the big Udalla tree infront of our compound in Ohazife would holler with severity “Obot o!.”
And I will holler back “Papa-aa!!,” running towards him. That is how Ibibio men summoned their wives and children- screaming out their names like a fatal incident had occurred.
Only he called me that. Every child or parent in the village, and in the whole of Igboland that I roamed afterwards called me Obie as my mother did and most didn’t even know that the nickname was derived from Obot. They thought it was coined from their own Obinna. On such occasions when I ran up to him, he would pause his turn at the game, looking me over with admiration. I used to love him for that. He would then boast, “that is my share of the war”
“You mean nwa-Biafra?” Pa Mbaragwe would ask sarcastically eliciting bouts of laughter. I would stand there giggling shyly with them.
Both of them where right. I was a god-child of Biafra, and if that name reminds us of the war, then I was a product of the war; more particularly the Exodus that took place after the Nigerians forcefully crushed the resistance. Being born of an Ibibio father and an Igbo mother was very rare before that war. Inter ethnic marriages were not encouraged, but that was before the war for the war changed a lot of things.
At the peak of the Nigerian take-over, human traffic was epidemic. The Hausa dominated Nigerian Army, I was told often took over villages, killing many, commandeering domestic effects, brutally raping young, middle-aged and old Biafran women. Wherever they went, bad news preceding them and nobody waited for their arrival. Like soldier ants, or swarms of winged-termites hovering over a lantern or locust covering the sky during their migration. Hordes of humans were seen trekking, running, panting – with bundles on their heads and backs – panic written over them as they hurried to escape the butchering soldiers.
Ibibioland, the land of my father is located at the most southerly parts, open to the Bight of Biafra. Being open to the vast Atlantic and numerous seas – providing it with many entry points – made it the first to feel the brunt of Nigerian Naval invasion. Resistance was feeble and in less than two weeks, the Nigerians had made a perfect break-in. Dead bodies littered roads as the Army maimed and plundered Ibibioland for about two months after their arrival. They were often heard saying “No be nyamini dem be?…afterall their field commander is an Annang man”, Annang being an extension of the Ibibio nation and that field commander being Col. Philip Effiong. Elders who were previously committed to the Biafran cause were murdered in their numbers. They were considered sabotuers and the land had to be purged of them. The semi-literate Nigerian Army not understanding the real meaning of sabotage even extended the term to goats, sheeps and dogs. Any domestic effect they coveted became a saboteur. They often would be seen dragging goats away, shouting “Na sabo e be”.
My fathers’ kindred deserted their homes and took to the roads. To Umuahia, Ohafia, Andoni and other towns that still offered safety. Not much has been told to me of how my father and his people fared in their lands of refuge, other than that after many days of trekking, they landed at Umuahia and were taken in by an old mission house to be domiciled. Feeding the refugees was a problem, so when the dried-salted stock fish from Norway could no longer pass the Nigerian Blockade and relief was found a-wanting, men started eating lizards. This would have been termed an abomination if not for the war. All is fair in love and war, and in sports too.
The resistance was still strong in my mothers’ land, so the Nigerians toned down on their inhumanities in Ibibioland and began to believe that since Igbos formed the heart of the resistance, it was an Igbo war. Few months later, when the heart of my Mothers’ land was eventually taken, the transgressions were doubled. It was told to me that my mother and her family fled their village of Ohazife in the dead of night together with the returning hordes of Ibibio refugees. They didn’t have to sneak to pass military manned road-blocks, for majority of we southerners are dark complexioned and there is almost no physical distinction between us except for the matter of language.
The Nigerian soldiers were mostly Hausas, thus they could not understand either Igbo or Ibibio. All the Igbos had to do was make meaningless utterances but with an Ibibio accent and the soldiers consented to their passage.
Ethnic based crises are swift and the scars left stay forever. But the Biafran pogrom had lingered. By the harmattan of 1969, the massacre had not ceased in my mothers’ land, but order was gradually being restored in my fathers’ land. So the old system of things had to be re-established. My grandfather was reinstated as Obong-idung, the village head of Ikot Abasi Nsit. Igbo refugees were still coming in their numbers; and then came my mother, a young maiden with her family- her aged father, two elder brothers and a young sister of about ten years old. It fell naturally on the village head to provide refuge for strangers and assign a great number to good natured villagers. Obong Ekpe Nkanga had already warned his citizens that they should do all they could to harbour Igbo refugees for he had been sheltered in their quarters when the Nigerians raided his land. He took special interest in my mothers’ family, and gave them habitation in his own spare atayad- thatched hut. Those days, old Ibibio-men took third and fourth wives, of beautiful young Igbo maidens. It is said that a guest does not select condiments for his host. He eats whatsoever he is offered. The Igbos didn’t like the old and cranky in-laws they hastily made, but they were quiet.
Mr John Ezeama had two beautiful daughters, one was full-breasted, the other was still a child. This could have been the reason my grandfather, the village head took special interest in accommodating this refugee family. It must certainly be, for when Michael- his second son, my father impregnated Ezeama’s beautiful daughter; my grandfather could not condone such nonsense under his roof.
It was scheduled by the village elders – as my custom those days prescribed – that my father face a public disgrace at the village square next Etagha market day. We do not become fathers before being husbands or mothers before wives. It was not acceptable and if it happened, you had to face esuennè– the public disgrace and ashing which served as deterrent to others.
But it did not happen; for in the early hours of the next day, while the veil of darkness was beginning to lift gently and dew was gathering on the blades of grasses that were newly awakening from the steps of heavy military boots, Adanne abandoned her father, two brothers and little sister and with a little bundle on her head and her would-be husband beside her, fled the village for Ohazife.
In Ohazife I was born- a seed of two nations and I grew with this aura surrounding me. The gossip of fellow Igbo women about my mother was minimal. Nobody knew the circumstances of my conception, nor did anybody care. A nation had been decimated so rapidly that re- population was expected.
It is rather pathetic, the circumstances that war forces on people. Here was a section of the country faced with hunger and mass starvation, yet religiously birthing malnourished offsprings. As ironic as it seems that people were making babies with no food in their stomachs, it is sane reasoning that the proliferation of whole tribes were threatened not as much by hunger as by dangers of extinction. How else could men be raised? Who will pound the mortar, split the wood or tap the wine when majority had been killed in the war.
Unlike my mother, life was not the same with me, for I, Obot Micheal Nkanga, was the first cross-breed: the first ‘Ibi-gbo’ in Ohazife village. So the gossip spun, mouths twitched and in this environment I spent my formative years. Everywhere I went I was viewed and received as a very rare specimen- a newly discovered species in the animal kingdom. And as humans tend to treat such species, nurturing it with suspicion and expecting it to spring surprises; same was I treated.
At first it was an affliction to be always stared at. Gradually I got accustomed to and knew it had come to stay. Inside me, a strong war of revolting bloods was frequently waging, but at other times I felt in my vein a unique wielding of these tribes, a blending of cultures and tongues. I bask in this euphoria for it reminds me that these two ethnicities are not so different or very far apart; for they are both in me. It reminds me that Ojukwu- master strategist and hero of the Biafran war and his field Commander, Col. Philip Effiong- the one who stood on ground to translate all those logistic; were bold specimens of these two tribes. I feel their ferocity wield in me. I feel pride and that spirit that fights oppression. I feel Ibibio. I feel Igbo. I feel them both, for I am an Ibi-gbo boy!
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