On this unforgettable day, also a day for Bena’s hairstyles, no federal fighter plane was heard in the sky; the sun over the village of Akokwa had just set, allowing my family members to gather around the open backyard behind our house.
As a child, you wouldn’t know that those times were still wartime. The adults did not explain the inconsistencies, why, in the midst of hunger and anguish, families continued with their daily lives, just as hate coexists with love.
Using a wooden comb, Grandma Elizabeth isolated moles, or strands of hair, on my sister’s scalp, tying off the base of each selected strand with black thread. She then gnawed at the unused floss with her strong teeth, stained from chewing tobacco. A light breeze stirred the leaves of the orange tree in the middle of the patio under which we sat.
Udoka, my brother, came in with his flock of sheep while I watched yams roast under a dwarf metal tripod. ‘Done for today,’ he said, going directly to the kitchen and bending down to lift the lids of several bowls in search of food. “Mmhm,” she sighed.
Reacting to two slow faces, my mother said, ‘Soon, the small round yams will be ready soon.’ On the flat-topped wooden stool we sat on, our backs propped up like Siamese twins and we took turns yawning.
Centimeters from Bena’s feet, under the orange tree where Grandma combed her hair, six two-week-old chicks accompanied their mother as she fed each piece she found into their beaks.
To the left of the orange tree and an arm’s length from the backyard fence was an above-ground water tank made of bricks. Squeezing between the tank and the fence was a papaya tree. Standing over him and scowling was Papa Idoeh. On top of the tree was my other sister, Ezinne; she was inches away from ripping off an unripe papaya. The narrow-stemmed tree swayed to the side with his weight.
“Girls don’t climb trees,” Dad yelled at her. I turned to look up. An oily palm belonging to Aunt Eunice hit my face and I blinked.
Idoeh risked discipline from me to control her sleeping twin daughters, the youngest of my ten siblings.
In the village at that time, adults did not give reasons for disciplining children. Figure it out, they would say. In hindsight, the coup 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 rap children over the head with his knuckles.
There they were, swarming in the sky over our house: fighter jets, sent by Gowon, the then head of state of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
‘Don’t run, stay where you are!’ my grandmother yelled. The movement meant a human target and the release of a bomb.
On the ground, we transform into statues like termite mounds. At the top of the tree, Ezinne froze in place of her.
Killer jets descended to ceiling level, twisted and circled the house like rabid kites, their wings jingling louder than an aluminum toolbox.
Bloodshot eyes took in various standing figures until, convinced they were lifeless, the pilots lifted their planes into the clouds, leaving only echoes of terror.
Enemy jets gone for good, we thawed out, quickly returning to our usual pretended normalcy; frozen to death one minute, only to return to full life the next.
Under the papaya tree, Ezinne found a decapitated knife with which she cut the fruit into quarters. Her fingers removed numerous slippery black seeds from inside the pods, and she handed one part to me and the other to Udoka.
With a new energy, Udoka rose to face a loving ram that moved over one of his sheep.
Coming out from under Bena’s feet, where Grandma was fixing her hair, the hen and her chicks ran to converge around Ezinne and the blackberry 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 to say to no one in particular, ‘Listen, listen, everyone is listening.’
Since the war began, his hearing had improved to match that of an owl’s, picking up sounds no one else could hear. It was an adaptation that many men developed to get a good start on enemy planes, as well as to listen to the footsteps of soldiers when they came to force conscription in the Biafran army.
Now his ears were picking up a new sound. The noise increased in intensity, first resembling the sounds of angry mosquitoes, then hungry houseflies, and finally angry bees.
Enemy planes! she yelled. Those killer pilots aren’t stupid. They knew we were human. The townspeople are not lucky twice in one day.
Stampeding through the backyard and throwing open the backyard gate, we passed through cassava, yam and corn farms towards Ohiamgbede, the dense forest of Mgbede.