Through her eyes

The school excursion bus had no free seat as they made their way to the house of Mrs Bridget Okosisi. The distance was not a near one, almost four hours from their school but as the teacher had explained to the students, it was going to be an invaluable excursion because they were going to hear from the horses mouth. A total of fifty nine students, two teachers and the school driver were anticipating the visit to the old woman. It had been the talk of the class. Mrs Bridget Okosisi was the grandmother of their current history teacher Miss Salomi and she was the one behind the excursion. The students were having lessons on civil wars and Miss Salomi had decided they hear her grandmother’s version of the Biafra war that happened in the late 1960, stating she might skip some valuable details and since her mother had experienced the war first-hand and was still alive she was going to make arrangements for them to experience the story through her eyes.
The driver turned into a dirt road with vegetation, thick tall trees flooded the scenery. The ride alone was an experience to the students as some of them had never been to the rural areas, being born and bred in the city. The students chattered and joked, having fun all the way. Miss Salomi announced to them they were minutes away from their destination.
In a short while they pulled into a wide compound with concrete bungalows. Old but well kept. The environment was serene and you could feel the very breath of nature. Few persons were in the compound and they looked with interest. They alighted from the bus and Miss Salomi led them to the building occupied by her grandmother.
Mrs Bridget was expecting the arrival of her granddaughter and her students and was willing to assist them in anyway she could. She had prepared snacks of Akara (bean cake) and Zobo drink to make them feel at home. She welcomed them as they entered her abode where she lived with two teenage girls. She exchanged hugs with her granddaughter and asked the students their names individually. She was known for her hospitality.
Soon they were all settled around her in the sparsely furnished sitting room.
Mrs Bridget was a geriatric woman in her late eighties but still sharp in intellect, memory and speech. She cleared her throat, took a sip of water and began her story.
“I was sixteen when the war started, I remember being huddled with my mother, three elder brothers, two younger sisters and a host of other relatives close to the small radio in this very compound. Though it wasn’t what it looked like now. My father Chief Nwanza was away for a village meeting discussing issues concerning the secession. The voice on the radio had just announced that the federal government had declared a war on secessionist Biafra. An event that will change and shape most of our lives. We were yet to realise the gravity and implication of the news. The males amongst us were hyper and gingered on the news of war and prospects of killing Nigerian soldiers who had caused us anguish, killing our high ranking army officers, driving and killing our brothers in hordes from the northern territories. The hate on the northerners had been brewing and it had finally gotten above boiling point. Some hours later the voice of our dear leader, the colonel came up on the radio assuring us of our impending victory. That we should be steadfast and brave, victory shall be ours. This led to cheers from us and a boost in morale.”
Mrs Bridget looked at her audience to know if they were with her. The students were all rapt un attention, listening to her words. She continued.
“In the weeks that followed, it didn’t quite seem that a war had been declared on us, activities continued normally just that the village was gradually thinning out on men. Able-bodied men had volunteered themselves to the cause. My male relatives were gradually leaving home to sign up for the war. My two eldest brothers were preparing to join the Biafra Army. My immediate elder brother was elected to stay home and safeguard the family interests.
I had a man I was deeply in love with, we were already planning to start a family before news of the way broke out. A valiant young man who was also ready to enlist himself to the Biafran cause. I tried my best to dissuade him from enlisting so soon but he swore not to be a coward and promised to come back for me. The day Chekwube left for war was the day I knew that what we had signed up for was no Childs play.
The radio constantly brought us news on the happenings, the Nigerian troops were steadily advancing into our territories, capturing city after they city. They had numerical advantage and were backed up by our colonial country who supplied them weapons and mercenaries. The radio was tuned to a Biafran frequency so the presenters always tried to downplay heavy casualties but it was obvious the Nigerians were having the upper hand.
Chidi and Chima my two elder brothers who had joined the Biafra army managed to communicate their safety to us which was met with happiness in the family though I was sullen because I heard nothing concerning Chekwube. We were now in the middle of 1968. The war had raged on for a year, conditions deteriorated by the day, hunger was rearing its ugly head and we barely had enough to eat. Malnourished children without fathers littered the streets. We were feeling the full effects of the war. We steadily saw aircrafts fly by and the news was that the Nigerian soldiers were advancing day by day. Gossip was that we were soon going to abandon our houses. Relatives who lived in cities were running back to the village in droves, telling tales of atrocities and death and how gallantly our boys were trying to fight back. thEES95KGLAfter the first correspondence from my brothers, nothing else was heard from them. I silently prayed the war should not consume them and my beloved Chekwube, and that he should come back to me as promised. Towards the end of the year, a group of Biafran soldiers entered our village rounding up males. Teenagers were not excluded. I remember my fourteen year old cousin being led away by the army. My remaining brother was also conscripted and besides the elderly, the village was robbed off vibrant males. Blockage of food supply was a major tactic used by the Nigerian military. The village was surviving on the food we grew. Meat was scarce. Due to the influx of people from towns and cities were the battlefield was. Food was swiftly depleted. They considered us lucky for being in the village as most of them had barely escaped with their lives. By 1969 conditions were critical, nobody had enough to eat, children died everyday and the surviving ones were severely diseased. Chidi was back home with us, he had managed to find his way home after being seriously injured in an airstrike where he lost his right arm and part of his face disfigured. He considered himself lucky. He had parted ways with Chima shortly after they joined the army as they were assigned to different infantries. He told me he had seen Chekwube once during the war and he was holding up fine then but he didn’t know about now. Take your mind off him Bridget, this is war were the exact words he said to me.
The Nigerian soldiers were said to have conquered the neighbouring town of Aba which was a few miles from our village. This news was met with tears and anguish. We all felt the end was near. We had lost a lot of lives in our village which was yet to take a single bullet due to starvation. What was the fate of the people in the towns that were actually under fire. The reports from the radio were disheartening but still always bore a ray of hope for we Biafrans. We were comforted when reports came that our gallant boys had succeeded in recapturing some cities but that did not mean we held the upper hand. We took solace in any positive news no matter how insignificant it was. Our only consolation for the hundreds of thousand lost lives. Our village which was once bubbly and lively was now a shadow of what it used to be. Children with thin arms and swollen bellies littered the streets ready to drop dead at the slightest provocation. Before the war, the Nwanza family which also consisted of my extended relations were over thirty five in number including children but I could barely count fifteen living persons. Women who took comfort in sex got pregnant and gave birth to extremely malnourished babies who usually died within months. Their was despair everywhere.
I remember vividly, it was on the third of September 1969 when the Nigerian soldiers finally marched into our little village. Their black heartless faces and guns were met with no resistance as their were no able-bodied men to defend the village. The elderly men amongst us hid themselves for fear of being seen and killed as an opposition. The soldiers scorned us, knelt us down in the open square and insulted our commanders and soldiers. Elderly women wailed and cursed in our dialect but the soldiers did not care. They took the best of the young girls including me and had their way on us. I was a victim.” On saying this a tear dropped from her eyes and from some eyes of her listeners. Miss Salomi quickly rushed to her and placed an arm around her in consolation. She smiled feebly and squeezed her granddaughters arm lightly.
“It’s okay Salom, just a little nostalgia.” She quickly consoled herself and continued her narrative.
“Well after that day, the soldiers left us and continued their rampage to the neighboring villages. Our village wailed for days, cursing the soldiers. The men gnashed their teeth and some of the ravaged girls took their lives but I resolved not to let the enemy take all I had and that meant my life. They were not worth it. Months later I discovered I was pregnant. The Biafrans had finally surrendered to the Nigerians after close to three years of what I will call starvation and genocide. None of my brothers returned from the war and my Chekwube also never returned to me. The war was a bitter experience to us. We gradually built back the pieces of our lives and continued living as we tried to forget the gory past. Well…. Without the war I would not have had a granddaughter as beautiful as your teacher and I would not have had such wonderful kids before me here today.” She concluded with a smile as she took another sip of water.

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