Even now, I still shudder at the recollection. I won’t go to a psychologist or psychiatrist for that matter because they have a way of complicating matters. I will bear this cross with equanimity, the way my people have always borne them. The memories will never fade away. It still draws my tears as it is happening right now.
It was 1973! Dear God, you won’t have the fairest idea how stubborn I was. Possibly it was caused by the bombs and sleeping in bunkers by my pregnant mother. I was part of that generation bombed out of the womb by the Biafran war. And you expect me to be ‘normal’?
That year my father had moved to the city – Umuahia, and usually came visiting us at home during the weekends. This particular day, as he prepared to go back, I got ready to follow him to see Umuahia. To see the cows and the trains. My father, a great story teller, had told us all about Umuahia.
No mountain could stop my resolve. Beatings, threats, lockups in his room, I broke through all of them. Grandfather who heard all the noise that early morning intervened on my side. He long saw through my spirit. We did things together at his shrine. I was never afraid. So to Umuahia I went with my father.
That early morning journey started with a long trek clutching my raffia bag against the cold. There was only one transporter from our village to Umuahia. He had a rickety peugeot 404 station wagon. Father was furious that the delay I caused him would make him miss the vehicle’s once a week trip to Umuahia. I told the spirits that they should make sure that vehicle stayed put until I was inside. They did.
It was the longest journey of my life. The road, the other passengers complained was too rough, bombed out during the war. Umuahia was our then Capital and Ojukwu’s army headquarters. It did not matter to me. I was going to Umuahia.
I was enthralled by the running bushes both sides of the road. My father never mentioned that bushes ran. It was a tale I added to my repertoire for years. Like my father, I became a story teller.
I refused to sleep all through the journey, disappointing all the adult co-passengers. The only thing they had agreed on was that the breeze will send me off to sleep in a few minutes. They disagreed on every other thing especially the road conditions and the war.
At Imo river, our car stopped for the cars coming from the opposite direction to pass. We also used the opportunity to disembark and stretch our legs. Till then, I had never heard that there was a river bigger than Onuinyi river in my village. I went closer and had a good look. The iron bridge scared me. It quaked so much. It was not like that before the war, the adults said. The signs of bombs were still all over it.
Then I saw them. They were actually the cause of the delay crossing the river. The army check point. I have heard so much about armies. We all knew about them. But seeing them in such large a number, all armed and menacing was deeply frightening.
‘Stop there! Park! All of you get out!’ screamed the booming voice of one of the soldiers, gun at the ready. Mother had pleaded I shouldn’t go. I should have obeyed her. I died before my father could bring me down. My legs could no longer hold me. I needed to release a hot piss. It wasn’t possible. I started crying.
‘Who are you, yes, you on coat?’ he asked my father. He was the only one wearing a damn coat amongst all the hundreds of passengers milling around. I cursed his profession. Years later, when he sent me off to study law, I came back with a degree in history. That damn black coat.
‘I am…. I am going to Umuahia High court,’ came his forced courteous response.
‘Everybody lie down!’
I was already flat on my small belly before I heard ‘down.’
‘Lawyer, you are not among,’ came a more civil voice. My father remained standing and told me to get up. I refused. I clutched the earth and tested the nzu soil of the Imo river banks. They took our driver away. They all returned soon smiling. And off we went, on our journey to Umuahia.
From 1973 till date, I have always seen them, men of the check points, clutching their menacing guns, voice booming, eyes red, threatening. But I did not see them today. What could have happened?
You, who have never been in our shoes, do not judge us.
Maazi Oluchi Ibe
8th April 2021