Of War, Photographs and Memory by Chibuihe-Light Obi

The incoherent style used in this piece is a tribute to the mental state of most of the subjects. May they find healing

 

1

I was once present at a scene in Aba where an angry mob lynched and set fire to the body of a police officer who, out of perfunctory patriotism, had fired a bullet at a drug peddler fleeing arrest, but had ended up killing an innocent passerby. The two bodies lay at a careful distance to each other: one indifferently cold, except from the blood bleeding from his cranium, the other, charred and smoking sorrowfully into the sky. The pictures from the scene of this tragedy that could have been forestalled starred at me from my phone. They echoed back, showing how guilty we all are in the making of these tragedies. I felt like an accomplice to their fate. You ought to have helped them, a little voice kept repeating, though, without telling me how. But, here I was ( as it were) mocking the outcome of our shared recklessness, which they have become unfortunate pariahs of. I deleted the images from my phone. But, three years on, they still persist in the album of my mind.

 

2

 

My mother thinks of her father in the most uncanny ways: sometimes as a shoeless, wandering ghost, gate-crashing into peoples’ dreams. On days like this, she would wake up with a start, sweating and scared and drowning the room in the Blood of Jesus. Later she would recite Psalm Ninety One and then prepare to make war with our non-church going neighbours.

Sometimes she thinks of her father as a figure from Greek mythology, a superhero, a tragic hero of some sort. A hero of sour salt. She would chant and trace the history of her family, how they were uprooted from somewhere in Aro by a fierce tornado, and planted firmly on their current settlement, which is why they are called “Umuikuku”, children of the wind. She would recount exploits done by her people, especially aunts who were strong as stones and fearless like tigresses.

Her father was born in the second year of World War l, and was conscripted into the West African front that fought in India during World War ll. He died in the second year of the Nigeria-Biafran war.

He was a born soldier.

A bored soldier.

A blunt soldier.

A burnt soldier.

She is always talking about him this way, my mother – in a poetic merry-go-round manner. Always with a strip of this or that: a line from John Keats; a stanza from Sacred Songs and Solos; a nostalgic phrase from an old folk song that is now all soot and salt, and a little more vintage. She places her rhetorics meticulously between each story, like a beam, like a backbone. She is a woman with large bones and broad capable shoulders, my mother. Call her stoical, if you wish to add layers of fancy to it, the same way she loves adding pillars and beams to her sorrow; adding fences, adding walls. She has always refused to be weak, to appear vulnerable; to be at the mercy of involute things like her past, like her memory. Things brittle and breakable, things possessing a kind of fragility. She had learnt early enough to marinate her pains in poetry; to couch them in a language, lush and lyrical; to harness the cool, serendipitous aspect of history, and leave out the part where she drapes the flag of a casualty. Call her an escapist, sometimes the tortured artist. Call her a driftwood floating gracefully, but surely unto a tangled end.

Call her Abanyo.

Mariya.

My mother.

She is always talking of history and wars and Literature and Julius Caesar: Give eye to Cinna…Brutus love thee not… you have wronged Caius Ligarius… They all have but one mind; all are bent against Caesar.

She memorized those lines in the refugee camp during one of the countless sessions they had under a gigantic mango tree, listening to a white woman, a missionary, read them stories from books. And that book particularly became her second exposure to the poetics of treachery – her father’s death being the first.

She is always talking of gunshots, soldier’s boots. Rifles. Refugee camps. Dead bodies. Happy survival. Unhappy survival. She remembers the war, albeit with a kind of unhygienic aloofness, as if she was never part of it, as if she did not emerge from it a pathetic victim. My mother places herself on a pedestal from where she looks down on the little pieces of her past with ease, with a calmness that is both tender and unsettling. Indifferently up there, without tears, without forgiveness, without reconciliation. For forty five years.

Yesterday, we made her plant a flower, a shrivelled shoot of a bachelor’s button. It was the armed forces remembrance day. She tucked the shoot into the red earth, traced her fingers tenderly across the bed the same way she would have caressed her father’s grave had she known where it is. Later, she watched on television, people hanging wreaths, dropping notes, weeping and collecting their woolen shawls and broken souls together. She sang one of her father’s favourite songs and let a few drops of tears fall.

The bell of Saint Andrew’s Church is tolling now. It is six O’Clock and the radio, tuned to Orient FM, is murmuring the Angelus. Hail Mary full of grace…

She is on the balcony, swatting flies and trying to appear calm. In my diary I doodle something like a flower bud. Underneath it I write:

15/01/15

She officially remembered her father.

She gave memory a chance.

 

 

3

Memory. Grief. It is magical how both come alive on the face of a black and white picture. I am in my maternal home, Amizi, some ten kilometers from the famous Ojukwu bunker. A hamlet littered with landmines and shrapnel and folks dragging about memories as brittle and delicate as a butterfly’s wing and, yet, of the heaviest lead.

In a sparsely litten room somewhere in this village, a tall scrawny woman is bent over a cupboard. She is holding a broom. Buckets of sunlight pour through the window and stretch her figure vacuously on the wall. She is cleaning up the living room where no one else but her has had access into since her two surviving children returned to their Hausa father in Kastina. It is eleven years now since the boys left and she has been coming here periodically to upturn these oddments, the little pieces of her history. To revisit places that keeps growing murky and blurred in her mind. She pulls out a file from the cupboard, a picture slips out – a postcard. She picks it with a deliberateness, and with the end of her wrapper, wipe the history of dust on its face. In the picture, a girl of about five years is smiling. Three teeth on her upper denture are missing. Her hair is kinky and overgrown. Her eyes sparky, cheeks full, boisterous. Three letters, written with red ink and separated by dots stand across the image. R.I.P.

“She was the reason why I followed the soldiers. I couldn’t watch her being won over slowly by kwashiorkor like that. She was all I had then. And she was dying. I had to follow them. I just had to…”

Her voice is stringent and robust and metallic. It does not carry the depth of her story, does not convey the burden of her history. Her ostracism. Her abandonment. Her lonliness. In that order.

 

4

A few blocks down the street, another woman is narrating to a journalist her experience during the war. The narrator is eighty seven years old and frail and slightly troubled in the mind. She is telling the story of a late Aunt who, before the war, had built a cement house, owned a complete set of china dishes and never bothered to get married.

The narrator’s voice is thin and delicate. She speaks into the cassette recorder, her eyes darting suspiciously from the journalist to the door and back again as if petitioning for relief, as if contemplating escape.

“She did not make it home”, she begins. “The crisis overwhelmed her right there at the railway station in Kano. Those who knew her and saw her being ripped through with the pointed end of a cow’s horn, carried the news and her few belongings home to her people. Her family spent days, weeks, months at the train station, with a hope that she had merely been mistaken for someone else, that she was still alive and would certainly be on the next train coming into Enugu station. They finally gave up when the university town of Nsukka was taken. They trugded home and sorted the few things in the box. Clothes. Cornbeef. Oxford cabin biscuits. Kilishi. Trinkets cast in pure gold. She lived an opulent life as a mistress to a rich and powerful Alhaji. He gave her a good life but, could not protect her to the end….”

Six weeks later, this eighty three year old frail and slightly troubled in the mind- woman, who was my grandmother, would die, leaving behind a very faint smell of history.

 

 

5

I remember him from an old black and white photograph that hung on the brick wall in the inner room of the family house. It was of a bulky young soldier with overgrown beard, imposing and aristocratic, giving or accepting a salute. I have always stayed on the look out for it each time I was afforded a chance to go into the dark musky room. Once, I climbed onto a wooden stool and got close enough to see how time was gnawing tenderly at its edges, how filmy drapes of dust had collected and settled delicately on it, until the black of the photograph was nolonger black but a dreamy stencil and the white a rusty Manila brown. The black pupil of the right eye had given in to the ravage of restless ants. From where the black circle should have been now stared a dark, vacuous subway snaking deep into the unplastered wall. It made him look like a diviner, a digger of the past. As though he was peering inward into the ingenious mixture of mortar and sand which was the wall to decipher some kind of forgotten encryption, as if peeping backward into an indistinct past now lost to memory.

Yesterday, I saw the same picture sitting inside the newsroom of the defunct Voice of Biafra. It was not my grandfather’s photograph as I have believed it to be for some twenty years now. It was General Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the leader of the Briafran people.

I called my mother afterwards and asked if none of her father’s photographs survived the war.

Why do you want to know?

Nothing. I just want to know.

There is none. The soldiers gutted the house after they shot him. And I was just eleven and weak with malaria. But I think I have told you all these before. Why do you keep asking?

Nothing. I just want to know.

The line trembled a bit and her voice trailed off. I arrested my breath for a few seconds and imagined her rasping her mind, trying desperately to scratch up a vague picture of her father’s face. The call ended. My desperation heightened.

In the end, I find myself back again (perhaps for the third time) on the outdoor gallery of the National War Museum trying to remember a tragedy I know nothing authentic about. Trying to temper the stories I have heard into a firm tapestry. Trying to find reconciliation, healing somewhere within the sprawling landscape of silence. But, the details seem quite few and terse; too fragmented and loose to be gathered into a coherent whole.

I am by the cobbled walkway, cradling my mother’s black and white picture and praying for a healing. The sickness is creeping in slowly. These days, she murmurs to herself and stares too long at things. People are beginning to notice. People are beginning to talk. Of much concern now are the nightmares. They have returned. The shoeless, graveless ghost is still at large and wandering and gate-crashing into her dreams. Her past is back.

 

 

 

Chibuihe-light Obi is a poet, memoirist, writer of Children’s literature and currently a street photography enthusiast. His photo documentary on the UBE policy “As Caged as Curiosity” and his photo book on Childhood memories “Coal of many Colours” are forthcoming in The Kalahari Review and Praxis Magazine respectively. He lives in Owerri.

1 Comment

  • uffca.ca at 10:59 pm

    History rarely dwells on such men, much less smile on them. How easily and in what manner does anyone remember the man who signed the instrument of surrender for the Nazis or in any other modern war?

    Reply

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