“Another thing that added to the difficulties of life for us was our menstruation. When your period was coming you’d be dreading it because there were no sanitary pads. What I did was cut up old wrappers and sew the pieces together. I made up to ten of them. We either put them in our pants or made a loop in them and tied them with a rope around our waist. They would soak so much with blood before I washed them. I had a particular place where I used to dry them so people wouldn’t see them. After the four or five-day cycle I’d keep them neatly until the next one.” – Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo.
When the war started, I was a school girl at Archdeacon Crowther Memorial Girls’ School, near Port Harcourt, so I was already knowledgeable about life. There was so much deprivation, and life became cheap and meaningless. I must describe myself as one of the people who were traumatized by that war because I lost a number of relations and classmates, young boys of eighteen – nineteen years who went to fight in that war and died.
Roses and Bullets, my war novel, is dedicated to them: my brother, Joseph Adimora; my cousin, Samuel Ogbuefi; my husband’s elder brother, Nathan Ezeigbo; and other close relatives.
We moved from Port Harcourt to Aba, to Mbano, and finally to our home town, Uga. There was constant displacement and in each place we lost something. When we got to Uga, the Biafran had built an airport there. The one at Ulli was for relief materials while the one in my place was purely for military purposes, where they kept all those Biafran Babies. Because of it, the Nigerian government raided Uga airport and the surrounding villages virtually every day and at nights.
Those air raids were particularly traumatic for me. They were terrible! The sounds would make you urinate in your pants, if you had pants to wear at all. The sound would strike you and paralyze you and leave you almost dead because when it came it would screech and then you had to run to the bunker. I’m sure people who had weak hearts died but we were young so we could withstand the shock. We had a permanent bunker and in the morning when you got up, you ate, if there was food, and then headed for the bunker. My father, who was a District Officer at some point, had a storey building, one of the few in my home town. But we were advised not to stay in the building because Nigeria Air Force was bombing anything they saw. We covered the roof with palm fronds but could not cover it completely. Biafra didn’t have effective air defense so sometimes when the Nigerian planes came for raids they would descend extremely low. In fact, one day, I looked up and saw the figure of the pilot. In the night you didn’t use any light so they wouldn’t see you. There was one woman who lived in the next village who was moving about in the night with a naked light. Immediately they saw the light, they rocketed the place and the woman died.
Uga was never evacuated because it was in the heartland of Biafra adjoining Akokwa and Akpulu. But as Biafra shrank, refugees from Awka, Abagana and other places came crowding into Uga, so the air raids now concentrated in the area and the surrounding towns such as Ekwulobia, Ezinifite, Amesi and Nkpologwu. Markets were now in the forests and were held at night because people were advised not to gather in groups in the day time.
During one particular raid, we ran out of the house and lay flat on the ground because there was no time to run into the bunker. The planes, which used to come in pairs, were releasing canon fire, shooting, rocketing. At the end of it, when I got up, the first thing I saw was eke [python] close to where I was taking cover. I wasn’t so scared because in Uga pythons do not bite. The locals treat them gently and with respect. Then, I saw a severed leg and an arm lying close by. People were groaning. It was horrible the way those planes killed people. It could just chop off the head or the whole trunk of a person. If you witnessed that war you would understand the reality of the fictional accounts in Half of a Yellow Sun, where the body of one of the characters kept running even after his head was cut off.
Then, there was the hunger. Sometimes there was nothing to eat. Most times we didn’t bother to go to the relief centers because one could stay there for a whole day without receiving anything. Some centers didn’t have enough supplies. Reverend Fathers were even accused of using the relief materials to lure girls. Some were accused of selling them to traders, for in the markets traders were selling stock fish, salt and other items. Some were using them politically – giving to certain people and not to others. One or two times I went begging but got nothing. After that I didn’t go again. Perhaps they didn’t want to give the locals, preferring to send the supplies to the refugee camps. Inevitably, people became more resourceful, trying to look for anything edible to assuage the hunger pangs. They would come out en masse to look for Aku – termites – in the early hours of the morning or at night. My family started eating the things we had never eaten before, like Uchakiri. I didn’t know those things were edible but when you see others eating them, you’d do the same. We cooked cassava leaves in soups and ate them with yam or cocoyam. We ate mpoto ede, cocoyam leaves. We dried the pink layer under the outer peel of cassava tubers and use it as food. My mother was making ogbono and okro soup with the tender leaves of the hibiscus flower. People who lived near small streams ate crabs. We would turn the manure in the goat pen and roast the lava we found crawling underneath. People ate rats and lizards. Now I can’t imagine myself eating these things but we relished them then. But many people still died. There was a massive continuous dying of young Children, especially from kwashiorkor. In my mother’s kindred some of the old men died because there was nothing to eat. Younger people survived because they managed to scrounge whatever they could for food.
They were also conscripting children as young as fifteen and sixteen years. My brother was fifteen when they conscripted him. He came back alive because there was a battle in the forest and they dispersed. My frightened brother ran away and came home as an Atimgbo, one suffering from shell shock. The military police was on the lookout for those who went on AWOL, so when he saw a Mami Wagon he would hail the occupant and say, “Driver give me smoke. Carry me. I’m going to Akokwa.” When he returned home, people were trooping in to sympathize with us. Women were exclaiming, “Ewuu, nwa m’o! Agha Biafra.” [Oh, poor child! This Biafra war.] After my mother gave him water to take a bath, she cooked his clothes in an iron pot for twenty four hours even though firewood was scarce. He had kwarikwata [body lice] and that was my first time of seeing them. They’re so flat it was difficult to pick them out from the fabric, so we dumped his clothes inside the pot. I don’t think he even had shoes because when they conscripted him my mum gave me, as young as I was, shoes to take to him. By the time I got there they had moved him to the war front, less than two weeks after they conscripted him. He couldn’t have had more than one week’s training. I wept so much and dropped the shoes with somebody who promised to send them to him. About five months after he came back the war ended.
Another thing that added to the difficulties of life for us was our menstruation. When your period was coming you’d be dreading it because there were no sanitary pads. What I did was cut up old wrappers and sewed the pieces together. I made up to ten of them. We either put them in our pants or made a loop in them and tied them with a rope around our waist. They would soak so much with blood before I washed them. I had a particular place where I used to dry them so people wouldn’t see them. After the four or five-day cycle I’d keep them neatly until the next one.
We had access to water because our house had a gutted roof which filled up our big underground tank during the rainy season. In the dry season we’d be hoarding the water. We also had a well called Umi. That was where we drew water for house hold chores. It was not always clear so we put alum in it. But the well water didn’t last till the next season so we went to streams like Ochi, Agwazi and Obizi. They had their source from the ground so they were there all the year round. It’s from Obizi spring in Uga that the Government provided running water to Aguata Local Government area in the present Anambra State, so you can imagine the size of this beautiful body of water.
It was even risky to be a young girl or woman during that time. After the war, the soldiers invaded everywhere. They came to my village too. They took many girls by force. Some went willingly. Others were enticed with food. They even took away people’s wives and the poor men were helpless. When you’re dealing with a man with a gun, what do you do?
Akachi Ezeigbo, PhD, FNAL, FLSN, FESAN is a Professor of English, Department of Languages, Linguistics, Literary Studies & Theatre Arts, Federal University Ndufu-Alike, Ikwo, Abakaliki, Ebonyi State, Nigeria.