Most people have never heard of Biafra or the war that nullified its birth and impending existence as a country. But those who lived the war still feel the sting and stigma of their wartime experiences.
Knowing the history of a people helps one to understand them, giving rise to compassion rather than condemnation or alienation. This is also true for a people’s posterity to ensure negative history never repeats itself. Though the land’s rising sun is currently dimmed along its horizon, it will never be utterly extinguished and allowed to completely set because of the voices of those still crying out from it.
Read on to discover the indigene experience of wartime Biafra through the eyes of a young nurse, chronicled in a historical fiction tribute.
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"Day break at Udi," the radio commentator announced as the musical prelude for the show's news segment introduction ended.
Ada wondered where Udi was in Biafran territory as she'd never, in her entire earthly existence, heard of a town bearing that name. The previous day's broadcast was made from Nsukka, a town she was more familiar with because she almost went to university there.
The daily radio broadcasts were announced from different Biafran cities so the Nigerian government wouldn't know where the Biafran radio command center was really located and subsequently deploy its army to destroy it, sending the Biafran news source into silence and its indigenes into darkness on matters of the war that affected them. They'd tried on several occasions but thankfully, to no avail. Radio Biafra was still on and reporting on the war daily.
Ada adjusted the small shortwave A.M. radio that kept them connected to the outside world as the signal started to fade. She fidgeted with it until the signal came back clear. She listened intently to the details being reported as she glanced over at her niece and God sister who were off in a corner of the room they'd called home for the past six months, playing. The girls stopped playing for a few minutes and listened as well. They could probably have cared less about the radio commentator's words on a normal day but they were all waiting to hear if it was safe enough to venture out of their presently innocuous surroundings. The way of life during the war relegated them to this daily ritual if they were to survive and live another day.
Ada opened the window curtains to let the morning sunlight in as she listened to the radio but quickly closed it, just in case there were Nigerian soldiers lurking around nearby that could peek through the open curtains into the room and see them. The atrocities being committed against Biafran indigenes, especially the women and children, were incomprehensible and required most of them to hide if they wanted to live to see another day.
The radio commentator shared extensive news of the Nigerian army's current whereabouts and if they'd advanced any further into Biafran territory. He told them the specific towns and villages where the Biafran army had been able to aggressively hold them back. Ada was glad they were nowhere near them today which meant they were safe and could continue normal daily activities for the moment but she still kept the curtains closed just in case the radio commentator was wrong. She said a quick prayer of thanks to God before finding her way to the makeshift kitchen they'd set up in their current place of abode to prepare breakfast.
Nothing was permanent and everything was temporarily staged because of the war. They had to keep everything they owned in a manner that could easily be packed up in preparation for flight on foot or on a bicycle at a moment's notice. It amounted to daily living out of a suitcase but they had no other choice than live this way, if not, their belongings would be lost every time they had to leave in haste because of an attack. Everyone fleeing, each time they had to run from where they lived was certainly a sight to see. Some on foot, others on bicycles, loaded up with everything they owned that was moveable. It was a miracle they weren't constantly ambushed as they fled with all of their property in tow.
Ada rummaged through the neatly stacked pile of kitchen equipment in front of her and pulled out what she needed to cook the little food they'd gathered the day before. It didn't take much effort but she managed to make the end-product tasty considering that even salt had become a scarce commodity.
Most people were now resorting to soaking dried stock fish in water whenever they could find it and using the drained salty fish water as a source of salt to season anything they cooked. Things had gotten that dire but being able to take whatever you had and create something palatable out of it was an art Ada learned well from her mother. She'd even resorted to creating her own spice mixes from whatever herbs she could find, on their daily food hunt, to use in place of salt and ensure that though the food they had wasn't much, it always smelled and tasted good enough to enjoy when eaten.
Ada finished cooking and served up her creation to her niece and God sister. They ate ferociously like they hadn't eaten in ages and would never see food again amidst telling her how good the food she prepared was. Ada acknowledged the touting of being an excellent chef from the girls but felt sorry for them. Adults could barely contain hunger for extended periods of time let alone growing children. It just didn't seem fair that innocent children should be made to suffer as well. She waited until they were full and satisfied before eating what little food they didn't finish. At least the girls were full for the moment, only God knew if they'd have anything for them to eat later that evening or even the next day. Ada tried not to think about it. Sufficient for the moment, not even the day, was the evil thereof.
Eating daily had become a luxury for most in Biafra as one of the Nigerian government's tactic to defeat Biafra in the war was to prevent food delivery into its land locked territory. They did this by restricting entry through Nigerian borders in hopes that it would force the Biafran army to surrender or have its indigenes starve to death. It worked to a certain extent because while adults could cope with prolonged periods of starvation, the children couldn't. They were certainly the most vulnerable in the situation and the food scarcity led to Biafran children dying of kwashiorkor due to malnutrition but Biafra refused to surrender. They'd rather the death of all its people than surrender to a tyrannical force like Nigeria. Biafra's freedom was worth death to all who resided within its borders.
The sight of malnourished children with extended bellies and skeleton showing through their pale yellowed skin was something Ada could never quite get used to. It just didn't seem fair that children should suffer that greatly and it was extremely hard to get the few she'd nursed as patients at the hospital along with wounded Biafran soldiers out of her mind. They couldn't help many of the children that were brought in and quite a few of them died because most were usually too far gone by the time they were admitted to the hospital and there was a limited amount of medical supplies available to help them with.
The thought of innocent children dying of hunger because of a war they had nothing to do with and didn't order brought tears to Ada's eyes each time she had to care for them and now as she washed and packed up the breakfast dishes. They were definitely the casualty here.
She tried to conceal her emotions as she mixed the hot water she'd boiled with some cold water in a bucket for her niece and God sister to bathe with. There was no need for them to see her upset and field her with questions that would give rise to silence or answers that would only upset them. She may not be able to give them a normal childhood because of the situation they were presently in but she could at least protect them from the full reality of the war.
Ada proceeded with the next task of finding a safe place to hide the girls so her Godmother could watch them without attracting attention to their location as the girls bathed and got dressed for the day. This had become a daily inevitability because the Nigerian soldiers were now kidnapping a lot of beautiful Biafran girls, no matter how old they were, and moving them to the northern part of Nigeria where they'd give them as wives to those in the leper colonies. Ada wondered how a group of people could be that callous and cold hearted to do something so appalling. Women and children weren't amongst those in power who contracted for the war they were currently in the midst of, but they were definitely casualties of it.
Ada finished her other tasks and hid the girls before getting herself ready for the day. She got done faster than normal so she sat down for a few minutes and patiently waited for her Godmother to return from her hospital shift so she could resume hers. She thought about how God looked out for them by partnering them together because she didn't know how else she would've been able to juggle keeping her niece safe and working if this wasn't the case. She hadn't been sitting long before her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the Biafran army jeep bringing back her Godmother and some of the other nurses who'd completed their twelve to twenty-four hour shifts for the day and ready to pick her and a fresh batch of nurses up to resume theirs.
She made her way outside and quickly whispered in her Godmother's ear, informing her of the new site she'd found and hid the girls for the day. Her Godmother knew exactly where she was talking about and scanned it unnoticed, to those around, with her eyes. There was no indication to anyone other than her and Ada that the girls were where they were.
She asked Ada if she and the girls had eaten anything. Ada responded that she cooked the last of the food they had for the girls and ate what they didn't finish from what she cooked that morning. Ada asked her Godmother if she'd eaten anything because as she reiterated, the food she cooked that morning was gone and there was nothing left to cook so she'd have to go out rummaging for food if she was hungry. Her Godmother indicated she'd eaten at the hospital and brought back a portion of what they gave her for the girls in case they got hungry later. Ada was grateful.
"At least the girls will have something to eat later and won't starve tonight," she thought to herself.
She hugged her Godmother and quickly rushed off to get on the elongated military jeep. Anyone who didn't get a seat on the jeep had to make the fifteen mile walk to the remote hospital site while navigating the land mines placed on the roads by the Nigerian Army. Many innocent people lost limbs and others, their lives just by walking on land mines they didn't know were on the path because they were hidden or buried and couldn't be seen until they were activated and exploded by the pressure of stepping on them. They were all packed in the jeep like sardines but no one complained. If anything, they were all grateful not to have to make the trip on foot.
Ada was silent on the trip to the hospital. The thought of whether she'd come back alive from her shift to find her niece, Godmother and God sister still alive consumed her. The daily hunt for a safe place to hide the girls was definitely taking a toll on her as well not to mention the daily food hunt. She was grateful for the hospital because on the days they fed them, she'd eat half of her food and take the rest to her niece and God sister. She and her Godmother had learned to endure hunger and go without food on many occasions as long as the girls had something to eat. She tried not to focus on the war and think of happier times before the war started to help keep a positive attitude as she prepared mentally for her shift but to no avail. She kept rehearsing and playing back moments and experiences from the war in her head.
Ada was working as a nurse and midwife in the Nigerian capital, Lagos, after graduating top of her class from University of Lagos nursing school, with bright hopes for the future before the war broke out. She couldn't help but recall the day it all started. She was on a bus heading home for the day when they were stopped by members of the Nigerian army with huge machine guns pointed at them, asking all who identified as Biafran Ibos to step out of the bus. She was afraid and didn't respond but silently said a prayer as a lady pointed her out as "kobo kobo", a derogatory term used by Some Yorubas for Biafran Ibos.
Fortunately for Ada, one of her juniors in school was traveling home on the same bus with her and told them in her Yoruba language that Ada was her aunt and not a "Kobo Kobo". She breathed an internal sigh of relief as she corroborated the falsehood by responding in agreement with her junior in the Yoruba language of the Lagosians which she spoke fluently. She was glad she'd learned the language over the four-year period of time she was in school there and was able to do so or the Nigerian soldiers would've probably killed her if she hadn't spoken the language as evidence that she was truly her junior's aunt and not "Kobo Kobo".
Other Biafran Ibos on the bus who also understood and spoke the Yoruba language fluently, followed her lead and started speaking in Yoruba amongst themselves and in response to questions posed to them by the Nigerian soldiers which confused them. They had no choice but to let them all go because they couldn't clearly determine who the Ibos were on the bus.
Ada felt the tears fall to her cheeks as she recalled the incident and how she wouldn't be presently alive if her junior hadn't spoken up for her. Her friends often jostled her about being too nice to people but it definitely paid off that day. She vowed to find her junior and thank her again if she survived the war.
Her thoughts of the immediate past were interrupted as the army Jeep transporting the medical staff pulled up to the hospital and ordered them off. She complied, got off and straightened her nurse's uniform as she walked into the hospital. Thankfully, it managed to remain clean despite the vigorous ride in the deep red clay soil.
She walked into the bathroom and cleaned off whatever soot had gotten on her face and arms from the ride to the hospital. Despite this, it was definitely better than walking. She finished cleaning up and made her way over to the nursing table to take report from the off going charge nurse.
"It's going to be very busy for you and your nursing staff today because they brought in more wounded soldiers," Nurse Chi informed Ada as she approached her.
Ada already gathered that as she walked into the unit because it was packed full of wounded soldiers. She didn't say much in response and listened intently, though she already knew the drill, as Nurse Chi filled her in on nursing matters. Nothing Nurse Chi said would help make the day's nursing routine easier for her. She could never quite get used to caring for wounded soldiers, helplessly sprawled out all over the place, with dangling limbs and the like looking for her to save them. Some, they saved. Many others, they couldn't even comfort enough to die in peace. She and her colleagues often wondered when the war would be over so the suffering they all felt along with the soldiers they cared for could end. They all hoped it would be soon because of the emotional toll it was taking on them but nothing in the physical signaled an end to the terrible war and the horrors that came with it.
"Exactly how many more did they bring in today because this unit is definitely overflowing?" She finally asked.
"Entirely too many to count. We don't even have enough beds for all of them as you can see. Some are lying on mats on the floor. Others are just lying on the concrete floors because we ran out of mats. The doctors are overwhelmed and so are we," Nurse Chi explained.
Ada already saw the conditions nurse Chi described as she walked into the unit but they couldn't readily do anything about it other than work in a manner that ensured no contamination amongst the patients.
"It's definitely not an ideal situation to treat patients in but what are we going to do? We have to work with what we have," Ada replied as she took the clipboard with patient information from Nurse Chi.
She scanned the clipboard with her eyes as she listened to Nurse Chi continue giving report on each of the patients. There were entirely too many soldiers to count but Nurse Chi managed to remember each one by name and what they were brought to the hospital for. Ada was impressed at her colleague's accuracy as confirmed by information written on the clipboard. At least someone cared enough to know each one by name. It gave dignity to the otherwise daunting healing process for the soldiers. Here, they were individuals again with a name and not just a number in an infantry unit fighting on the warfront.
Nurse Chi finished her report and left Ada to begin the task of assigning patients to the few nurses they had on hand. They definitely had more patients than nurses available to care for them. She wished there was a way to get more nurses to help attend to the patients but she knew that would be asking for the impossible. They could barely keep the ones they had and didn't know when they left for the day if they'd be alive to come back to work the next day. It was certainly a sad state of affairs. She tried hard not to think about the stress of the impending workload and focus instead on bringing comfort and care to the wounded soldiers along with what few colleagues she had with her. It was still going to be a daunting task no matter how hard she tried not to focus on the negative aspect of things.
Excerpted from "Land of the Rising Sun"
Copyright © 2017 Ngozi M. Obi.
Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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