Missing Half of a Yellow Sun (A War Story)

 

— storytime —

There was war. Ezinne knew that there was war. The birds sang it and the air breathed it. The day Chibuogwu had placed his radio on a bench in the front of their house for the whole village to hear the statement of the leader on the secession was not the day she knew war would come. She had always sensed it in the air. It filled her lungs and made her heavy. The day the secession announcement was made did not thrill her like it did to other villagers, who danced around, clutching bright green leaves. Young men sang war songs, jubilation songs, and they laughed so much that it bewildered Ezinne. Children played a lot, and most parents seemed not to care. The air was full with happiness and expectation.

Two months after the announcement and jubilation, Chibuogwu called Ezinne to his room. Chibuogwu sat on his wooden bed and stared at the ceiling. Ezinne would have laughed at him. The way he looked at the ceiling as if there were answers to his problem there. “You called me?” Ezinne said.

“We are leaving for Azebo today. We are the only family left around this area,” he said. His calm voice made her angry. He had never told her anything about leaving for Azebo. All their neighbors had begun to pack their things and leave for the father parts of the town since the secession was declared. To them, Northern Biafra would be attacked first, and the main road nearby was one of the major roads that led into Biafra from Nigeria. While the other families moved, Chibuogwu, her husband, had never said anything concerning their leaving. It worried her, but every decision had to be made by him, the man of the house.

“Should we start packing now?” Ezinne asked. She held on to the door of his room.

— storytime —

“Yes, of course. The police action of the Nigerian government will start soon.” He moved his head around, and it reminded Ezinne of the priest of her father’s deity. The man was often clad in loin clothes, and he moved his head round and round, speaking hurriedly.

“I will do that now, nna anyi,” she said. She bowed and walked away. She went to the back yard and called her children. They followed her to her room, where they began to pack their things. She was worried and excited; she didn’t know which one got her more than the other. The last time she had witnessed war was when she was little, and it wasn’t the war of two countries, or the war of two warring parts of the same country, it was the war of two communities. A piece of land had been the cause of the war. The colonial government resolved it amicably. They had their own awesome way of resolving land conflicts.

“Mama, I want to go and pack Papa’s things for him,” Chinwendu, her second son, said. He squatted and picked up some of their clothes from the floor.

— storytime —

“Mama, I want to also go to the kitchen to pack some things. We will need foodstuffs and pots, right?” Mgbenkwor, her first daughter, said. She stood and pulled the raffia bags hung on the wall.

Ezinne didn’t reply them, and her mind was not really focused on them. Her eyes stared at her youngest child playing on the floor. Mgborie, her youngest child, played with some calabash bowls, she was immune in her world to all that happened then. Ezinne smiled.

“Mama, you have not told us anything,” Chinwendu said in an expectant and sad voice.

— storytime —

“You should continue packing our things here, and when we are done here, we move to other rooms. Do you understand?” Her voice was raised. Her children nodded to her command, but she took no notice of the nods. She took little notice of everything until they were ready to walk a long way to Azebo. Chibuogwu led the way, Mgbenkwor followed, and Ezinnne was at the rear. She was the one who locked the doors. Mgborie cried behind her as she locked the door, as if she too could sense what was coming. Ezinne stood for some time after she had locked the doors, staring at the veranda. In the evenings, she would sit on a reclining seat in the veranda to watch trailers from the north pass the lonely road. Since the secession, few trailers passed the road. She prayed for it to return to the normal time when the horns of the trailer sang in her sleep like the church bell sang on Sunday morning.

— storytime —

They walked for many minutes before they got to their other house in Azebo. Chibuogwu’s brother, Odo, was there with his family to receive them. The udala trees beside the road to the house waved with the calm breeze of the evening. Azebo was too quiet, and Ezinne felt that a man could easily die of silence there. Chibuogwu had assured her that if war came to Ihapu Awka, it would never come to Azebo. The Nigerian soldiers would not waste their energy to walk all that distance to get to Azebo. Some families had run away from the town and run to far away Enugu-Ngwo and Onitsha. Those places were cities that were quite safer than villages. When they entered the house and to their room, for in Azebo, they had to share a room, Chibuogwu said, “War will never come here.”

Ezinne never doubted her husband, and not even on the issue of the war, because her husband knew many things. He husband could read, write and speak English. Her husband spoke different dialects of the Igbo and Hausa languages. Her husband was the richest man in the town. Her husband knew the bible more than the Catholic priest at the mission. He knew all these, and Ezinne knew none of this. She was a clean slate as opposed to his that was full and seeking the space to add more. She revered and deified him. She would often laugh at her female neighbors whenever they quarreled with their husbands. “When you marry sophisticated husband, you will never have this in your house,” she would tell them, laughing.

— storytime —

And truly, as Chibuogwu said, war never came to Azebo. A month after they had left the main road area, the Nigerian soldiers attacked the area. The soldiers were on their way to Nsukka. They had stopped and walked around the deserted village, and the only person they saw was Onah, the short stubborn man. When others ran away, he laughed and said, “Didn’t you hear what the leader said on the radio that Biafra is ready? Why are you running away?” And he had been killed beside the main road. He was shot on the chest. Ezinne mourned him when Chibuogwu came back with the details of his death, and she knew more sinister things were on the way.

Little things happened around them as the war aged. There were stories of bombs, like the sound of hundred guns combined together, used on cities. Biafra was losing. Ezinne sat close her husband and his radio every evening when they listened to the update of the war. There were times when the Biafran radio station was not clear enough, and the Nigerian radio station had to be an option. She did not understand what they said in fluent, fast-flowing and raised English, but she listened carefully when her husband explained the details to her. There were times when there were the drones of airplanes overhead, and her husband told her which one was Biafran and which one was Nigerian. These planes dropped bombs that killed people. Ezinne snapped her fingers and spat on the ground when she heard this. All these were senseless to her, man killing another man in a happy way. She waved her head, ashamed of what she was part of.

— storytime —

When Chibuogwu showed her all the items that identified Biafra as an independent country, she admired them. The flag in particular pleased her most. The half of a yellow sun on it reminded her of the half-moon, and she wondered why they had to use the sun, the sun had never been half at all. Like in her childhood days, she wondered where the half-sun in the flag had gone to. And she remembered the story her father told her when she was little, and this was the story of the stubborn woman of the early world that climbed to the moon and cut some part of it to use as salt in her soup. God made the moon full again, but he punished the woman by making her subordinate to the man. Half-moon, half-sun, they all made sense to her.

Ezinne’s own war began when her first son, Obi, didn’t return from school seven months after the war began. Eze, a boy, who studied at Saint Teresa, Nsukka, had returned to his parents in good health. Obi was in the age group of Eze, and Eze often came to check their house to see if his friend had returned. Days walked past in Ezinne’s eyes like the corpses of strangers. She stopped listening to the radio with her husband, she stopped asking people about villagers who had run away, and she stopped going to her farm. In the evenings, she cooked the evening meals early and took her mat to the front yard, where she lay until it was too dark to see. She began to nurse the feeling that her eldest child would come back at that time, because that was the best time to avoid the eyes of the Nigerian soldiers. She waited for long, and a feeling of sadness captured her heart.

— storytime —

“What if they have killed him, nna anyi?” she said on a midnight that her husband’s hands had gone for her wrappers.

“How can you say that?” Chibuogwu barked. Ezinne feared that the children might hear their father from their room. He pushed her away. “If you don’t want it, say so. You shouldn’t say that my son is dead.”

Nna anyi, the other students at different colleges are back to their parents, why has our Obi refused to come back to us?” She looked at his shadowy face and the shadow of his body on the wall. An oil lamp burned in the middle of the room.

“Ezinne, close your eyes and sleep!” he said. He turned on the bed and faced the other side of the room. Ezinne wanted to close her eyes and sleep. She wanted to be free from the evil thought of her son’s death. She tried. Close. Blink. Open. Close. Blink. Open. She breathed out.

— storytime —

The next morning she prepared for the market for the first time since the war began. Chibuogwu warned her and told her to stay. He was the man of the house and had to take the entire risk. Ezinne insisted that she would go. She said, “Nna anyi, it is not good that I am at home all the time. I think it is time I know what has been going on, and I want to know the latest prices of foodstuffs.” She lied. She wanted to keep her mind occupied.

The Nkwor Market of Ibagwa-Aka was calm early that day like it used to be at the time of peace. The market was not full as it used to be, but there were people, and that was what mattered to Ezinne. She had brought dried cocoyam and palm oil to sell. She sat in a shed at the far end of the market. Few people sauntered in and out of the market. There were no signs of soldiers, Biafran or Nigerian. It got to midday and she hadn’t sold anything. She decided it was a waste of effort, and she packed her things and walked home. She was not too far away from the market when she heard the boom and rattle of guns. The ratatatata of the gun made her spill her oil. She left her goods and hid in the bush.

— storytime —

Azebo was enshrouded in dead silence that evening when Ezinne got home. She walked hurriedly to their house through the footpaths. To stay alive at the time of war, one had to avoid the main roads. She did the sign of the cross a lot of times, and she believed that the miracle at the market meant that her son was safe. She had just entered the road that led to their house when her children ran to her. They hugged her, cried and said that they thought she had been killed. She smiled and touched their heads. She was sad that she didn’t get anything for them from the market.

“Mama, Obi is at home, and father is shouting at him,” Chinwendu said. Her hands froze in the air.

“What?’

— storytime —

“Obi came back this afternoon with a girl. Father is shouting at him,” Chinwendu said.

Ezinne got out of her shock and walked to their house. She walked hurriedly first, but when it seemed it wasn’t fast enough, she ran. She froze again when she saw her husband pushing Obi away from the house. Obi carried a wooden box on his head. There was a young woman, who wasn’t more than fifteen, standing beside Chibuogwu at the veranda. “Go away, spendthrift. You should bring back my money to this house immediately!” Chibuogwu bellowed.

She approached, calmly. “What’s going on here?” she asked. She looked at her husband, Obi and the young woman. All of them stared at her with shocked eyes like one would do when he sees a talking ghost. Chibuogwu shrugged and walked into the house. The young woman looked at her for sometime before she walked into the house. Obi’s hands on the box were shaking, terribly. “What is going on?”

“I used all the money Papa gave to me to buy goods for him from Enugu-Ngwo,” Obi said. He was on a sad face, and Ezinne knew he was averting tears with all the courage he had.

“When did he give you the money? How could he send you on such errand? You’re just a boy.”

— storytime —

“He gave me the money on the last visiting day at the college before the war,” he said. He looked hungry and incapable of crying the wooden box on his head. “When he came to our college, he told me to go to Enugu-Ngwo when the school vacates. He also told me to get his new wife for him.”

Ezinne’s hands flew up in the air and embraced her chest. She looked at her son carefully. She wanted him to smile and wave the last sentence away. “A new wife? You don’t mean that the young woman in there with your father is his new wife?”

“She’s the new wife he married before the war,” he said. He knelt down on the ground. His kneeling and the box on his head made him look awkward. It should have amused Ezinne in other situations, but it didn’t in that situation. Many things were going wrong at the same time. She was supposed to sing, clap and dance for her son’s return. Instead, she stared at everything with a grievous amazement. “Mama, please help me beg Papa. I left the college when the war began and traveled to Enugu-Ngwo. I was in Enugu-Ngwo when the information that Nsukka had been captured by the Nigerian military was announced on radio. We couldn’t leave Enugu-Ngwo right away, because the road to Nsukka was occupied by the Nigerian military. We’d to wait until Enugu-Ngwo fell. We followed interior villages on foot to avoid the main roads.”

— storytime —

“Is that how you spent the money?” she asked. Her mind wasn’t fixed on all that he’d been saying. Her mind had wandered off, and was in a place far away from Azebo.

“Yes, Mama, that is how we spent the money. We’d to feed when we were in Enugu and the village we walked through to this place. Mama, please help me beg Papa.”

— storytime —

She walked into the house to see his father. Voices were raised, and there were drops of tears, but Chibuogwu didn’t change his mind. She knelt on the floor and placed her forehead on the ground. The young woman sat beside him, and Ezinne wondered what would be going on in the woman’s mind. She should speak up to save her son, at least. “I’m not going to change my mind,” Chibuogwu said. “Obi has to bring back the money I gave to him. I don’t believe that nonsense he told me.”

Nna anyi,” Ezinne said. She raised her hands, rubbed them together and blinked her eyes. “You know that he has been away for quite a long time now. Please, don’t let him go and die on the roads of Biafra-Two. He said the truth about how he spent the money.”

“I’ll not allow him to sleep in my house until the money I gave to him is complete in my hands,” he said in a harsh voice. The tears and the kneeling of Ezinne didn’t crack his heart. Ezinne had to find a way for her son to survive. She stood and walked out of the house.

— storytime —

Ezinne took Obi to her sister’s house in Ulo, Ihapu Awka in the late evening. Her sister, Okpe, would return to where she lived in Adani in the next few days. When her sister sat her down that night and told her the tales of how Nigerian soldiers attacked Ulo and Adani, leaving bullet holes on wooden doors and windows, Ezinne’s ears weren’t that attentive. Okpe promised that she would take care of Obi, and that they were staying at the part of Adani where soldiers hardly entered. Ezinne wished her son well and left for Azebo the next morning. Here and there, there were burnt houses, missing doors and windows and bullet holes everywhere. The Nigerian soldiers had attacked Ulo just once. Ulo was partly deserted, because some people had fled after the single attack that killed twenty-five men.

–storytime —

Ezinne had approached Chibuogwu with a frown when she got home. “This is wrong, Nna anyi! First, you didn’t inform me that you’ll marry another woman. Second, you chase my eldest son away at such a violent time. You should tell me you want him dead. He even explained how he used the money; he used it to feed your new wife,” Ezinne said. She stood close to him, in front of the house. He sat on a stool. She lifted her hands and demonstrated with them. A hawk made some noise not too far away, and it sailed through the cool evening air.

“Ezinne, when did you become my male friend that I should tell you when I want to take a second wife?” he shouted. “Obi is my son, and as the father of the boy, I know how to handle him. Imagine that. When did women start questioning their husband’s authority?” He didn’t look at her; instead, he looked at the short palm tree at a far distance. He hissed.

— storytime —

Nna anyi, I’ll go back to my father’s house if you don’t allow my son to come back …”

“Ezinne, you can go back to your father’s house! Do you want me to kneel and beg you to stay?”

“And if I’m going, I’ll take my children with me, including the one in my womb now,” Ezinne said. She pulled her right ear, calmly. Her head bowed a little.

“You’re pregnant?” Chibuogwu looked at her. He looked away immediately. “Well, you can go back to your father’s house, but you dare not take my children. In our culture, the children belong to the man who pays the bride price, and not to the person who would soon become a whore.”

Ezinne’s head grew large, larger and larger, until she found peace in her father’s house. Chibuogwu, the almighty and all-knowing one, had killed her inside with his words. She sulked in their room that they now shared with the new wife whose name Ezinne didn’t care to know. The next day when he’d left for market, she had packed their things and told her children to follow her.

— storytime —

“Where are we going, Mama?” Chinwendu asked.

“We’re going to become refugees in my father’s house until the war ends. When the war ends, your brother will come back to us, and we’ll go to Enugu-Ngwo and seek a better life there,” Ezinne said. She looked at Mgbenkwor. Mgbenkwor was quiet as she helped in the packing, and Ezinne knew that she was the only child who understood the situation. Chinwendu didn’t see anything wrong in his father’s choice to take a new wife, and Ezinne thought maybe he was too young to understand or he was just like one of the men he’d grow into.

Ezinne’s father’s house wasn’t conducive for her, but she’d to manage until the war was over. Her brothers helped her start a moving war trade that required her to walk through village footpaths to Enugu-Ezike. She began to survive in the war and feed her children. Once in a while, some Nigerian soldiers wandered into Ulo, but they often saw no one, because an informant would tell the villagers before their arrival and the villagers would hide in the bushes or in covered underground pits. Chibuogwu had come towards the end of the war to take his children, and Ezinne’s brothers had told him to wait until after the war. Ezinne had told them to tell him that.

— storytime —

Towards the end of the war, when some villagers who had been refugees in far towns had come back with children of swollen stomachs and bony bodies, the news of Obi’s death came to Ezinne. A townsman, who also lived in Adani, brought it back with him. Obi and Ezinne’s sister had been shot by a drunken Nigerian soldier. The Nigerian soldier had staggered to their house at night, forced himself on her sister, told them to sing good Igbo songs for him, and then shot them. Kpowai. Kpowai.

Ezinne gave a loud cry, gnashed her teeth, held her head in her palms, fell to the ground and rolled. Obi, nearby, consoled her. “I’ll always be with you, Mama,” he said. “In Enugu-Ngwo or anywhere else.”

The End

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