Africa

Of Shrapnails, Kwashiorkor, and Rock ‘N’ Roll (excerpts from the author’s book in the making)

I  have always loved good music, and I have a very good ear for it. Already at a very tender age I could sing some of the songs by local artistes like the great philosopher Celestine Ukwu, the cardinal himself, Rex Jim Lawson, the great Emperor Erasmus Jenuwari.

Also those of others like Sir Victor Uwaifo, Victor Olaiya, Zeal Onyia, and the then doyen of Ibadan highlife scene, Eddy Okonta. I will also mention the great songs of visiting Ghanaian musicians I was privileged to watch on the then popular Ukonu,s club of the then Eastern Nigerian Television. Musicians like E.T. Mensah of ‘Day by Day’ fame, King Bruce of ‘Abasi Do’ fame. Classic highlife bands like the Uhuru Dance Band, and Ramblers Dance Band. Watching these bands play life on TV in the sixties left a great impression on me. I also knew a reasonable lot then about foreign musicians of American and European origin. Through the influence of my elder brother, who never lacked copies of Billboard, the leading music magazine of all time I was exposed to the music of great artistes like Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Aretha Franklin, Satchimo, Elvis and a host of others.

 Also nowadays, whenever I listen to the music of those days, (for I have a large collection of them) it gives me great solace. For as a child whom the war stole his youth, the growing up I knew and want to always remember were those up to when I turned 14, for I was forced to become an adult by the war at the age of 15.  

But that was before the war when growing up was fun, and peace reigned.

I was 14 and a third grader at the All Saints Grammar School Umunze, a new boarding school in a sleepy village. Although we knew all was not fine in the country at that time, we do not have the details, as we were more involved with the daily routines of boarding school life. But one evening, all these had to change. The schools emergency bell rang, and we were asked to gather at the school’s assembly hall. When the hall was called to order, our principal announced that the government of Eastern Nigeria, considering the hostilities going on in the country had ordered a temporary close down of all schools until further notice. For this reason, all students must vacate the school tomorrow.

People of Eastern Nigerian origin, especially Igbo people were fleeing from the north to the East. There had been a pogrom in the north resulting to the death of thousands of Igbo people. They were butchered in cold blood in a well-planed attack. Many met their death in their homes and places of work, others in the street, killed by their fellow countrymen of Hausa tribe, with knives, arrows, guns and dagger. The attack was code named Araba, a Hausa word meaning secession 

As a youth during the war I was exposed to a lot of things early in my life and I saw a hell of things and went through a lot that is not suitable for my age. Being a member of the junior red cross with a first aid certificate, I opted to work as a volunteer rather that stay in a an unfinished building where my parents and up to a dozen other families were taking refuge in a village in Achi near Oji river. For we were refugees at that time, we fled for safety when my home city Enugu fell. I worked as a volunteer helping wounded soldiers. That was not job for a kid. The trauma level was very high, but what can you do. People were dying everyday, they look up to you to help them. I remember a lot of occasions I had to run behind the hospital block where no one could notice and wail long enough to let off all the emotions about choking me. At one time I was serving at the Iyienu hospital in Ogidi, at that time Onitsha was under threat and it was just a few kilometres away, you can hear gunshots and shelling explosions already. Our casualty hall was overflowing with bodies, some dead; others fatally wounded and near dead. The hospital wards were so filled up that we had them on the stretchers they were brought in. The entire corridors of the hospital were filled with men groaning and begging for help. We practically had to stride over bodies lying in stretchers to attend to them. The doctors, oh, those brave young medical students turned full blown doctors. They had to make do in most cases, as there was lack of essential equipments and drugs. For us the volunteers we take instructions from the nurses and doctors. While many bodies lie on their stretchers on the floor, the doctors decide the most urgent cases to be given priority; cases deemed beyond salvage are left out. It was the duty of some of us the volunteers to give them their last comfort before they take their last breath. I remember once I was assigned to look after dying soldiers during one of such major offensives with high casualty. There was this heavily built guy who was almost cut into half by shrapnel. He would look up at me and smile between groans, he whispered to me not to worry, that he is fine, that everything will be all right, Biafra will vanquish. I knew he was going into delirium but still I could not keep my tears even as I am writing this.

Well, many may think that life in Biafra was just hardship and sufferings. No, there was in the mist of all the sufferings, arts and culture, music, and other forms of entertainment. Yes, not just ordinary performances, but those that met the standards of that time. Unfortunately no one documented this aspect. As an adventurous teen at that time, my interests drove my actions. While in Biafra I had the opportunity to watch some great performances of music and theatre. I also participated in some. In the late sixties, the in thing was rock music, and groups like Beatles, Rolling Stones, Monkeys, and others were the in things. Also singers like James Brown, Otis Redding, Wilson Picket and others ruled the airwave. Many bands playing the music of these reigning artistes and groups of that time abound in Biafra. There were bands like the Goddy Oku led Spokesmen which was formed in Enugu before the civil war started. There was also a band called the Hykers, an incredible band I first saw in concert at Achi in some Biafran army battalion headquarters, I cannot remember which battalion it was, but it was based in a secondary school opposite the Achi Joint Hospital. I watched this band do repertoires like James Browns hit classic, Please, Please, Please, and his other song ‘Good Loving’. That whole night I just stood transformed watching the band, oblivious of the crowd of soldiers rocking on the dance floor, sometimes nudging me here and there. They had this incredible vocalist. About 6ft plus tall guy, He had a way of bending over the mike for some reason I do not know, as he blasts with a typical rock vocal voice – Oh baby go, move, get away from me……………….    

He left a great impression on me. I later got to know his name. He was called Travis Oli, I just wonder where he could be now.

We shared an uncompleted building with twelve other families. The floor of the building was bare earth, and we had to cover the windows with cardboard. The building had one parlour and three rooms. The parlour was the largest space. At night we slept on mats spread on the floor, people numbering up to thirty, men, women, and children. It was a most uncomfortable arrangement, no privacy at all, but who needs privacy when lives are in danger?
 

My family took refuge at Achi town near Oji River after we fled from Enugu in a village called Agbadala. Like I mentioned in the first part of this write-up, we shared an uncompleted building with twelve other families. The floor of the building was bare earth, and we had to cover the windows with cardboard. The building had one parlour and three rooms. The parlour was the largest space. At night we slept on mats spread on the floor, people numbering up to thirty, men, women, and children. It was a most uncomfortable arrangement, no privacy at all, but who needs privacy when lives are in danger?

It did not take long for me to make friends in the village. We played football in a field near the house. We hunted grasshoppers, Swallow ‘Agwa’ a bird that is a delicacy in those parts. We also went gathering firewood in the forest. But of all the things we did during the short while I stayed in Achi, what I loved most, and devoted time to was learning to fashion knives, hoes and other working implements at the smith, which was abundant in Agbadala village. It was a new experience to me. It was common craftwork of the people and I found it fascinating, especially how kids my age, and even younger ones could beat the hell out of a piece of metal after heating it red hot, and fashion instruments out of them. I did learn fast. Even though the result of my final products were never as good as that of the local boys I was proud of them. I got praises from my parents and other adults in our makeshift camp. And that was very satisfying. When I was not making implements, I minded the echo, that is, the instrument used to keep the fire in the forge burning. That part I became an expert in. The echoes as they were called were locally fashioned out of the neck of a clay port sunk in a hollow that is connected to the forge through a pipe. The mouth of the clay pot is covered tightly with a rubber material cut out of the tube of a car tire. A long stick is then attaché in the middle of the tube and tied up in such a way that it does not allow air to escape. The echo makes a beautiful sound and if you are good at it, you can make beautiful and complex rhythm with it. I am naturally good with creating rhythms and I love doing that. This was why the echo was a handy tool for me. All the kids and adult smiths often enjoy having me blow the echo for them. We sang familiar songs to the beat of my echo, especially the Biafran solidarity songs which were very common in those days. It was great fun.

I was the kind of kid who is constantly seeking action. Back home in Enugu I had so much opportunities to do a lot of things that interested me, but here in a strange environment, I was grossly limited. The things I could busy myself with became more or less routine, giving way to boredom. And I hate routines. When that became the case, I knew it was time to seek new horizon. It happened by chance. One day, one of the bigger girls at the camp came home and announced that she was joining the red cross as a volunteer, and that she has been selected to go for a first aid course after which she will be sent on assignment. Wait a minute, I thought, after hearing this. I have been an active member of the junior Red Cross since I was eight. I attended three levels of first aid courses and was certified for all of them. I have been involved in first aid at almost every public event at the Enugu stadium, and when I came home at the close of schools due to the hostilities, I was a volunteer at the railway station taking care of returnees and victims of the pogrom. I cross-examined the girl to get more information about the whole process and she told me to go to the International Red Cross office at the Achi Joint Hospital. I went there, it was a makeshift office in a caravan.  And a few days later, I had my first assignment: Iyienu Hospital in Ogidi, near Onitsha. I remember vividly the day I came home to the refugee camp wearing my khaki fatigue pants with a Red Cross on a white background attached to its side pouch. The top uniform was a white T-shirt with a bold Red Cross badge across the chest and back. I also had a Red Cross arm band, and most importantly, an ID card with my passport photograph on it. Boy was I excited? All the kids and even some adults came to look me over. My playmates had envy written all over them. We all thought one thing, that I am in for some good time; how wrong we were, as I had to find out later that what I was about to embark on was something that will leave a deep mark on me for the rest of my life.

Watch out for more.

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