Good morning Story Tellers!!
Sector IV is a story set in the period of the Nigerian civil war. Capturing the hopes, fears and hearts of eye-witness participants is never easy but if anyone can do it, it’s Abigail Anaba.
She’s graciously given Stories the honor of publishing a preview to her upcoming novel. We are honored to present Sector IV: The Preview.
“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.”
― Mark Twain
The one half of the rising yellow sun sits bold on the line of the black strip dividing the red and green of the Biafra flag, as it bids welcome to anyone who steps into James’ compound. From within the compound, in the smaller house, if you could stop everyone from speaking and could strain your ear hard enough, you will hear a political jingle, heralding a radio broadcast. In the room, James’ almost six foot frame is huddled over, his ear next to one of the speakers of the Grundig Radio. He has turned the volume down low so as not to attract the attention of any of the guests within the compound. Okon Ndem is on the radio giving a situation report of the frontlines, his baritone voice creating a nuance that many other broadcasters seek to capture. “The Nigerian army is trying their best to take over Uli but their bombardment is like water poured on the tortoises’ back”. James chuckles at the comparison, glad that Biafra is holding her position and the soldiers are fighting gallantly. If they continued like this, victory is assured.”
James is glad that this day is already here: his daughter will be married off and he can finally leave to go do his part in protection of his fatherland. The words of the new national anthem play back in his mind:
“Hail to Biafra, consecrated nation, O fatherland,
This be our solemn pledge:
Defending thee shall be a dedication,
Spilling our blood we’ll count a privilege”.
He cannot wait to share in this privilege.
James frowns as the rising voices from outside the house catches his attention. He turns off the radio and steps out to investigate.
James’ compound is usually quiet. There are just three residents here: James, his wife Rofina who everyone calls Da Rofina and their daughter, Onyinyechi who is mostly in boarding school. But this day is different.
Some small children are standing around near the fence, their bellies and heads contesting for size. They have been attracted by the sound of music coming out of the record changer. Not like most of them are really in any condition to dance. Mostly, they are attracted by the promise of food, for where there is mmemme, there is food.
A woman walks purposefully to the stack of firewood near the front of the house from which James has just emerged and begins to sort them. At the far end of the compound, a pot is on the fire. And just a little way off, the source of the distraction that James heard.
Usually, it would have been a large pot with the unique smell of akpurapu mgbam, a delicacy made out of ground melon and the native usu balled with pepper, boiled stock fish and dry fish mixed with ukazi leaves and achara, oozing from it. They would also have had two muscled men pounding akpu in a big mortar, their pestles taking turns jabbing at the off-white mounds. But things are different. All they have is a smaller pot. The soup being made had no okporoko; getting fish in the pot was a miracle. Someone is turning the akpu in a pot on a separate fire which essentially made it not akpu.
“All I’m saying is that if you use taste to finish the whole soup, we will not have the one to give to our visitors”. The speaker is Rofina’s sister, Angelina, acting as supervisor of the women doing the cooking. The woman to whom she is directing her anger looks starved. You can count the veins on her forehead and tell the structure of the bones of her face from yards out but she stands defiant.
“Why should I not taste the food I am cooking? Eh Angelina? Should I finish cooking and call you to do the tasting?” She fires back.
“Yes, you should have called me. In fact, it is Rofina I blame. When your daughter was wedding two years ago, did you invite us? Did you not eat alone?”
James sees it is not a matter he should get involved in. This is woman’s matter, kitchen matter. He decides to find his wife instead. She will know how to calm the women. James casts a casual glance towards the entrance of his compound, the children a reminder that this war has to end soon. He has to go do his part.
Rofina is already heading towards the source of the noise and she and James meet half way. James shakes his head tiredly, Angelina’s bossiness is legendary. Rofina nods in understanding, a plea for patience in her eyes, as she hurries over to the scene of the brewing brawl.
Rofina is short and dark. She does not have a stitch of fat on her small frame and James always teases her with how if the war ever reached Nchara he would carry her in one hand and stave off the Nigerian soldiers with the other. Not like James is so big himself. He is just over 5’8” but has a broad chest and large arms.
IN THE middle of the compound stands the bigger hut made of red earth. James has a sentimental attachment to the design of this building. His father worked with a Portuguese mason to achieve the design. It is a work of art and he refuses to tear it down in favour of ulo block. It took his father and the Portuguese weeks of painstaking work to achieve the look of depth and shadow of real bricks. Yet, because he did not want people to think he cannot afford to, he built the smaller house of cement blocks where he listens to his Grundig radio and receives visitors.
Just in front of the hut, a few meters away, work men are setting up a tent of palm fronds and bamboo sticks. They stand the bamboo sticks as the upright and cover the top with palm fronds. The structure is just enough to keep out the blazing sun which is presently showing off its full December glory, but it will not be much help should it rain. Not that they are expecting any rains. Rofina has secretly consulted the village Dibia and after confirming that there will be no rain he said, “The end of a matter is better than its beginning. Onyinyechi will marry the man who loves her and her son will be birthed in her father’s compound”. Rofina had left assured nothing will go wrong at her daughter’s igba nkwu.
ONYINYECHI SITS on a kitchen stool in the large hut in the middle of the compound. Her transformation into the beautiful bride everyone expects to see unraveling by the second. The walls of the room in which she sits have been freshly plastered with red earth-the only redecoration her parents can afford at this time. Not like they are poor, but these days, money is becoming useless as Biafra is experiencing an economic blockade.
Onyinyechi thinks about the words of the Dibia and hopes he is right about the rain. The clouds seem to be getting darker or maybe it is just her eyes. Too bad, she is too far from school to find out what the forecast for the day is. She would have turned to her father’s radio but he has barred her from listening to the BBC not only because he is angry about Britain’s support for Nigeria against Biafra but also because he strongly believes that all the BBC has on the air is propaganda aimed at breaking the will of the Biafran people.
As for the invasion, Onyinyechi is aware that Nchara is not even on the Nigerian map. The village is just a small dot in the large Local Government Area called Bende, sharing a border with the Atans of Cross River. If Nigeria did not know they existed, how can they arrange to have them invaded? What was that, though, about her having her first child in her father’s compound? Not like it even gives her any cause for worry. She can have her first baby anywhere, as long as she has it.
Onyinyechi flinches as the hair dresser tugs at her hair. It is full and black and reaches beyond her shoulders, casting her oblong face and dimpled cheeks like that of mammy water – the local name for Mermaids. Is this not why she is the toast of all the men in Nchara? Since she came of age every young man has asked her hand but she has turned them down. She was waiting for the one and the moment she saw him, she knew he was the one.
Onyinyechi is fortunate that her parents are more liberal than most. Her father is the headmaster of the local mission school where her mother also teaches. They both know the importance of education and want their only daughter to get the best. Left to her father, she would have proceeded to Cambridge immediately after her secondary education but he doesn’t have that much money and she doesn’t think she is bright enough to get a scholarship. Now, with the ongoing war, she will never find out.
Onyinyechi and her father often argue far into the night about the necessity or otherwise of the war. Mostly, after listening to Radio Biafra, James will sit on his favourite chair and boast about the conquests of the soldiers. Onyinyechi will listen half-heartedly, while her mother claps each conquest. Onyinyechi did not care for the war. Yet, if not for the war that forced the closure of her school a year ago, she will never have found her Romeo, her knight in shining armour, the one she will call Nkem. In the midst of all the sadness around her, she is the happiest girl on earth because her parents are letting her marry him. Today, she will formally become Mrs Onyinyechi Duke Okwuadigbo and after the war, they will move back to Calabar or some other big town in the Coast where they will settle and she will pursue her dreams.
Though Onyinyechi lives in Biafra, her heart is in a myriad of other places. Duke has told her so much about Calabar: the sandy beaches and half-dressed white women. Those are mostly gone now, since the war started. There are so many places in Nigeria she has read about and wants to visit: Kano, Lagos, Jos, Sokoto…but if this war continues, even if Biafra wins, she may never be welcome in those places in her lifetime. She really wishes the war never started, that the coup and counter coup never happened. Onyinyechi cannot understand what will motivate neighbours who ate and drank together to suddenly turn against heard happened in the North. How can the sin of a group of soldiers who have signed up for death be visited on a whole population of people?
“What are you thinking?” Nwaeruruo asks.
Nwaeruruo is Onyinyechi’s childhood friend. She dropped out of school in Standard 5 because her parents could no longer afford to keep her in school and her services were needed at the farm. She married two years before and is presently halfway through her second pregnancy. She has come to spend the day with Onyinyechi and give her the customary moral support. An avid promoter of omenala and reader of deeper meaning into words, Nwaeruruo is more worried about the latter part of the Dibia’s prophecy. Unlike Onyinyechi, she believes that the Dibia’s prediction is negative and should not be taken lightly. More importantly, Nwaeruruo has a thing for ensuring that any project she starts is seen to a logical conclusion and today her project is ensuring that Onyinyechi looks her best. They are in a war but her friend is going to be the best possible wartime bride. She has tried to talk them into waiting till after the war before marrying but Onyinyechi will have nothing of it. So she has come with tiro and nzu and the jigida as her own contributions to the marriage attire. She wants the day to be perfect for her friend.
If she was asked a few weeks ago, she would have said the wedding would not hold, not because Duke and Onyinyechi did not love each other. In fact, she can see from Onyinyechi’s eyes that she will willingly move into Duke’s house right away even if he refuses to pay her bride price. Onyinyechi’s love for Duke is what worries her. If there is anything like too much love, it is happening before her very eyes and she had hoped her friend would have been freed of it by now. There is something about Duke she just cannot understand. He is just too perfect, too unreal. She catches Onyinyechi smiling and remembers her question is still unanswered.
“Are you going to answer me”, Nwaeruruo persists.
“I’m sorry”, Onyinyechi begins, “I got carried away”.
“Carried away by gini?”
Onyinyechi hoped that she will let go but Nwaeruruo is evidently is in one of her stubborn moods.
“It’s not really anything important”.
“Ehen, but I still want to know”.
It is time for Onyinyechi to make up a story–a story good enough to throw her friend off. The things that are going on in her head are so varied and so random that even if she decided to spill, it will leave Nwaeruruo confused and dazed. First, there is her secret, she and Duke’s. And then the love she feels so deep in her heart that all she wants to do is burst out in song even though she cannot really sing. Plus there is this other matter which keeps nagging in her mind; a tiny voice telling her she is making a mistake. She mutes the sound of that voice. As far as she is concerned, the moment she said ‘yes’ to Duke, it was ‘yes’ in heaven. Does not the Bible say that whatever a Christian binds on earth is already bound in heaven?
“Okwa, you know I am still waiting for you”.
Onyinyechi smiles, “Remember that time that Ndimele came to ask my hand in marriage?”
“Ndimele? Which Ndimele?”
“Dada Uluo’s Ndimele”.
“Oh oh…Is it that drunk you are remembering now?”
Onyinyechi lets out a laugh that sounds more like a chortle. “You know how the mind works. You will just be on your own and something will just enter”.
Nwaeruruo joins her in laughing. “He is married now o. But he is still a drunk”.
“Didn’t his mother marry for him?”
“Yes, she went to Azuiyi and found this girl who was willing. They even have a baby now”.
“Eh eh, I didn’t know”.
“You were in college that time”.
The hair dresser steps back as she finishes with Onyinyechi’s hair. Onyinyechi asked for Some Gaps just as Duke had shown her in the photo. After threading the hair leaving spaces in between, the hair is packed up so it looks like a jar and the neck is decorated with beads. The hairdresser has never done anything like this before but Onyinyechi knows how to give detailed descriptions and it comes out looking perfect. The hairdresser hands her a mirror and Onyinyechi examines the beautiful architecture. She is proud of what she is seeing.
“Yu laik a?” The hairdresser, Ije asks in Krio.
Ije is originally from Equitorial Guinea, but she married an Nchara man and he brought her back to the village to set up house. She and her husband run a provision store at the village square. He took ill a while back. Some rumours say it is emereme being that his bothers are jealous of him. Ije has had to keep running the shop while nursing him-not like there was much left in the shop to run. But today, she has left her husband’s side to help Onyinyechi with her hair. She and Onyinyechi are good friends mostly because Onyinyechi is one of the few people who even tries to understand her language. When she and her husband speak Krio, Onyinyechi describes it as the sound of rain falling on a tin roof.
Ije is the hair dresser of choice for the villagers as there is no style you describe to her that she cannot reproduce. The problem is in the describing. Her Igbo is not that good and her English is worse, so one ends up explaining with a mixture of hand gestures and diagrams.
“It is beautiful,” Onyinyechi finally responds.
Ije smiles, happy she has satisfied another customer. It is not always about the money but the satisfaction she derives from making customers happy. Onyinyechi is going to be a beautiful bride.
“Did you just say beautiful?” Nwaeruruo cuts in. “This is the beautifullest hair I have ever seen”.
“There is nothing like beautifullest”, Onyinyechi chides her friend as she laughs good-naturedly. The laughter attracts the attention of her mother who is passing by.
Rofina stands at the entrance of the hut looking at her daughter, the tears brimming in her eyes.
“Mama, don’t start”, Onyinyechi warns. “Except you want us all to break into a chorus of crying”.
Rofina wipes away the tears in her eyes with the edge of her wrapper.
“You remind me of my little sister…the one that was taken before her time”. Rofina makes the sign of the cross. “And imara mma. You are beautiful my daughter. Look at what Duke is coming to carry ooo,” Rofina shouts.
Other women are attracted by her shout and they peep through the window to catch a glimpse of the hair.
“Quickly, cover it with nchafu”, Nwaeruruo urges.
Ije smiles in understanding and throws a scarf over the hair leaving a few disappointed faces at the window.
Rofina begins to walk out of the door to attend to other matters but stops as she sees one of her in-laws to-be speaking animatedly with her husband. James is wearing a grave look, a look that has no place in the festive atmosphere around them.
“Is that not Duke’s brother?” Rofina asks.
Onyinyechi rises and peeps through the door.
“Yes, he is the one…what is he doing here?”
None of the women can come up with a good reason why Duke’s brother should be there. If Duke’s family had decided to send an advance party for any reason, it would certainly not be one person. Besides this is Duke’s younger brother. Even though Duke’s father is late, he has an older uncle who he now calls father. Onyinyechi has met him a number of times when she goes visiting Duke’s village with Nwaeruruo.
James and Duke’s brother begin to walk towards the room and Rofina is even more confused.
“They are coming here”, she informs her audience.
“Should I go into the inner room”, Onyinyechi asks.
“Yes,” Rofina resplies.
The ladies head inside just as James and Duke’s brother enter the room.
Rofina searches her husband’s face, a sudden feeling of trepidation overtaking her. She remembers the premonition she had when she woke this morning. As she came out of her room she hit her left foot against an obstacle and almost fell. She had felt an overwhelming need to go back and walk that path again. She hadn’t.
“The news is not good,” James affirms her suspicion.
Rofina holds her breath, willing James to speak as she braces herself for the worst. Perhaps, Duke has decided to call off the marriage. They had sent the list along with a note that whatever he can bring is fine. This is no time to insist on anything. They also talked to Duke himself. But maybe he is too ashamed to say he has nothing. Even then, who is it that does not know this is wartime? James himself had to call in plenty of favours in order to be able to have the meal ready for his visitors. Besides, one never really finishes paying the bride price. The war will end and he can do more when he wishes.
James lets out a deep sigh, “Duke is dead”.
Pre-orders for Sector IV, Abigail’s first novel, begin on June 15. The novel hits book stores on June 30.