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The Oil Of Our Blood (Freedom is coming; Tomorrow)
A teenage girl Ihemanma is threatened by the devastating news about her mother's health.
My hands trembled as I let the phone fall carelessly on my roughly made bed on a Tuesday morning. My nerves ran a shock up and through my body; like the magnifying feeling of hearing a sad song in the heat of a depressing mood. My hand stiff; like an unripe plantain’s stern. My palm going moist, like the feel of pouring rain on a maize leaf.
I shared a room with my siblings, Kelechi; my 18year old brother, who studied part-time Business studies at the Yaba College of Education, while working for a pure water factory in Maryland; a tall dark boy, with a voice so deep, it could make a baby cry. His legs were formed in a way it curved a bow as he walked or stood erect. Chidera; My sister, who tried continuously had to move further than SS2 at the Government school close to our mothers shop. A girl of perfect frame, with a low cut and rather noticing forehead. She was an average height with black spots visible through the scanty hairs growing on her legs. She had carried a pair of basket ball shorts—irrespective of the way boys on our street laughed at her for being too hairy. She once threw a stone at a boy, whose mother sold provisions on the street behind us for referring to her as an ape with round breasts--and a blouse, unseemly normal for the seminar she told us she had after school into her school bag before leaving the house. She also painted her nails green the night before; the color of the fungi on the walls of our bathroom.
Our house was a small apartment with no flowers or beautiful paintings. It was a faded cream colored house, on a very busy street in Obanikoro; with naked wines entangled into each other, making the birds have different location asides the windows of our living room. The houses opposite ours were occupied with lots of families sharing a room and the stench from each house increased as the women gave birth to more children. The Yoruba people were kind to us; letting us borrow their cutlass and rakes after they were through with it on environmental Saturdays. We used it to take care of the stubborn weeds that grew occasional, behind our house and in the dry gutter, right in front of the building. We also thought them how to cook stew with palm oil and kernel when the price of groundnut oil and tomatoes hiked.
“Hello is this Ihemanma?” the male voice on the other line had said.
“Yes, this is she.” I said bending my neck to rest the phone on my shoulders, while I brushed my hair. “Who am I speaking to please?
“My name is Dr Kenneth from House of Grace Hospital Palmgroove” He said as he cleared his throat. He sounded like he had a cold or couldn’t wait to drop the phone to continue having his food. “I don’t know how to put it but….”
I imagined him pausing to send one spoon to his mouth again. He must be married; and his wife must be a delicious cook just like mama “Yes, I’m hearing. What is it”? I had grasped the phone firmly with my right hand; pulling my hair to a ponytail.
“Well, your mother collapsed” He answered; Sounding more ascertain. “I’m sorry, I went to the restaurant to buy my lunch and she just collapsed”. After a second pause, he continued “I had to bring her here. She insisted that I call you and said you should go and take care of the shop, that her houseboy…”
I hung up and ran out through the door leaving the keys under the foot mat.
As I walked 5miles to my mother’s restaurant I thought about her and the way she must be feeling. A rush of negative thoughts overwhelmed me and I questioned her not wanting to see me yet till I’m done with the shop. Could she be dying this time around? Am I making the right decision by listening to her and not going to the hospital? It wasn’t a surprise to me. I knew my mother has been suffering from Asthma since the first day she lost her breath in the PTA meeting of my primary school, 3years ago. My best friend; whose mother worked in a bank and lived in a 5bedroom duplex on the island; had gone home to research on the internet. After she told me all the symptoms and I drew the lines connecting it to what Mama has been experiencing.
“Ihe, I’m very sorry, but I think your mother might be dying.” Crystal said, giving me a white sheet of paper, with information written in black ink “Here, this will help you understand better. She doesn’t have enough time” I slapped her—why I did that; I don’t know. I just felt so much anger that I had to explode it on her for being the one to tell me that mama was soon going to join papa--and we never spoke again till the end of primary 6. Two years later I heard she died of Asthma.
Filled with the frenetic restlessness of my 15years, I ran almost half the journey in the brisk air. The sun reflected and made the green flowers brighter; I hadn’t noticed the flowers before. I reduced the pace of my steps as I pulled into the street. The okada riders swinging through a slice of space between yellow buses and private cars only made me more nervous. The honks from impatient drivers on a traffic light and excruciating heat from the sun light began to give me a headache. I walked into my mother’s shop where she sold beer, cigarette, nkwo-bi, isi-ewu and pepper soup to men who had nothing better to live for than a stick of cigarette and a strange woman caressing their belle while listening to Igbo high-life or discussing politics. I promised myself each day that I will be an Advocate for women’s right; at least get the girls who came to the restaurant --wearing bare clothing to cover only their breasts and leave their navel in the cold-- receive education to a certain level and guide their dignity with heads held high.
My mother’s shop was next to a big orange tree, and a small wooden plank went across the gutter to make an entrance. There was a mat, with “Jesus is Lord” but the rat that came from the gutters had taken away all the “s” in the phrase. There were plastic white chairs and tables; some were pure white and others had brands of Telephone companies on them. It was a large space and had posters of Guinness, Benson & Hedges and a large picture of Mary; the mother of Jesus. Under the frame had “Anuis deiu qui tobis necatar mundi dona nobis pacem” written on it in italics. There was an old lady, just across the shop who sold recharge cards under an umbrella that kept making faces at the women who came out from big cars with old men and walked into the shop with their hands around their waist. At the right corner of the shop, were chairs made out of black leather and had aluminum legs. It was marked “VIP” with a red marker and a white cardboard, which was placed with a yellow tape and had traces of cob-webs. The customers over there all looked wealthy and important, the men dressed in suits and native attires from expensive Ankara. Each table was clothed in a sparkling white tablecloth and I just knew I was going to spill things on all these people’s laps. There was also a little radio in the center of the restaurant, on a table where a small saucer with toothpicks and a big sized “Morning Fresh” was placed. The walls were a faded white color with rough dots on it.
An old Yoruba looking man; the head shop boy, showed me the layout of the kitchen and the drinks section, a flat metal blue table stacked with dirty plates. He flung the dirty utensils, forks and knives with fury into this gray murky basin of water with a discolored look and rough chunk of yellow mattress sinking deep. Some of the utensils first ricocheted off the wall. There was no way I was going to copy his style. I cleared dirty dishes from the table into an empty cartoon of Guilder beer, learning to balance it with my hands as I lifted it to a table, vaguely stained with the blackness of a burnt bottom pot.
“Does this goat head have any onions in it?” The old man who came with the fair girl wearing jeans so low; I could trace the hole in her buttocks from the revealing line, asked frowning at the steam; coming from the plate with pieces of vegetables and substances; the color of light purple. “I’m very allergic to onions”
“Of course there is” Pointing to the light purple substances chopped in circles.
He shook his head in disagreement.
“Allergic to onions? I didn’t even know there was such a thing” I said as I rolled my eyes at the girl next to him; so furiously my eyelashes threatened to fall off.
The Yoruba man had come from my back, cleaning his hands on the much stained apron he wore. I wondered why he thought that doing so will make it clean; when he only made it more dirty.
“Yes sir, it has.” He said, taking the plate away from the table, handling it over to me while giving me a look. I opened my mouth and left it for more than a second; wandering what I did wrong to receive such wicked stares.
“Can we get you pepper soup?” The Yoruba man said. As he signaled to me by pushing his head to the direction of the kitchen. “We have it very hot and that would be much better, considering the clouds raging from a distance. Don’t you think?”
From the wooden door in the kitchen, hanged downwards; leaving the up open to take orders from customer, I saw the fair girl rush to sit on his lap in something that looked like anxiety. “That big fool” I thought in my mind. How could she be excited while sleeping with someone old enough to retire to the village? She has no shame to even lock her lips on his in public. Mama will kill me if my ghost ever thought of doing this. The Old man brought out a bundle of 500naira notes as I watched the Yoruba man, smile sheepishly and gaze on the space in between the fair girl’s breast before walking towards the kitchen.
“All these Igbo men that earned a living from duping people at the Alaba International Market” I thought to myself. They only know how to spend it like goats eating leaves; never expecting to get hungry with the abundance of trees everywhere.
My brother Kelechi; had said “That is the only place where an Igbo man is the king in this whole Lagos” when we talked about how much damage; the fake DVD CDS have caused our DVD players.
“I do not know what they hope to gain, deceiving people” I had said with so much agony in my voice.
“Deceiving people you say?” He asked, while seating up on our 6x6 mattress, which lay in the center of a large and empty room.
“Yes. We bought this CD at 150naira. It hasn’t played enough for me to read the title on the TV screen before it starts to crack”
Iwas very angry; it was 3weeks after Christmas and my late father’s brother had given me the money to buy knockout. I felt it was a waste of money; literally lighting a match to a piece of value, so I put it in an old used tin of Milo and kept it for 15days. I was extremely terrified when the CD didn’t play above 30seconds.
“That is how they make their money” He said as he killed the mosquito perching on his lap and showed me how much blood it had sucked and began to laugh “The economy is tough. Nobody is keeping his or her feeling in the comfort of their heart. Every human conscience has jumped out of our bones; man is against man for the quest to have pieces of papers with another fellow man’s picture on it. We are their mumu’s for today” He said and clapped his hands into the air.
“So in other words you’re on team corruption?” I asked, making my way to the cupboard to get out Baygon.
“Don’t be paranoid”. He said as he closed the windows that made noises like sounds heard at an accident scene.
“I’m just saying this is Nigeria; any opportunity to make ends meet must be utilized. Nobody gives a kobo and half to what you think about their decisions, they make their money, spend it on Mama’s shop and end up putting clothes on our body, tattered roofs over our head and bed bug ridden pillows under our neck” He said as we laughed at his attempt to doubt my ability to wash away sketches of saliva on our pillows properly.
“And besides, my girlfriend’s brother owns a shop there”. He added before we left the room as the choking smell of the insecticide, smoked across.
The light breeze from the open window sent chills running up and down my spine. It’s not that the air was cold for a January day; it was rather warm in fact. It’s just that my nerves were so fragile, so on-edge, that any more unexpected movement up and down this building will quench my beating heart. The evening came in no time, the sun was varnished and the chipping of birds in the air ceased. I had stayed in my mother’s shop for almost 7hours and my sister; chidera who was supposed to meet me after school and help out was nowhere to be found. I went and sat close to the table---the finest girls that escorted the rich men were---on a small stool made of old brown wood. They wore fancy shoes and their hair smelled nice; like bubble gum. The table was surrounded with 6 men; only one of them didn’t have an underage girl feeding him suya with a tooth pick as they talked and drank beer with the ground filled with cigarette butts. Their discussion eluded my attention.
The man who wore a white Senegalese native and drove in a Mercedes jeep talked the loudest with a heavy Igbo accent “We must do everything within our power to avert the dangers that loomed ahead for Biafrans, the threat of extermination of our history. What Nigeria as a country has failed to achieve is there for the whole world to see. We have made certain mistakes in the course of this journey; these are mistakes of the head and never of the heart. “He said as he banged the table to ruffle the white tablecloth that was now a pale brown from all the alcohol spilled on it “We must be able to overcome the greater interest of our people in mind”
I closed the novel I was engaged in and rested my jaw on my palm.
”We will never forget our history and the souls of all our lost heroes and heroines” Said the man wearing a black cowboy hat. His own girlfriend was very ugly and when she smiled, her tongue was visible through the large gap in-between her tooth “Not only those that died between 67-70, but for all that have lost their lives during the curse of our freedom. We are coming towards the end of the tunnel and there’s a bright light there”
“This shouldn’t be about the Igbos alone. The mistakes were made by us all and we are now repeating them again, we can live together. We are human beings. No more war so that the blood of those shed in the past will not be in vain” argued the man with the tribal mark on his cheek.
“We need our own nation Period” said another man while standing. “If southern Sudan can vote for a referendum, why can’t Biafrans vote? Our independence is long overdue. We are not Nigerians; rather Nigerians are our neighbors”.
A light noise arose from the statement the light skinned man, wearing a black suit and a white shoe that curved up to a pointed edge; just made. Everyone spoke at the same time and nobody heard the sound of their voices. The man that has been awfully quiet since he received a phone call and screamed at the person on the other line for delaying the arrival of his container stood up and waved his hands low to signal peace. His voice later gained supremacy and he spoke;
“It is not by raising our arms. It shouldn’t be. Our males are gone. We say no to war. If we dare again; Biafran’s show will be a child’s play to what we will see.”
The light skinned man got furious once again and pushed the girl seating on his lap; the girl with a short weave, wearing an halter neck blouse. “You sound like your ancestors are Yoruba. You sound too weak to be an Igbo man” He said as he shook his head in disappointment. “You should know that we are remembering our lost soldiers that made us heroes today, so I don’t see the reason you should wildly jump out from nowhere and ask serious men to go and rest”
“You are getting me wrong, Adindu,” The container business man said.” Biafra can never be history in our minds. It keeps coming in our everyday life. Even right here. Indeed they live, because to live in the heart of those who loves you is not death. Thus, they live; they are only asleep because they choose to pave our way. They choose to light our today with the oil of their bloods.”
“Look, Chief Okafor, the level of fear and intimidation they imposed on us in those days made us to remain marginalized even in the place we called our own. It is quite obvious we cannot pair with the Nigerians. Never!! Biafra will resurrect.” Adindu replied.
“I understand that the failures of Nigeria as a nation have increased calls for Biafra to be resurrected but I’m saying; Please, let us not get carried away” Chief Okafor said with a glass of beer in his hand:
“Biafra is not utopia. If we do get the Biafra that existed from May 67 to January 70; will the Ijaw, The Andoni, the Okirika, The Efik, The Ibibio and the smaller relative to the Igbo ethnic groups be accepted as equals to us?” He added as he counted his fingers while mentioning. “Will we not remember their alleged roles as saboteurs in the past? If on the other hand, Biafra is created from existing Igbo territory only, Can we cope without having a port? For my containers?
Everyone released a loud laugh at his selfishness. Chief Okafor continued:
“Being landlocked comes with many challenges. Also, how much influence will those Igbo men and women---who have all credibility by betraying their kith and kin for the mess of a hurriedly cooked porridge served by the elite---have in Biafra? He concluded.
The man who drove in the Mercedes jeep got the attention of the table. “All these noise you people are making is of no use. Remember Major Adekunle? A premeditated cold blooded serial killer who was personally responsible for the death of over 100,000 Ibos and walked away a free man in the end. That’s the problem. The fundamental problem of Nigeria; bad guys always win.” He said as he threw his hands to the air toward the direction of the man wearing a black suit “Ubochi, do you agree with me?”
“It’s a lesson we must learn from; a mirror we must watch too. Because of the absence of one language; love.” Ubochi said as he cut a piece of his meat with his hand and licked his fingers to a sound. “It’s the absence of love that brought about this great loss of heroes. I pray the Lord will grant eternal rest to all these martyrs of love, that their seeds will be manifested in this rotten world where hatred; leading to religious crisis has become a threat to humanity” He said with sympathy as he stretched his hand across the table to get toothpick from a saucer. The man seating on the chair adjacent to his; helped him and Ubochi smiled and said to him:
“Ikenna, you are awfully quiet today. I’m sure you cannot wait to go and ravish this smashing beauty. Or have you forgotten what Biafra is?”
Everyone laughed as if it was rehearsed; Even the ravishing beauty.
“How can I forget the war that claimed seven of my uncles, leaving only my dad to fend for his family? 40years has passed but it is still fresh like yesterday” He exclaimed as I looked at the “ravishing beauty” .she had a very big nose and looked like the girls that had their bathes at the village streams during Christmas. The very shameless type of girls. “How can I forget the innocent children massacred; Biafran’s brightest? Each time I remember the war, I weep for my dear people. The ultimate price paid by our dear heroes and the bravely of our fighters were in vein.” He signaled for a backup recital of “Abi” or “chai’—commonly said as a sign of agreement or support. When he got none; he proceeded:
”The situation that led to the war still subsists. An Igbo man is still viewed with suspicion by other members of the unholy and forced alliance called Nigeria. The roads in the south east are in shambles. No Igbo man has been found worthy to lead the country. We are, even at that; still loathed and envied like the Jews”. He said with a bit of fury and kept quiet for a moment, dipping his hands into his pocket to bring out what looked like a “was-white” handkerchief. The silence was broken with a rehearsed “abi o”. A smiled escaped the brace of his chin and he continued. “The worst is that we have continued to fight ourselves so hard too that others take us for granted’
The toads had started crocking in the gutters; flooded with water, used in washing dishes and empty cans and packets of cigarettes. The stars spread abroad the blue sky; sending down crystal linings on aluminum roofs. The only place still occupied in the entire restaurant was the “VIP” section. I felt a sudden tap caress my shoulder. It was strong and masculine. It was the old Yoruba man. The head shop boy.
“I think you should go home” He said as he stretched his hand out to take my apron. His was remarkably clean at night; but the sun revealed all the dirt on the carton-colored apron in the day.
I looked at the men across the table and listened further. Adindu was speaking with smoke burning from the cigarette in his right hand;
“One thing that just came to my mind is the songs of these great heroes that say (if I die; just pick up my boot and gun and keep fighting, till we conquer the enemy). What a great sacrifice. But I strongly believe that one day; this great foundation which lay with the blood of these great heroes shall give our children liberty.”Adindu said as he released the smoke from his mouth.
“Adindu, tell everyone who needs to hear, that the reason why there is endless bloodletting and violence in Nigeria is because those that incited and committed genocide to our kith and kins in the late 60’s were neither tried nor punished, instead they were given national honors, political appointments and huge contracts” Ikenna added as he poured more beer into his glass and watched the empty bottle roll on the ground as he dropped it.
“Well, in my opinion, for genocide to happen there must be a certain preconditions; foremost among them is a national culture that does not place a high value on human life. It has little or nothing to do with….” The Yoruba man; Femi suggested.
He was brutally cut short when Ikenna gulped his beer to a stop and said “Yes, a totalitarian society; with its assumed superior ideology is also a precondition for genocide acts. In addition, members of the dominant society must perceive their potential victims as less than fully human; as infidels, unbelievers, effete, degenerates, and racial inferiors. In themselves, these conditions are still not enough for the perpetrators to commit genocide”
Everyone on the table chorused “It’s true”; after which Femi quickly tried to make his point heard to a full stop:
“To commit genocide—the perpetrators need a strong centralized authority too and bureaucratic organization as well as pathological individuals and criminals….” Femi continued.
“Also required is a campaign of vilification and dehumanization of the victims by the perpetrators, who are usually new states or new regimes attempting to impose conformity to a new ideology and its model of society” Adindu chipped in as he checked his wristwatch and gave a sign to his girlfriend. She stood up almost immediately, leaving a nearly empty bottle of Gordon Spark on the table.
“My happiness is that one day; Biafra will be a sovereign state. It will happen soon. That is only when our brothers and sisters, who were brutally slaughtered, massacred by Nigerians and their foreign accomplices, can rest in peace. The killing of the Biafrans was the first genocide in Africa. We must be free one day” Chief Okafor said as he raised his almost empty glass of beer in the air.
“Note; the new Biafra is only for Ibo speaking areas. We don’t need saboteurs. Unity by force is slavery” He added as he looked at the man with the tribal mark and laughed.
“Ihemanma!!’ The Yoruba man hit me even harder on my shoulder. “I said you should go home now. Don’t worry, I will lock up when they leave” He said; pointing to their direction
“Are these men going to be here tomorrow?” I asked
“Oh, they are regulars. They will surely be here in the evening, after a tiring day at work. Why? Is there a problem?” He asked with an inch of concern clouding his voice.
I smiled at him. I couldn’t wait to continue the discussion tomorrow with the men in the VIP section. I will advise my mother to get more rest and I will spend each day of my JSS3’s long vacation in this restaurant; listening to the men at the VIP section talk about Biafra and how soon enough; we will all unite and have Nigerians as our neighbors. I will not borrow anything from our neighbor---Mrs Ogudimu, and when the rain is falling, I will lean on the window and I will watch her laundry---which was spread on the long twine rope outside---get soaked. I will know the names of the girls the old men came with and I will make sure they take me to their hair salon. I will learn about Biafra and I will come with a jotter and pen and seat on a low stool close to their table to hear the words their Igbo accents made sound funny. I will make sure I’m the one to serve drinks to their tables each evening, but any attempt they make to place their hands on my hips; like they did to the other girls, will only make their white hair wet and smell of beer.
“Are you okay?” He asked when I kept smiling at him without saying a word.
“Yes, I’m okay. I’m free” I replied. “Very free. I feel like a bird in the sky and a chicken in summer sun; not scared of being slaughtered. Free” I added.
“Okay fine. Start going home now; I wouldn’t want you getting into any form of danger. I don’t have liver to explain to your mother” he said as I walked him by.
As I crossed the wooden plank that was used to make an entrance into Mama’s restaurant, I heard him say “By the way; my name is Kunle”
I thought quickly about the Major Adekunle who killed thousands of people in the war. The way the light skinned man’s brow was soaked in sweat each time he talked about Major Adeekunle. His heartlessness was vividly paste on my mind and I turned back to him and said;
“I really don’t care”
After he turned his back and made his way into the kitchen; to start turning off the light bulbs, that were attracting flying insects, I ran fast into the street, that was now quiet like the mass graves of the victims of the Biafra war as the thunder roared and the rain began to pour.
In my SS1, I had grown weary of the fight and struggle of fitting in with the “Nigerians”, waiting for my beloved Biafra to walk out from its open tomb. I was waiting for the sound of a new anthem and the colors of a new flag. I have painted an imaginary flag in the back of all my notes and in the middle; I painted red—the oil of our bloods. I got a scholarship in a private boarding school that was located outside Lagos; in Ibadan to be precise and I hated every Yoruba I came across. I once poured paint from fine arts class on the clothes of the group of girls who spoke Yoruba fluently during lunch; when they spread out their laundry. I found a new role as an outcast, who rebelled against everything, those thin rich girls who lived in the island and went to England for summer holidays stood for. I spoke out against Catholicism in my catholic school. I joined the literary magazine while they played hockey during weekends. I copied notes only in government classes. I dyed my hair purple; the color of fresh onions, while they bleached their roots and on my locker—both in the hostel and in the class, I wrote boldly in italics with a red oily ink “Freedom is coming; Tomorrow
1 Claim: Originally written by Nigerian Fiction member 240 - Edithsmiles (Kecy Francis-Anosike)
2 Nigerian Fiction Title 113