As a child, the story of the Biafra war never struck me as a tragedy or a very sad tale.
I guess my mind was never able to grasp the full import of the war or what really happened in Biafra.
My Mum was rather young when the war was fought; 8 years when it started and 11 years when it ended but she was old enough to have experienced the terribleness and would always say: agha ajoka, wars are bad.
She would describe the bombings, imitating the sounds of the planes called “fighter na bomber” gbum gbum gbum gbum.
She also talked about Bunkers, the underground escape houses where they usually ran in to hide when the bombings started.
The houses were like wells, dug into the ground and the top covered with palms branches scattered all over such that it looked like a farm. My maternal grandpa had one of those in his house.
But the best part of her stories was the song, the song they sang during the war. It captured a bit of the sufferings of the people while conveying a bit of their sentiments at that time.
The first four lines of the song talks about eating stockfish and corn meal, while asking that cassava leaves be included in the soup to help prevent Kwashiorkor; a protein deficiency disease prevalent during the war. The Nigerian soldiers had blocked the food supplies of the Biafrans hence a lot of the children had protruded bellies, big heads and very skinny bodies, all signs of the illness.
The 5th line was a cry against Red Cross, the society was said to have worked with Nigeria against Biafra during the war, though they were treating Biafran wounded soldiers.
The sixth line referred to the long trips to Aba to bring food items like Garri. I remember stories of my Dad trekking from Anambra to Nsukka, a journey of several thousand miles to get beans and then resell.
The 7th, 8th & 9th lines convey prophetic doom on the Hausa soldiers from Nigeria, Gowon and his wife, declaring solemnly that she would get pregnant from Kwashiorkor and give birth to Fighter and Bomber jets that would be used to destroy Nigeria.
Unu elisigo Okporoko
Unu elisigo corn mealu
Welu abuba akpu sielu anyi ofe
Maka Kwashiorkor emee tu anyi o!
Red Cross gbakwa oku
K’anyi jee n’Aba bute nni garri bunye ndi Kwashiorkor
Ogbunigwe chuba ndi Hausa, Gowon agba kpuo na Bunker
Bunker zedo Gowon
Nwunye Gowon atua ime Kwashiorkor
Ife o ga amu fighter na bomber
A ga-eji tugbu ndi Nigeria
Aha ya anti-kwashiokor
Not the kind of song you would want to sing but this showed the predominant thoughts of the oppressed Biafrans during the war and beyond and I’m certain that anyone who lived through or heard stories of that Civil war or any war at that would not desire another.
A smile that must mirror that of my Mum when she talked about her Dad.
Now the smile gets even broader.
You see, I didn’t get to meet my GrandFather, Chief James Enechukwu, but I heard so much about him and ofcourse saw his pictures and if I must say, he was quite handsome and my Mum has some resemblance to him.
My GrandFather must have been a good man, not because he’s my GrandPa, no, not at all but like my Mum would say; 40 years and more after his death, his name was still opening doors for them.
We grew up hearing my Mum and her sisters refer to themselves as “Umu James Enechukwu”, they were proud to be his children, this is not withstanding the fact that he passed on quite early; when my Mum was about 12 years old.
Chief James Enechukwu was not only a devout Christian and a wealthy businessman, he also had the renowned position of being the Treasurer of St. Dominic’s Catholic Church in my hometown; Uke, Idemili North Local Government Area, Anambra State.
I remember one day, in a conversation with my husband in our sitting room, my Mum would talk about how good their Dad was to their Mum, his godly attitude and she would add with this proud look on her face; i makwa na Papa m bu treasurer? Did you know my Father was the Church treasurer?
Being a treasurer these days would mainly be a book keeping role as monies are expected to be deposited in the bank but this was not so in the 60’s. This meant that my GrandDad had access to Church funds and must have kept such a good account of it that he earned quite a reputation.
Moreso, he was a key player in the construction of the Church building in my hometown. About 50 years after his passing, as the Church dedicated it’s renovated building, Pa James Enechukwu’s name was listed in the Church brochure for his exemplary role. My Aunty, Mrs. Virginia Obi narrated this with mixed feelings as this was shortly after my Mum’s passing.
Back in the days, when there were no well written books on how to be a good Dad, my GrandPa chose to live right and modeled same to his children; those who were old enough to understand. This goes to say that being a good parent is more in the way you live your life, how you treat people, including your spouse and ofcourse your children.
The lockdown that came with the Corona Virus pandemic turned a lot of parents into Homeschoolers, without any option.
However, long before homeschooling had a name in Nigeria, our mothers did it.
Here’s a part of my Mother’s story, the much I can remember.
The traditional way of learning in Igbo land, long before the advent of slates and later on, paper was orally.
A huge part of the lessons were communicated through stories and chants and songs.
In the eighties and early nineties, when a child could only go to school at the age of three years and above, most children were taught at home by their mothers and caregivers.
Was the education formal? I doubt it.
Most of our schooling took place on the verandah, in the evenings, lying down or sitting on mats spread out. My Mum taught us the poems and the chants all in Igbo;
London Bridge (Igbo version)
Ogige mmili London na-ado
Ogige mmili London na-ado
London bridge is falling down,
London bridge is falling down
My fair lady.
Three Blind Mice: Igbo Version
Oke ito kpulu isi,
Nee ka fa si agba oso,
Fa gbakwulu nwunye onye olugbo,
O welu nma di nko wee bee odu fa,
I fugo ife di etu a n’enu uwa nke a,
Ka oke ito kpulu isi, Oke ito!
Three blind Mice,
See how they run,
They ran to the Farmer’s wife
She cut of their tails with a carving knife
Have you ever seen such a thing like this?
As three blind mice
The Rat in Jack’s House
Nee nu anya, nee nu anya
N’ime uno nke Jacki lu lu
N’ime uno nke Jacki lu lu,
Onwelu ofu, o bele oke
Nke na-atapu akpa woolu
Nke di n’uno, unoooo nke Jacki lu lu
Look at the house that Jack built,
inside the house, there’s a small rat,
That eats the woolen sac,
Inside the house that Jack built.
And the Zoology class, taken in a song:
Chant: One anu nwe ukwu ano (Which animal has four legs?) Response: Nwe ukwu ano (Has four legs)
(Repeat first chant and response)
Chant: Ewu nwe ukwu ano (The Goat has four legs) Response: Nwe Ukwu ano (Has four legs)
(And each participant would take their turn and remember an animal that has four legs. And then, the song changes to two legs and then to which animal has hair and then to animals that fly)
Chant: One any nwe ukwu abuo? (Which animal has two legs) Response: Nwe ukwu abuo (Has two legs)
Chant: Okuko nwe ukwu abuo (The fowl has two legs) Response: Nwe ukwu abuo (Has two legs)
Chant: One anu nwe aji (Which animal has hair/fur) Response: Nwe aji, nwe aji (Has hair)
Chant: Nkita nwe aji (The dog has hair) Response: Nwe aji, nwe aji (Has hair)
Chant: One anu na-efe efe (Which animal can fly) Response: Na-efe efe (Can fly)
Chant: Egbe na-efe efe (The Eagle can fly) Response: Na efe-efe
And on and on
Let me add that these poems were chanted with the full theatrics and demonstrations, my Mum would dramatize them as much as she could and we would follow suit.
In the course of having children, my Mum went to Teachers Training College, got her certification and did some teaching practice.
I remember when our school proprietress said that my younger brother would need extra tutoring to catch up, my Mum set-up a blackboard on the same verandah and taught my brother until he was up to par as required to move to the next class.
Then there was the storytelling; on the verandah, the sitting room and wherever the occasion demands.
In the later years, you could just ask her a question and she would start with “O ro mgbeee…” “What is it not when?…” with her face slightly tilted up and her hands positioned as she tried to remember and at that point, we’ll literally adjust for the next story.
And just like every Mum taught their daughters, there were the many kitchen lessons and others. The kitchen episodes would make another story altogether.
At the beginning of these series here I had mentioned one of my objectives as healing through storytelling, it has indeed been a great journey of which I’m grateful.
“Bia nu k’anyi kwulube okwu onu e! Enu uwa bialu n’ofu mbia”. “Come let’s have some discussion, we only come to this world once”.
The women sang as they flung their hands, tapped their feet, swayed their hips or shook their shoulders to the beat of the “igba, udu, ekwe, ichaka and ogene“; the traditional set of drums, wooden gong, beaded gourd and metal gong used to produce the vibrant African music they were dancing to.
We grew up watching my Mum dance, and it was beautiful, she had the body and she loved to dance, sometimes bursting some moves in front of the mirror. The fact that the Catholic Church was able to integrate the traditional dance into the Catholic Women’s Association is indeed amazing.
I remember at a point, my Mum was the President of St. Ann Chigozie, a Catholic Women Dance group from St. Dominic’s Catholic Church in my village, Uke. On this particular occasion at Christmas, they had a major dance outing which started with ‘Oso Egwu‘.
‘Oso Egwu’ was a dance outing to the house of a prominent personality to showcase their newly learnt dance routines. This meant that they learnt new dance steps, usually created by them or learnt from another dance group. They also learnt the songs and the beats, it was usually an all women group, so they did everything, though the men might assist with the beating of the drums.
The name of the dance they learnt that year was Opuruiche meaning Different, it was taught them by dancers from Isseke and after they had finished the ‘Oso Egwu’ which could be several, they scheduled the grand finale or major dance outing/release at the grand square in the town.
The grand square in our town was known as Union Circle, a large space circled with sitting areas where shades were erected with aluminium roofs supported by metal pillars. Rising staircases served as seats like you would find in a mini-stadium.
A few days before this major dance outing, the announcer went round all the villages in the town with his megaphone shouting ”O ga akpotu akpotu na Union Circle’‘ basically hyping the event and creating awareness so people can attend. Usually the patrons, sponsors and the VIPs would have been given special invitation cards.
On the d-day, the women were dressed in their dance uniform, which was usually a white blouse, beautifully braided hair and a coloured wrapper. They wore heavy waist beads or jigida and the bell-like ankle dance chain graced their legs. Their wrists and necks were also decorated with colourful beaded bangles and necklaces. They held clean white handkerchiefs in their hands which they swerved when they danced and a few among them carried the ‘Nza’, made from horsetail tied to a stick.
“Ora nnoo nu nnoo, Ora bialu ije, nnoo nu nnoo”, “Welcome dear guests that travelled down here”.
The singers would chant, while the dancers sang as well but focused more on doing the captivating dance routine with smiles on their faces.
The patrons, matrons, sponsors, VIPs and the husbands to the women would troupe out to spray naira notes on them, the monies sprayed would be immediately picked by select young women. At the end of it all, more pledges would be made to support the women group.
This was obtainable in the city as well. Here, my Mum was the Vice President of CWO Zone B and they usually had dance-offs or dance competitions amongst the Zones. The winners went home with trophies and cash prizes.
There was this occasion when my Mum and her troupe worked so hard, it was like they were preparing for a major sports event. We were glad when they came back with a trophy. They took the first position and were so elated that they danced from street to street, singing;
“Nekwa ndi nwa, nekwa ndi nwa a na-ekwu o, otu Chibuzo a bia nu, agbala na-aka ibe ya”
A victory song that pointed to them as the winners. Their group was known as “Otu Chibuzo”
One memory that sticks so clear was the ‘Oso Egwu‘ or dance outing that was had on our street then; Ideani Street, Omagba at Onitsha. I remember, they would call the lead dancers by their name and they would dance out and perform a complicated dance routine. When it got to my Mum’s turn, they chanted;
“Fashion Nwanyi nwayo kwa”, and the response “Obodo n’egwu anaa”;
“Woman of Fashion take it easy,” the response “my people the dance is ending”.
And she stepped forward with her horsetail held high, waist in a slight squatting position, shoulders quivering, waist and hips vibrating as she took rhythmic steps towards the patron and VIPs that day. It was beautiful.
My Mum danced into her years as a Grandma, she took part in the Egedege dance, a very energetic dance usually done by young maidens!
I remember when I visited home for an event, and asked her about the dance and she mentioned that it was still on, though at this point, they had also introduced the modern dance done with band set in addition to the traditional dances.
During my Mum’s burial, there were about 3-4 dance presentations in her honour by her dance troupe, St. Ann Chigozie. The women were colourfully dressed in their regalia as they bade a final goodbye to their colleague and dancer in the language they knew best – Dance!
I would like to add that this dance was greatly therapeutic, the women in my Mum’s generation don’t have a lot of the priviledges that we do now but they had community, they had fellowship, they had the dance or the choir or the meetings where they could go without their plenty children or husband and be women, be leaders, express their creativity and achieve something.
I’m glad my Mum had her dance groups and I’m glad we joined in that final dance.
And as they would sing in one of their dances;
“Anu bi na mmili biko senyite, senyite n’enu ana k’anyi bulu gi lie, onye no n’uwa na-elikwa ife di nma, onye nosia n’uwa na o ga-ana ana. Iyo iyo”
Which was generally a song calling on the sea animal to surface and be used for food because the people on the earth deserve to eat good stuff.
And the last line goes “He who is done staying on earth would return home”….
That was exactly what my Mum did on June 29th, 2019 when she took a peaceful bow and exited the earth.
“1-2-3- Go! B***** Onye Ohi!!!!” We would scream, as we approached our compound in the villa.
Finally we were home and the excitement for Christmas was gradually getting to it’s peak.
Well, we only had that priviledge to shout if we were riding in my Mum’s car. Those who rode with my Dad usually sat all nice and pretty until they arrived the villa and disembarked.
My Dad is a chronic builder. He was either always building or renovating a built house and this showed in compound in the villa. everytime we came home, something new had been added or remodelled. As kids, we didn’t mind, we had enough rooms to play in and enough places to run around in, until, well, we grew older and became part of the cleaning team.
A few days before we travelled for Christmas, Mum would usually arrange to have the house cleaned out. Sometimes, they would lay clean bedsheets on all the beds and all we did would just be arrive and unpack. As we grew older though, we became of the dusting, scrubbing, cleaning and bed dressing team and ofcourse, I started to wonder if we really needed all that space. Talk about knowing where the shoe pinches.
We would barely settle in when the visitors would start arriving to greet my Mum. One look at your face and they would go ‘o nke a bu…‘ ‘is it this one that…’ and my Mum would fill in the gap with the appropriate story while they mocked a frown if the person didn’t remember them.
I can never forget my Mum’s long explanation of who was who. I can’t claim to ever remember.
“Mummy keduzi onye bu ife a?” We would ask, wanting her to help explain who a relative was. And she would go like; “Mama onye a, na Mama m, mu nwadiana na Nkwelle” meaning “This person’s mother and my mother are cousins from Nkwelle”, or she would say “o ro nna m ochie” and I would nod without understanding. So some of these people turned up for her burial and I didn’t know who they were…
As soon as we settled in, my Mum would insert the Boney M Christmas Carol in the Radio player. She always had one for every Christmas, an orange cassette back then. The deep bass belting “May your days be merry and bright…” and many other Christmas songs helped set the tone for the celebrations. She would later on start adding Christmas lights, strung on the Christmas trees pine trees already growing in the compound.
On Christmas day, we all got dressed and drove to St. Dominics Catholic Church, Uke, a Church her father served in diligently as the treasurer and helped build before his demise. We flocked around her after service and greeted her friends before heading into the cars and heading home.
The rest of the Christmas was generally spent entertaining guests, and when we were younger, visiting our Grand Mum and Great-Grand Mother. We were allowed to indulge in soft drinks, Mum would say, “rapu fa, oo Christmas ka a na-agba”, asking whomever to let us be, we were celebrating Christmas. Lol.
Going back to Onitsha was usually a drag, Mum loved it in the village. She would postpone our journey until we absolutely had to go back and then the packing started again, but this time around with less enthusiasm and vigour.
Laid to rest in this compound where she provided so much warmth, her grave would forever be a reminder that once upon a time, Lady Bene was here.