SEPTEMBER 29, 1960.
I make my way slowly through a sea of faces headed down the brown, dusty footpath that goes to, and through, the main market. My small metal bowl dangles from what is left of my withered left hand, as I lean heavily with my right on my walking stick that is as thin as I have almost become. It wobbles and threatens to give way under my lightweight – but then, it has been doing so for the last ten years. My bowl itself, like my torso, is scarred and dented in several places. It is so small it can only hold a few pennies at a time. But it makes no difference – I barely ever get more than those anymore.
I walk slowly from person to person, stretching out my bowl left and right, whispering, muttering and crying out words of prayer in turn, as I plead with the consciences and human sympathies of both big and small, old and young – even children, for anything. Anything at all. I am blind, and see nothing – but as I walk, I hear and feel almost everything.
I hear the sharp laughter of some young girls to my 8 o’clock, and I listen to them ignorantly speculate about my physical disabilities. I hear a sharp slap at my 10 o’clock, followed by the stifled cry of a young boy, and the loud, clear warning of his mother: “Don’t ever go near that man again! Do you want his bad luck to fall on you? Do you want to be like him?”
I put up the same cold expression I’ve worn in the 5 years since my wife and unborn child died at the hands of the wicked warrant chief’s men, and trek slowly to a lonely spot under a tree behind the crowd. I sit, and almost instantly, the tears in my eyes threaten to burst forth as I reminisce about the events that brought me here. It is true that all I am now is a deformed beggar. But I wasn’t always like this.
You see, once upon a time, I was a soldier. A very fine soldier. They called me Sergeant Mansell…
JUNE 24, 1942
I was one of the unfortunate young men drafted by Britain to fight her dirty war, against an enemy we knew nothing about – yet they told us we were fighting for “our people”. They told us we were the hope of Britain and her colonies; they said we were the finest soldiers they could find – but we knew the truth – we were “the expendables”, the ones whose lives they could throw away.
I was sent to Burma, one of the hottest spots. I was assigned to the Infantry division headed by a short, fat white man with a large-belly, who did not look like he had ever done anything but eat his whole life. And he talked too much – far more than I thought a man should. He did not like us at much – which was fair; for we did not like him at all either.
We moved from battlefront to battlefront, taking hits and giving them in equal measure, and gaining ground and losing men along the way. I lost some of my closest friends and age-grade members, and many times. I wished I could have died along with them, but death always seemed one man too far away from me.
August 18, 1944
I still remember the day my oldest friend, Chukwujekwu died. I remember how, one minute, we were patrolling the Sunsam forest (or what was left of it), sharing our memories of the past, of our childhood escapades, and sharing our hopes of life after this terrible war. How we laughed mischievously as we gossiped about the girls we admired and would resume “toasting” once we returned home. We dreamed of our fathers’ lands which we would inherit, one or two of which we would sell, so that we could travel to ‘obodo oyinbo’ (England), to get a good education to prepare for the coming years.
There was little to see, and no enemy in sight, so we kept walking and talking. I walked on ahead, as he stopped and bent to remove some stones from his boots. I pulled out my chewing stick, from my breast pocket, and chewed on it as I stared into the distance.
The next minute, I heard gunshots, a short cry, and a dull crash. I turned sharply; ready to fire at whoever or whatever it was, only to find “Cj” slumped on the forest floor, his body punctured by bullets, life slowly but surely fading out of him. I ran and stumbled, falling to my knees beside him. Time seemed to pause; Life itself seemed to slow down.
I wanted to grab his khaki shirt and shout at him, that it was just a bullet wound, that he was ‘Agidi’, stronger than any bullet, stronger than even Death himself. I wanted to yell at him to be a man, to stand up and shake himself, that this was not the first time he had been shot, and one more bullet was nothing to bear, ‘for God and country’. I wanted to remind him, that the war was almost over, that plans we had spent so much time making were still ahead of us. I wanted to tell him, that he was the only friend I had left: to beg him not to leave me in this God-forsaken land, in this God-forsaken war, alone. Instead, I bent over him, and cried. He was dying. And there was nothing I could do. I cried until the water dried up from my eyes.
Then above us, I heard the sound of a helicopter circling. I was torn between trying to save my dying friend, and saving my own life. I chose the former at first, even knowing that Chukwujekwu was nearly gone, but the sound of bullets coming thick and fast behind me changed my mind. I ran.
When I could no longer hear them behind me, I took out my radio and sent out an SOS. Just as I finished, I heard bullets behind me again, tearing the ground and vegetation apart. I kept running until I ran out of breath.
I passed out before I hit the ground, subconsciously hoping that help would come soon. It did not.
I woke up after what felt like years, to find myself chained, hand and foot, to a wall, and surrounded by white enemy soldiers armed to the teeth. I had been captured by the enemy. I prayed silently for my family, and prepared for the end.
I do not know how long they held me there. But it was long enough for them to do lasting damage. They could not break my spirit, so instead, they broke my body.
My body and soul testify to their utter brutality. But who among these people could I tell? Who here would understand?
September 29, 1960
Thinking about the war saddens me. So I shake myself out of the painful memories, and look around. People are beginning to gather, crowding even this space where I have come to hide from the world. To avoid more spiteful remarks, I pick myself and my bowl up, and walk towards the stall of my favourite benefactor, the famous food seller, Mama Nkem. Apart from her constantly generous donations – except on those days, when there is just nothing to give, she has always had a nice, quiet spot for me under the shade of her raffia palm roof. She welcomes me as warmly as always, and, in her characteristic amebo manner (as the Yoruba soldiers called their women), instantly resumes duty as my personal ‘newscaster’.
She gives me, in a more excited tone than usual, the latest news on almost everyone worth knowing around town – and especially how she ‘been hear say one oyinbo man dey come from Lagos to talk to ‘Chief’ (she often speaks of our Warrant Chief so intimately I cannot help but suspect her). She lowers her head towards my ear, and begins to talk softly, almost in a whisper: “They say the white man wants to leave our land for us. That they want us to be ruling ourselves. No more District Officers and warrant Chiefs. No more Governor-General and the Queen, that they are always begging God to save”, she says. She really is excited. I can hear the smile in her voice. If only she knew the half of it.
I hear the voice of the young egg seller, whose name I never seem able to remember. I haven’t spoken with her more than a few times, but I can tell she is quite a smart girl. Mama Nkem tells me she is doing very well in the local Girls Grammar School, even though her family is poor. I can only hope the coming days bring her better fortunes.
“Hei, nne; bia n’ebe’a”, Mama Nkem calls out to her in Igbo, knowing full well that the girl does not understand a word of what she has just said. I can feel the child’s confusion from where I sit, and I almost laugh. “Don’t mind this woman.” I speak softly to the girl. “She is just trying to confuse you this morning. She says you should come. I think she wants to buy some eggs.” I raise my head in the direction of Mama Nkem’s voice. If I still had my sight, I would have ‘eyed’ her. Now, I can only shake my head and smile.
While Mama Nkem deals with her, someone walks past, stepping on what is left of my right leg. Any sensation in the leg is long gone, yet I cannot but feel a sense of annoyance at this person’s carelessness. She mutters a hasty, yet soft and heartfelt “sorry sir”, and I recognize her voice to be that of Omosi, 13-year old daughter of the dreaded, and very much disliked District Clerk, Omonigho Imafidon. The minutes go by, and I hear several different voices and footsteps as people walk past. No one gives me anything. I sigh. Then someone comes to me, coins jingling in the hand. “For you, sir”, she says, dropping the coins in my bowl. It is the lovely child, Omosi, again. I put my hand into the bowl after she leaves, and feel three shillings. How nice. She must be with her mother then. Adesuwa. The quiet, mild-mannered woman everyone in the market says is her husband’s punching bag.
“One day, he will hit her again, and she will just die. Only then will he realize what he has done”, Mama ‘Iyawo’, Mama Nkem’s market neighbour, and mother of the latest bride in town – and the most beautiful, as some people felt – had said yesterday.
“Thank you, my child. God bless you”. I nearly make the sign of the cross towards her, then remember I am no priest. No, and certainly not a saint. I stretch my legs a bit.
“Oo, my dear. Daalu, o? Thank you very much. Come next time”. Mama Nkem’s voice came out, loud and happy, from inside her shop, as she finally finished buying all the eggs she needed – after haggling the poor girl down almost to peanuts. I laugh within me, at the same time pitying the child.
Amidst of all this, the loud “Kom! Kom! Kom!” of the town crier’s gong suddenly sounds once, then repeatedly reverberates over the din of the entire market. He is summoning us to listen. Says he has a “vere impotant mesege” for ‘ollofus’ (I wonder who that is): the white man, the District Officer, is coming to address us tomorrow, at the town square, about something very important concerning ‘our’ country Nigeria. And we must all be there, he says.
The people disperse after this announcement, returning to their businesses. But I can feel someone still standing in front of me, some few feet away, not moving, not speaking. It is a woman’s presence, strange, yet strikingly familiar. It is “this woman”.
Just as the egg seller makes to leave, I hear the sound of one person colliding with another, and someone, probably the egg seller, steps on my left knee which is quite painfully bruised as a result of my latest fall. It was only just beginning to heal. I involuntarily let out a short cry of pain, nursing the sore spot. Almost immediately, the egg seller (whose name I have come to know is Rekia) starts to scream at no one and everyone at the same time. “My eggs! My eggs ooo! My eggs! See what you have done to my eggs!” she cries repeatedly. I hear voices murmuring around. It seems a crowd has gathered.
Meanwhile, ‘this woman’ is strangely very quiet, not joining the quarrel, not offering any explanation or apologies. Her two tomato baskets are on the floor, but she seems completely unconcerned.
I feel her gaze, as if looking right into my soul, for moments on end, and I am unnerved, for I cannot tell why. Then, for the first time, she speaks. And I hear her voice, that voice, calling my name.
Time pauses. My whole world stops. And memories, long hidden memories of a blissful past, and a painful separation, begin to flood my mind, with the relentless fury of a flood. It’s not – it can’t possibly be…
But it is. It is her.
I turn towards her, and call out her name without realizing it. Her silence says it all.
It is too much for me. My breath stops, and my mind goes black…
About Victor Pius-Imue
Victor is a Christian Lawyer, Writer, Music Minister. Loves reading and writing almost anything, when he’s not jamming to music or watching football.
An ardent literati, with a bias for rhymed poetry and most varieties of fiction. Adores Shakespeare and Ted Dekker.