The Biafra Recruiters: A History of the Nigerian Civil War
Monday, January 8, 1968. At five in the morning, Oderah, almost six years old, had been awake for a while. Sandwiched between Kenko and Bartholomew, on a narrow, handmade bamboo mat, he again examined the ceiling and repeatedly looked at the blank walls. Where two walls met, he looked down, reflecting on the Unukwu-Udu Mmiri, a giant, wide clay pot containing drinking water, covered at the top with a flat plate on which an inverted cup without a handle rested.
Oderah and her brothers slept in one of those hidden rooms in the middle of a house. The only rear window attached to the room was closed, so it was difficult to tell if the late-night moon was slow to rise or if the infant sun rose early. Still, all Oderah thought about was how to get up and leave without waking the brothers.
Farming, weaving, raising, selling, gathering and farming keep children in overdrive in times of war. How Kenko and Bartho managed to keep sleeping despite the tasks ahead baffled Oderah as he tried to control his inner turmoil. Maybe they came to bed next to him late at night. This carpet, as smooth as palm oil, made no noise when laid.
“Due to the circumstances of the war,” he sensed, “three brothers are now tied up on a narrow mat, on a cold concrete floor in a small room. But for how much longer? ‘Whenever any of them got up, they wanted to escape from the others and go on with their own businesses.
The adults had been out of action, many never returned to their villages; many more, out of fear of the recruiters, were in hiding. The children of war will do everything they can to help, to stay alive while the war lasts.
Nobody does any work lying on a cold mat. All he had to do was reach for the doorknob, a meter away from his toes. How useful this doorknob has been, he thought, opening the door every time he turns, without letting out a squeak.
What was worrying him at the time was how to get off the mat cleanly, without waking up Kenko or Bartho. Once on his feet, he could tiptoe toward the door that would give way with the sound of a pin being dropped.
If Oderah had slept on his stomach, none of this would have mattered. Like a monkey on all fours, he would have crawled back, wiped the mat and his siblings, and stood up when he approached the doorknob. Regret filled her little heart.
Going from a supine sleeping position to a prone position in such a narrow space would provoke the fury of Kenko, who surely as hell, even in deep sleep, would deliver a precise punch to the elbow aimed at the ribs of the man. aggressor. Also useless, the mat being slippery and gripless, was the idea of sliding backwards across the mat.
Only one option remained viable. Beside their three heads, actually within arm’s reach, was a sofa as sturdy as a termite mound, with four iron legs. Over and over again, Oderah had used the lever on the couch to lift himself off the rug. This morning should be no different.
Lying on his back, he reached over his shoulder with his left hand to grasp the nearest iron foot of the sturdy sofa. Similarly, his right hand hooked on another iron foot. Using his chest muscles to strengthen himself, careful not to tangle with his siblings, he pulled his entire body up onto the smooth surface of the carpet, like a dice on a shooting board, stopping as he approached the top end.
At the same time he pulled, like an acrobat turning his head, he somersaulted, adjusting to a crawling position. Back on his two feet, he waited for a reaction. No cam. His movement had been flawless and Kenko didn’t nudge him. She tiptoed to the middle of the carpet and headed for the door, turned the doorknob, and crossed the short but wide hallway behind.
Farther away and slightly to his right was the kitchen, the door unable to close, wide enough for Oderah to enter without lifting a finger. On one of the low wooden shelves was a box of matches. Oderah retrieved and struck a match and guided the flame to a nearby ogbeidimbu, a locally made incandescent device, comparable to a candlestick resting on a hollow glass vase.
Happiness lit up her face when, scanning the kitchen for clutter, she noticed that her drum remained exactly where it had been, in the corner behind the kitchen door.
He took the paint drum by its curved metal handle and placed it on a low wooden stool in the center of the kitchen, next to a mortar. A metal knife with a hard top edge would open the lid easily every time I came to inspect it, which was usually several times a day. He grabbed a knife, but soon after changed his mind. One of the rodents could be ready to jump off the drum and escape.
Put the knife back on the wooden shelf, Oderah told himself. Having obeyed, he put an eye on the diamond-shaped vent in the center of the lid flap. Five trembling shadows assured him that the five rodents were still alive.
Delight and dignity descended on him. He was beginning to be a man who took pride, not only in keeping the peace between these captured creatures, but also in maintaining himself. Who knew how far this company could go? If the mice reproduced and learned to live amicably, he might have enough to feed other wartime starved village children.
After all delight follows remorse, and so it was with Oderah. Inside the drum, he recalled, was a rat with a fresh wound and a predatory neighbor. The predator, a plump rodent with tiger-like jaws and the hairy neck of a chimpanzee, had bitten into the back thigh of its scrawny relative. Staring at the large-necked furry rodent had discouraged him, on many occasions, from threatening his neighbors. Again, Oderah reached for the metal knife to open the lid.
Just as he leaned over the box again, a sound came from the backyard behind the kitchen. Still clutching the metal knife, he took two steps toward the rear windows, untied the vertical latch, and silently opened the left window pane.
Although the moon had not fully retreated, there was only a ray of sunlight, not strong enough to disperse the stubborn mist from the village, making it difficult, but not impossible, for a reasonable gaze from a keen observer to penetrate.
Looking down for where the noise was coming from, Oderah saw the backs of the two leopards as they gripped the top edge of the block wall, their feet about to land in the backyard. Every child in the neighborhood knew how the recruiters paraded their captives through the streets of earthly villages, but none, as far as Oderah could tell, had ever seen them scale a fence.