Before The War: A Personal Story

Okey Ikechukwu. Image: Twitter

The expression “before the war” was a central marker for some of us in the 70s. It depicted the transition between eras. “That was before the war” could then be heard with a wry smile and mocking reference to people who dared talk about what they possessed in the past, but who became near-paupers after the war. Father lost many things, including his status as the overall representative of the printers and publishers of Practical Psychology in the country. He was required to contact some people, I think in Ibadan, if he wished to have anything to do with the publication “after the war.” As anyone who can still get archival copies of that renowned international publication today will admit, it still puts the academic drivel that passes for psychology in most institutions today to shame. But we are digressing.

Father was also not able to immediately reclaim his before-the-war status with many of his foreign partners. Though a printer of repute who serviced the entire old Bende and much of the old Owerri Province and much of the South-east before the war, most of his big printing machines went with the war. It took him years to buy new ones all over again, even though he knew where his machines were; and who had confiscated and was using them. Let us backtrack to 1967 and 1968.

There was a big reception for some very important people at our home in Umuahia. Most of the people came from out of town and their vehicles took over much of the street. Then, midway through the engagement, mother called father aside and into one of the rooms, where I was fiddling with the paper boat I was trying to make. Although they took no special notice of me, I made to step out in deference; as was proper. But mother, very uncharacteristically, gave me a look that meant I should continue what I was doing. Strange, but she did. And I remain deeply grateful for it to this day, because it took years for me to realize the value of this first hand encounter with a woman’s little acknowledged, but flawless, intuitive perception.

Standing there with father, she told him that she had an uneasy feeling about the reception and about some of these people being entertained. The man of the house became a bit pensive. Then he asked whether there was anything in particular she could pinpoint as grounds for her uneasiness. She answered in the negative, saying that she wished she could be more concrete. Then father asked whether any of the people present could be the possible cause of her discomfort. Again she spoke in general terms, adding that she feared that what had brought them together, and for which there was so much cheerful exchanges at the moment, may not bring father much joy in the end. “You are a good man,” she said, “but (in my own words) there is one particular man in the parlour from whom I get the impression that whatever you do with him will not end well for you.” Then she asked father whether he knew the man in question well enough. Father explained that the man was the leader of the group from Port Harcourt. He added that he honestly had not seen reason to doubt him.

It was now mother’s turn to look pensive. After what seemed to me a very long pause, she asked whether what they were planning to do together had been concluded. Father answered in the affirmative. Her brows deepened further. She said she felt that it would have been better if it had not been started at all, as the man was “not a good person.” Looking really sad, mother said (again) that the man was “a bad person.” Father, apparently knowing the woman he married, was in no hurry to end the conversation at all. He said that it would have been best to call off the deal, if he had not already signed all the papers. He explained the awkwardness of pulling back on everything they agreed upon almost within the hour. Mother agreed with him, but they both looked very unhappy and disturbed, as father said he wished he had not gotten carried away by the war effort. They both hoped he had not taken a step that might lead to something unpleasant in future.

The guests in question were part of a team that came to relocate some of the most sophisticated of father’s printing machines to Port Harcourt. The war-born Eastern Echo newspaper he was part of faced imminent danger of death, as the vulnerability of Umuahia grew by the day due to the shrinking living space in the South East occasioned by the loss of territory to federal forces. The wisdom of relocating the massive machines, as well as the concert of forces and persons involved in the “brilliant idea’ of letting go of machines he personally brought in from Germany apparently before I was born, seemed unimpeachable.

The sad news is that father did not recover the machines after the war. That was how the sweat of his youth fell under “abandoned property.” The very man mother complained about, whose intervention would have ended the debate over whether or not father should carry his machines, was the person who insisted that the only way father’s “claim” to the machines could be taken seriously was if he produced the original receipts with which he bought them. Interestingly, I was also around when father returned from that trip and I recall how calm he looked, as he narrated everything to mother and announced that he would not make any further contact with the people. He kept his word.

It was shortly after the machine business narrated above that father relocated us to a bungalow he procured in Ihiala. Umuahia was now experiencing more regular air raids and distant, but nevertheless disconcerting, booming sounds. We saw the planes and experienced the bombings alright, but the dreadful booming sounds were a mystery of unimaginable proportions to me in particular. But the immediate precipitating factor for our relocation from Umuahia was an incident in Amuzukwu, a suburb of Umuahia.

The regular airplane bombing of Umuahia town created a peculiar migration pattern, whereby town dwellers moved into the forest-covered surrounding villages every morning to escape the daylight air raids; and returned to their homes in the evenings. We participated in this migration, until one morning when the villagers surrounded the home of the head master where we normally took refuge. They wanted him to bring out the “saboteurs” he was habouring. Their reaction arose from the fact that the bombings were now extended to the villages, fuelling the suspicion that some of the “migrants” were conniving with enemy forces and telling them where to bomb. It was pathetic!

For such behaviour to come from people who all knew father, a man who even paid the school fees of some of their children, was something the head master could not understand. Everywhere was charged. Cudgels and odd implements clanged in front of the house. Unperturbed, and against the entreaties of the teacher who wanted to speak to the people, father stepped out. He just stood there until the noise died down. Then, calling some of the people by name, he said that he would take his family and leave, the way he had come. He explained that no one would blame them for now suspecting even their own shadows and that it was better for him to depart and remain their friend, than stay and risk being blamed for any misfortune in the place.

By the time he was done, the teacher was standing beside him, very angry and totally beside himself with indignation at the behavior of the people. But father calmed him down, as he asked us to enter the car. Some of the people then pleaded that we should stay, that it was the work of the devil, etc. But father was not a man of idle words. Less than two weeks after this incident, we were hurriedly relocated to Ihiala, because the bombings were now more frequent. The terrifying booming sounds were also sounding like they were coming from down the streets. The logic of our relocation was simple: it is easier for a man to secure his head while alone, than when he has his wife and children in tow.

Ihiala saw us temporarily in a refugee camp, where most of our relations (from the now-Anambra part of the east) had settled after their various towns and villages were overrun by federal troops. Families “owned” separate corners in different halls of the primary school. They already had little gardens and farms, as they had apparently been there for many months. There was incredible order and structure to everything, complete with adjudication without the involvement of the Biafran government. But people still fought occasionally over all sorts of things. Water was fetched from the stream, so I experienced that for the first time. It was in the process that I had one spectacular fall, spilt the water I had fetched and broke the “massive” bottle of Lucozade (the real thing of those days, with a wine-like cap) with which I fetched the water.

We left the camp just when I was beginning to enjoy it. Father joined us later with only his Mercedes Benz car and without bringing the fridge. My elder sister and I had asked him to bring it when he came to move us from the camp. When we returned to Umuahia after the war, father had to use my elder sister’s semi-adult bicycle for a while. This was a bicycle he would ordinarily not have looked upon at all “before the war.” As things stand today, 50 years after the civil war, we still nostalgically remember South-east before the War. Very sad indeed!