The Biafran Recruiters: A Tale From the Nigerian Civil War
Monday, January 08, 1968. At five o’clock in the morning, Oderah, nearly six years old, had been awake for a while. Sandwiched between Kenko and Bartholomew, on a thin, handcrafted bamboo mat, he reexamined the ceiling, and stared repeatedly at the blank walls. Where two walls joined, he lowered his gaze, pondering over the Unukwu-Udu Mmiri — a enormous, wide clay pot containing drinking water — covered on top with a flat plate upon which rested an upside-down cup with no manager.
Oderah and his brothers slept in one of those rooms tucked in the middle of a house. The single rear window attached to the room was shut, making it hard to tell whether the night moon was tardy in its exit or if the infant sun rose early. already so, all Oderah thought about was how to get up and leave without waking the brothers.
Farming, weaving, breeding, selling, scavenging and tilling keep children in overdrive at a time of war. How Kenko and Bartho managed to be nevertheless sleeping in spite of of the responsibilities ahead puzzled Oderah as he tried to rein in his internal agitation. Perhaps they came to lie next to him late at night. This mat, as smooth as palm oil, did not make a noise when laid on.
‘Because of the circumstances of war,’ he sensed, ‘three brothers are now bound together on a thin mat, on a cold cement floor in a small room. But for how much longer?’ Whenever any of them was up, they wanted to escape from the others and to carry on with their own enterprises.
The adults had been out of action, many never to return to their villages; many more, for fear of the recruiters, were in hiding. The children of war will do at all event they can to help, to stay alive as long as the war lasts.
Nobody does any work lying down on a cold mat. All he needed to do was get to the doorknob, a yard away from his toes. ‘How helpful this doorknob has been,’ he thought, ‘opening the door whenever it’s turned, without letting out a screech.’
Of concern to him at the moment was how to get off the mat cleanly, without waking Kenko or Bartho. Once on his feet, he could tiptoe towards the door which would provide with the sound of a pin drop.
Had Oderah slept on his belly none of this would have mattered. Like a monkey on all four legs, he would have crawled backward, cleared the mat and his brothers, and stood up when he got near the doorknob. Regret filled his little heart.
To turn from a supine sleeping position to a inclined position in such a tight space would draw fury from Kenko, who surely as hell, already in thorough sleep, would throw an accurate elbow punch aimed at the ribs of the offender. Also futile, the mat being slippery with no grip, was the idea of sliding on his back down the mat.
Only one option remained viable. Next to their three heads, in fact at arm’s reach, stood a couch as strong as a termite hillock, with four iron legs. Time and time again, Oderah had used the leverage of the sofa to get off the mat. This morning ought not to be different.
Lying on his back, he extended a left hand back over his shoulder to grasp the closest iron foot of the strong sofa. Similarly, his right hand hooked up with another iron foot. Using his chest muscles for strength, careful not to get entangled with his brothers, he pulled his complete body up across the smooth surface of the mat, like a dice on a draft board, stopping as he came near the upper end.
At the same time as he pulled, like an acrobat turning head over heels, he somersaulted, adjusting into a crawling position. Back on his two feet, he waited for a reaction. None came. His move had been flawless, and Kenko did not throw an elbow. He tiptoed halfway around the mat and to the door, turned the doorknob, and crossed the short but general corridor behind.
Further away and slightly to his right was the kitchen, with its door incapable of latching, open wide enough for Oderah to go into without lifting a finger. On one of the low wooden shelves was a box of matches. Oderah retrieved and hit a match and guided the flame onto a nearby ogbeidimbu, a locally made incandescent device, comparable to a candlestick leaning in a hollow glass tumbler.
Happiness lit his confront when, scanning the kitchen for disorder, he noticed that his drum remained exactly where it had been, in a corner behind the kitchen door.
Picking up the paint drum by its curved metal manager, he lifted it up to a low wooden stool at the center of the kitchen next to a mortar. A metal knife with a hard top edge opened the lid easily each time he came for inspection, which was usually several times a day. He grabbed a knife, but soon after he had a change of mind. One of the rodents might be ready to jump out of the drum and get away.
‘Put the knife back on the wooden shelf’ Oderah said to himself. Having obeyed, he placed one eye on the diamond-shaped vent at the center of the lid cover. Five quivering shadows assured him that the five rodents were nevertheless alive.
Delight and dignity descended over him. He was beginning to be a man who took pride, not only in maintaining peace among these captured creatures, but also in providing for himself. Who knew how far this enterprise could go? If the mice bred and learned how to live amicably, he could have enough to satisfy other hunger-stricken village children in a time of war.
At the heels of every delight follows remorse, and so it was with Oderah. Inside the drum, he remembered, there was a rat with a fresh wound, and a predatory neighbor. The predator, a chubby rodent with jaws like a tiger and a chimp’s hairy neck, had chewed the back thigh of his scrawny relative. Staring down at the big-necked hairy rodent had, on many occasions, discouraged him from menacing his neighbors. Again, Oderah reached for the metal knife with which to pry open the lid.
Just as he stooped over the box again, a sound came from the backyard behind the kitchen. nevertheless clutching the metal knife, he took two steps to the back windows, unlatched the vertical bolt and quietly opened the left window pane.
Though the moon had not completely receded, there was only a glimmer of sunlight, not strong enough to disperse the stubborn village fog, which made it hard but not impossible for a reasonable to peek briefly from a keen observer to penetrate.
Looking down in search of where the noise came from, Oderah saw the back of the two Leopards as they held onto the top edge of the block wall, their feet about to land into the backyard. Every child in the neighborhood knew how recruiters paraded their captives along earthly village streets but none, as far as Oderah could tell, had seen them extent a fence.