THE NIGERIA BIAFRA WAR PART 24: Staying Alive
While I worked at the Citadel Press, Christie, with her characteristic ingenuity and flair for design, created a home for us in this new city. When we arrived in Enugu we quickly found accommodation on the outskirts of town. It was an apartment complex with two subunits. We took the flat upstairs and converted this empty space into a very livable, comfortable accommodation. She employed a number of workers, including painters, masons, carpenters, and electricians, over a short period of time in this miraculous feat of transformation. The other tenant of this building was a charming architect. He too went ahead and architecturally altered the lower living quarters to meet his needs. We could leave to the eye of the beholder whether this pleasant artist’s taste was eccentric or eclectic. But one thing was clear: His new design did not go down well with
I put my family to bed one hot night toward the end of the renovation and opened a window to let a gentle, cool breeze in. At about 2:00 A.M. Christie first heard the noise of an intruder. She alerted me, and I shouted at the top of my voice, “Where is my gun?” We saw the outline of a figure in the dark dash past us and jump through the open window. The intruder thankfully did not realize that I did not possess a gun and was adamantly against the use of firearms. The next day the workmen were one person short. When we asked where the missing man was we were told that he had gone to the hospital to nurse a broken leg.
I traveled abroad soon after the move to Enugu, on a mission for the people of Biafra. I asked my close friend Christopher Okigbo to take care of my family while I was away. Christie was pregnant, and I turned my young family over to Christopher for protection during this precarious time. In a quintessential Christopher Okigbo move, he promptly checked them into the catering guest house, a swank hotel chain of the day, first run smartly by the colonial British government and then quite well by the government of the first republic of Nigeria. This particular branch was now in the hands of the Biafrans and had, in the words of Christopher, clearly an unbiased judge, “returned to its former glory.” In any case, Christopher had connections with the manager and introduced my wife and family as one of his own.
One day Christie asked Christopher to get her a number of things for lunch from a nearby restaurant and said that she would “pay for it all.” She had a very powerful craving for fried plantains, beans, and a delicacy called Isi Ewu. Okigbo agreed to do so but instead telephoned the manager of the catering guest house, telling him that Christie Achebe, who was pregnant, needed the food items urgently, and that the food should be delivered to his room, and he would then make sure it got to her. After waiting two to three hours, Christie called Christopher about the food. Okigbo did not respond on the telephone but showed up in their room with the explanation that he had inadvertently eaten it, thinking
it was a special lunch made for him. They could not believe it. On hearing this, my three-year-old son, Ike, who had uncharacteristically, for someone his age, been waiting patiently for lunch, launched at Okigbo, tackling him to the ground and punching him with everything he had. Okigbo howled and feigned pain, and then made sure he got my family a hearty dinner to eat.
I returned from my trip abroad to the news that my mother, who was quite frail, had suddenly become quite sick. Her able and diligent physician, Dr. Theophilus Mbanefo had worked tirelessly to care for her, and now he thought it best for her entire family to come back briefly and pay their “last respects.” I was very close to my mother, and I sent Christie and my family ahead of me while I worked through my private pain and wrapped up some business at the Citadel Press. My family subsequently left with our driver, Gabriel, for Ogidi to join the rest of my family at Mother’s bedside. Christopher and I were working in this office of ours that morning, the first day a military plane flew over Enugu. Our editorial chat was disturbed by the sudden drone of an enemy aircraft overhead, and the hectic and ineffectual small-arms fire that was supposed to scare it away, rather like a lot of flies worrying a bull. Not a very powerful bull, admittedly, at that point in the conflict. In fact, air raids were crude jokes that could almost be laughed off.
People used to say that the safest thing was to go out into the open and keep an eye on the bomb as it was pushed out of the invading propeller aircraft. We heard the sounds of more bombs exploding in the distance, and Christopher, who already seemed familiar with planes and military hardware, shouted, “Under the table!” Most of the other Biafrans were going about their business, as usual, unperturbed by this menace flying above their heads. As Christopher and I listened uneasily, an explosion went off in the distance somewhere, and the attack was soon over. We completed our discussion and departed. But that explosion that sounded so distant from the Citadel offices was to bring him back
for a silent farewell on that eventful day.
After the plane disappeared into the distance, Christopher said he had to leave, and I went to check on something that was already in the press—the first booklet that we were publishing for children. As I sat there working that day I heard the sound of an aircraft above, followed by bedlam in the distance. I shrugged this particular katakata, or chaos, off as another bombing raid from the Nigerians and got on with my chores. I set out to visit a business colleague and decided to stop at the house for a minute before proceeding to my original destination. At the house, I saw a huge crowd and realized that it was my apartment complex that had been bombed!
I pushed my way through the assembly to the edge of a huge crater in the ground beside the building, about a hundred feet from my children’s swing set. Luckily Christie and the children had left in the nick of time. Had there been anyone in the house they would not have survived.
Okigbo was standing among the crowd. I can still see him clearly in his white gown and cream trousers among the vast crowd milling around my bombed apartment, the first spectacle of its kind in the Biafran capital in the second month of the war. I doubt that we exchanged more than a sentence or two. There were scores of sympathizers pressing forward to commiserate with me or praise God that my life or that the lives of my wife and children had been spared. So I hardly caught more than a glimpse of him in that crowd, and then he was gone like a meteor, forever. That elusive impression is the one that lingers out of so many. As a matter of fact, he and I had talked for two solid hours that
very morning. But in retrospect, that earlier meeting seems to belong to another time.
I set off after that brief encounter with Christopher, homeless, to see my mother. My entire family was present in Ogidi, huddled, with long faces, grieving. Women could be heard sobbing in the distance. Some, like my brother Augustine, had just come in from Yaba, Lagos. Others, like Frank, our eldest brother, had arrived from Port Harcourt, where he worked for the Post and Telecommunications Corporation (P&T). I was informed soon after I got there that Mother had asked to see us all. We trooped into her bedroom one at a time and got to spend some private time with her. Soon after that, she passed away. Our people report that her spirit called my family away from Enugu to save their lives. I will not challenge their ancient wisdom.