Picture my mother, a young woman. It is dusk in the spanking new university campus in Nsukka, Nigeria sometime in 1966. She sits at her dressing table in the modern new bungalow she has just moved into with my father, their first home together. Freshly painted and exuding a strong fragrance, she has carefully arranged the pieces of furniture slowly acquired during their student days in England tastefully around the room. She is carefully applying her make up, dinner is simmering in the oven, the years of Home Economics classes in the mission run boarding school she attended still fresh in her memory. She will have food on the table when her new husband gets home and a charming beaming welcoming visage to match. Life is good, the future is bright with promise. Tonight, they are having a few of my father’s friends and colleagues to dinner. Young academics all, Nigerian, English, American, they are all engaged in the task of building the new university to a standard to rival the hallowed towers in London, Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, Yale and Berkeley where they have only just acquired their doctorates. They are set to make their mark, to act as intellectual powerhouse in the task of building up the newly independent Nigeria. Bright and boisterous, they have shunned research fellowships and assistantships at some of the most prestigious universities to embark on this adventure, this challenge of creating something out of virtually nothing.
My mother smiles at the prospect of welcoming them all into her home. The late nights spent arguing about ideas and politics, fuelled by her good food and my father’s generous topping up of everyone’s glasses. True, there are a few clouds on the horizon. The politicians have made a mess of the new democracy and the military have only a few months before staged a coup taking over power. Yet, most agree that the corruption and excesses of the politicians required drastic action. There is ethnic violence as well, thousands from my parents’ Igbo tribe have been killed in Northern Nigeria as reprisals for the Northern leaders killed in the coup. There is a tension in the air, and yet there is hope.
My mother moves to the gramophone and places one of the Frank Sinatra records there. Perhaps it is Songs for Swinging Lovers. The soothing rhythm sweeps through the room. She is dressed. Helen will be there at dinner. She likes Helen. Helen Wang is a young Korean American teaching Biology like my father. She is about the same age as my mother and so they spend long hours talking and exploring the markets of Nsukka together. Helen has just started seeing Rob, a brilliant young star in the Department of English Literature. He is English, but has started encouraging his Nigerian undergraduate students to write in the rhythms of their native languages, to the consternation of some of his older and better-established colleagues. But who cares what the old farts think? They are young and strong and bright…. with the power to tear down and remake the world…
The other guests are Obi, another Igbo young academic, his wife Ada, a nurse at the new Health Centre in town and another couple, Sam and Chi, both academics. It is a lively group and the conversation flows easily rising and ebbing. The plates are cleared away, my father moves round refilling glasses. The laughter is raucous, the arguments fierce. There is a momentary lull. Someone suggests the radio be put on, to catch the late news. Chilling news, more riots in the North, more Igbos killed, several thousands fleeing home. The mood changes. They are all incensed. The Oxford and Sandhurst trained charismatic young military governor of the Igbo region comes on air to broadcast. His assertions delivered in brisk impeccable English are clear. He will do whatever it takes to protect his people- including going to war. My parents and their friends applaud his speech. Why not? They are young and idealistic and fired by the thought of fighting for freedom and justice. Even Rob joins in vociferous in his support, drawing comparisons with the Spanish Civil War, a just war. And yet one person is silent. My mother’s friend Helen sits silent, her coal black eyes seem to glitter. And then she speaks softly, but insistently “Inyang”, she addresses my mother, “don’t fight. War is not good.” For a second the noise ebbs as they listen to her repeat softly in her Asian inflected American English “Don’t fight.” Then they laugh, my mother leading the chorus and then she responds a trifle cruelly “Go home Helen, go home. If you’re afraid go home. We will fight.” Helen is hurt, her eyes glitter a little more and she grasps at Rob’s hand, she wants to go home. Rob is reluctant, deeply involved as he is with the other men plotting strategy. They have all read Clausewitz. She finally manages to pull him away and they leave. The party soon breaks up.
It is 1968 and dusk in a small village in the Igbo hinterland. My mother is squatted over a fire trying to fan the embers enough to cook the handful of cornmeal she has got from the Relief Station after queuing all day. She has plucked a few leaves off a shrub in the clearing to add some variety to the mess; she has not forgotten the importance of a balanced diet, from those Home Economics classes. My elder brother, a year old tugs at her wrapper, crying. He is hungry. She mixes some skimmed dried milk with water to feed him, noting as she does so that the milk tin is nearly empty. She sighs – haunted by the images of stick thin infants with bloated bellies, too hungry even to cry who she sees daily at the Relief Centre where she goes every day to queue for rations. It is a hard life; my father is away at the warfront. Each time there is news of fresh casualties, her heart tumbles. So many of her friends have been widowed. Her own brother has died fighting. Life is uncertain. Yet she is determined to survive. She is determined not to let my brother go the way of the bloated-bellied ghosts. A shadow falls across the light made by the flickering local lanterns. It is Obi, his gaunt frame made even ghostlier by the elongated shadows. She smiles to welcome him. He has just come from the front. My father is fine and will be home in a day or two, but first Obi is hungry. My mother scrapes the porridge into two plates. My brother perched on her laps; they eat, largely in silence. It is a heavy silence. Obi breaks it pondering, “I wonder where Helen is now?”
My mother is silent. And yet she can hear so clearly a soft voice saying, ” War is not good. Don’t fight, Inyang don’t fight “. She hears herself, another self say loudly, confidently “Go home, Helen, go home if you are afraid go home”. She weeps silently her tears glittering in the firelight, a bitter smile on her face.