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The Biafran Recruiters: A Tale From the Nigerian Civil War
Monday, January 8, 1968. At five o’clock in the morning, Oderah, almost six years old, had been awake for a while. Tucked between Kenko and Bartholomew, on a thin, hand-made reed rug, he reviewed the ceiling, and looked several times at the blank walls. Where two walls met, he lowered his gaze, contemplating the Unukwu-Udu Mmiri – a wide earthenware pot that held drinking water – covered on top by a flat plate on which he placed an upside-down cup down without a hand.
Oderah and his brothers slept in one of those rooms in the middle of the house. The only rear window connected to the room was closed, making it difficult to tell if the moon was long in the night when she was out or if the sun was rising early. Despite that, all Oderah could think of was to get up and leave without waking the brothers.
Farming, knitting, breeding, selling, saving and stuffing keep children in overdrive during wartime. How Kenko and Bartho managed to still be asleep despite the activities ahead of them worried Oderah as he tried to stop his inner turmoil. Maybe they came to lie next to him late at night. This mat, as smooth as palm oil, made no noise when placed on it.
‘Because of the war situation,’ he noticed, ‘three brothers are now tied together on a narrow carpet, on a cold cement floor in a small room. But for how long?’ When any of them were up, they wanted to escape from the others and continue with their own ventures.
The adults were the most absent, and many men did not return to their villages; many others, for fear of the recruiters, were in hiding. The children of the war will do everything they can to help, to stay alive while the war lasts.
No one does any work lying down on a cold mat. All he had to do was get to the door, a yard away from his toes. “How helpful this porter is,” he thought, “to open the door when he turns, without letting out a scream.”
It was a matter of concern for him at this time how to get off the rug cleanly, without waking Kenko or Bartho. Once he was on his feet, he could jump towards the door which would make the sound of a pin coming down.
If Oderah was sleeping on his stomach this would not have mattered. Like a monkey on all fours, he would have crawled back, cleared the rug and his brothers, and stood when he approached the porter. Repentance filled his little heart.
Switching from a supine sleeping position to a prone position in such a tight spot would draw the ire of Kenko, who sure as hell, even in a deep sleep, would throw a proper elbow punch aimed at the ribs the guilty. Also futile, as the mat was slippery with no grip, the idea was to slide on his back down the mat.
Only one option remained possible. Beside the three heads, indeed, at arm’s reach, was a chest as strong as termite mounds, with four iron legs. Time and time again, Oderah had used the lever of the sofa to get off the mat. This morning should be no different.
Lying on his back, he extended his left hand back over his shoulder to grip the iron leg closest to the sturdy sofa. Similarly, his right hand was tied to another iron leg. Using his chest muscles for strength, careful not to tangle with his brothers, he pulled his entire body up across the flat surface of the mat, like dice on a draft board, stopping when he came near the top.
At the same time when he pulled, like an acrobat turning his head above his heels, he went back, changing to a crawling position. Back on his feet, he waited for an answer. None came. His movement was flawless, and Kenko didn’t throw an elbow. He went half way round the bat and to the door, turned the porter, and crossed the short but wide corridor behind him.
Farther away and a little to her right was the kitchen, the door incapable of latching, open wide enough for Oderah to enter without lifting a finger. On one of the low wooden shelves was a box of matches. Oderah recovered and struck a match and directed the flame to a nearby location ogbeidimbua locally made incandescent device, which looks like a candle bending in an empty glass tumbler.
The joy lit up his face when he noticed, scanning the kitchen for disorder, that his drum was staying exactly where it was, in a corner behind the kitchen door.
Picking up the paint drum with his curved metal handle, he lifted it onto a low wooden stool in the middle of the kitchen next to a mortar. A hard-edged metal knife opened the lid easily every time he came to check, which was usually several times a day. He grabbed a knife, but soon after had a change of heart. One of the rodents may be ready to jump out of the drum and get away.
‘Put the knife back on the wooden shelf’ Oderah said to himself. After complying, he glanced at the diamond-shaped vent in the center of the roof cover. Five trembling shadows assured him that the five rodents were still alive.
Pleasure and reverence came over him. He began to be a man who took pride, not only in keeping peace among these captive creatures, but also in serving for himself. Who knew how far this campaign could go? If the mice would breed and learn how to live amicably, he could have enough to feed the children of another town who were starving in a time of war.
At the heels of every joy comes regret, and so it was with Oderah. Inside the drum, he remembered, was a rat with a fresh wound, and a predatory neighbor. The predator, a chubby predator with the jaws of a tiger and the hairy neck of a chimp, had clawed at the rear thigh of its scrawny relative. Looking down on the big hairy rodent had, many times, discouraged him from threatening his neighbors. Again, Oderah reached for the metal knife with which he could open the lid.
Just as he bent over the box again, a noise came from the backyard behind the kitchen. Still gripping the metal knife, he took two steps to the rear windows, loosened the vertical bolt and quietly opened the left window pane.
Although the moon had not completely set, there was only a glimmer of sunlight, not strong enough to dispel the city’s foul smog, which made it difficult but not impossible to reasonable view from a keen observer to enter.
Looking down in search of where the sound came from, Oderah saw the backs of the two Leopards as they held onto the high edge of the block wall, their feet leading into the backyard. Every child in the community knew how recruiters paraded their captives through the streets of earthly towns but none, as far as Oderah could tell, had seen them scale a fence.
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