|The NEW GONG
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Excerpts from War Games
Grandpa always did his best to please us, just as Mama always did her best to please him. She gave him
from the meals she cooked and he gave us one farm produce or the other, and every other day a live
chicken. I later discovered that the chickens came from his numerous clients for Grandpa was at this time
coming to the end of a legendary career as a healer and magician who specialised in the treatment of
I often watched him with curiosity as he performed his daily rituals before a collection of sticks, all measuring
about two feet in length gathered in a heap close to the fence by one of the coconut trees. Seeing me as I
observed Grandpa strangle a cock and sprinkle its blood and feathers on the sticks, Mama drew me aside
and warned me never to partake of any chicken killed in such rituals; that I would go to hell if I partook of
meals cooked in pagan worship. But she needn't have worried because I gave Grandpa a wide berth and
wouldn't let him touch me. Besides, I had concluded on my own that he was in league with dark and
Under pressure from Obiukwu, Grandpa's youngest son, Mama gave Grandpa one of the radio sets we had
brought from Jos. Obiukwu argued that it would be good company for him and his cronies. But one morning
shortly afterwards, we were startled by Grandpa's sharp, angry tone and went to see what was the matter.
We found him addressing the radio, which was in a corner. Other people in the compound had also come
and were equally puzzled.
"Eredi!" was how he called the radio. "Eredi!" he shouted, glowering at the little object which continued
chattering away, oblivious of the old man. "Eredi, is it me you said will die in this land, Eredi? Aaaaaa!!
Eweeee!!!" he moaned.
He was visibly pained. In fact, he seemed poised to pounce on it and was only restrained by Mama. Obiukwu
quickly took the radio away. It took some effort to persuade him that the radio couldn't have known him
personally and so couldn't have been referring to him; that he must have misheard.
I had watched the whole event from a safe distance, holding on to Betty's skirt. Although I didn't know what to
make of the situation, it confirmed my earlier suspicions that my so-called Grandpa was up to no good, and I
still couldn't believe that this impostor was the one that I had made so much of in my imagination.
Many years later, I still wondered about that particular incident. Did Grandpa calm down because of Mama's
persuasion or simply because he was fond of her? Did he go mad himself after having spent so many years
dealing with madness? But he subsequently regained his old self and never betrayed any signs of
derangement. Perhaps, I concluded, the incident was his own way of acknowledging that his world was dying
and that newfangled ways were taking over.
Air raids had been one of the most discussed aspects of war among adults before they actually started.
Weeks later, we began to contend with the reality of planes suddenly appearing in the sky and dropping
bombs all over the place. To survive, we had to develop the habit of dashing for cover once the planes came
Suddenly, enemy planes would be over the city, usually two at a time, a fighter and a bomber; and the cry of
“air raid” would go out, followed by bedlam as people rushed out of their homes and headed for the nearest
bush. But the swooping planes with thunderous roars were even more disconcerting than the exploding
bombs, and the rockets they fired often transfixed people to a spot with terror. Normally, the planes would
have finished their bombing mission and gone before most people actually got to a shelter.
On recovering their breath, people would wait to make sure the planes were not coming back - as they often
did - before stepping out. Some would discover that their homes had been blown away along with the meals
they had been preparing; that a baby had been blown to pieces while sleeping in its cot; that a mother had
been chopped up with the baby she had been suckling and could only be identified by the hairdo hanging to
parts of her brain matter. I couldn’t help wondering what the adults meant when they said they were ready for
war because they didn’t seem ready for what was now happening.
Mama seemed the least ready of all. The first day there was an air raid she had been at the market. The two
planes circled overhead for some time and people were still speculating that they were probably cargo
planes bringing weapons for Biafra when they suddenly swooped down, firing rockets and dropping bombs.
Mama lost her bag and shoes in the pandemonium. Subsequently, she would often raise false alarms.
One day, there was a particularly intense raid which lasted over an hour. Each time the planes were thought
to have gone and people had begun to emerge from their shelters, they would come swooping down again. I
had fled with Mama into the bush near our house, where we stayed for hours, waiting for it to abate. At one
point when things appeared to have calmed sufficiently, we decided to return home, but just as we were
approaching the threshold of the house there was a sudden roar overhead as the planes returned, spitting
We ran towards the bush for cover once more, Mama pulling me along beside her lest she lose me in the
stampede. As we entered the bush, there were deafening explosions behind us. A man lying flat on the
ground shouted at us: “Take cover! Take cover!” Mama fell flat on the ground, pushing me down in the
process while shrapnel whizzed above our heads. We lay there breathing heavily, thinking that we were
already dead. A tiny piece of metal fell beside me and I instinctively grabbed it. “Hhhaaarrrghrrrrr!!!” I
screamed dropping the object instantly as a burning pain penetrated my whole being, shaking me from head
to toe. Mama screamed too, thinking I had been hit, but then saw the object I had dropped. My palm was
scalded. She started rebuking me but people around pleaded that I was merely a child.
“It’s not his fault that there is a war,” the man who had told us to take cover said. “What do the innocent
children know about this war which the adults have brought upon them?”
By now, the planes had gone. But as they had already done so repeatedly, only to return, everyone stayed
put. It was not until evening that people emerged from their shelters to take a toll of the dead. We found that
Benson, Papa’s head apprentice, was no more. He had been blown to pieces and was only identified by the
stump of an ankle still stuck in one of his shoes.
Benson was the only apprentice Papa took along with him when he moved to Umuahia. The others were told
to wait to see if normalcy returned. And now he was dead.
For Mama, the toll on the family was the signal that it was time to leave Umuahia for the relative safety of
Amafor. Papa, however, opted to remain behind and watch developments, along with most of the menfolk.
The sheer impunity with which the enemy planes conducted their raid on that particular day was a clear
demonstration of the superior weaponry of the federal forces, adults said. Many expressed frustration that
the world powers were not coming to our rescue, as had been generally hoped.
It slowly dawned on me that, as the sun rose and set and day turned into night, the weeks rolled into months,
the seasons succeeded each other, the rains followed the dry season and a year rolled by. Within this cycle,
I began to discern, first a pattern, then a concept, of what I would later identify as existence.
The year was coming to an end and daylight now broke with unusual clarity. Soon after the sun appeared, it
quickly shed its golden tones for the hot silver of light that burned all day long, forcing people and animals to
seek shade. As dusk approached, it briefly assumed a deep, golden hue before dropping behind the horizon,
all the time unchallenged by rain clouds. After the first few weeks of this, dry northerly winds began to waft
through the trees once again, turning one’s skin ashen and making one’s lips dry and scaly.
Under the combined onslaught of the scorching sun and the dry winds, all the green of the homestead farms
disappeared, to be replaced by various shades of ochre. Shrivelled yam tendrils (deprived of the
nourishment of already harvested tubers), dry stalks of okro, melon and fluted pumpkin tangled our feet and
wrestled us down as we romped through the farms. The only greenery left were the between-season
cassava, other perennials growing in the farms, hedges made of shrubs, and small trees that delineated the
homestead boundaries, as well as the big trees and palms.
It was easy to tell a ripened udala tree by the well-trampled dry season bush around it. The children gathered
beneath its many branches awaiting the fall of its sweet, succulent, pinkish-yellowish fruit which swayed
tantalisingly in the wind. A fall every now and then provoked a rush. The winner would split it open to reveal
the five seeds embedded in pink flesh dripping milky, treacly juice. He might share it with others or eat it
alone but more would surely fall and he would be treated the same way he treated others.
Two such udala trees, each about thirty feet tall with huge spreading boughs and branches, stood in front of
the Odukwe compound, towards the outer reaches of our homestead farm. It was a meeting place for the
neighbourhood children during the dry, cold harmattan. In the mornings, we gathered there huddling beside
a fire someone had made, waiting for the fruit to fall. We also congregated there during idle moments in the
day and engaged in various sports - wrestling, six-in-a-row or three-in-a-row - or just kicked up sand while we
waited for the fruit to fall in order to eat the sticky sap which congealed into a gum-like texture, its marks
visible around our mouths, chests and overfed tummies that were coated with a fine dust.
While waiting for the udala to fall, we drifted into other activities. By mid-morning, the sun would begin to
assert itself, and with it the intermittent pops of the foot long pods of the oil bean trees. We hunted them
down and often, by afternoon, our bowls would be filled with udala fruits and oil bean seeds as we made our
way home for lunch.
We would return afterwards to any of the previous activities, depending on which held out the best prospects.
But by late afternoon, we would turn our attention to our regular chores, such as gathering firewood or
fetching water, collecting fodder for the goats in the pen, and bringing back sheep that had been taken out to
pasture in the morning.
By dusk, when we had completed our chores and our mothers were busy cooking, we would return to the feet
of the udala trees and await the benevolent fall of their juicy fruit. If we were in the mood for playing ancestral
spirits, we would make our own mask, the okporiokpo, by tearing off dry leaf stalks of banana or plantain,
tying them together with their tails falling down loosely, and draping them over our heads. In this way, we
achieved the grotesque expression of the real masked spirits. And then we would chase each other about
until it was too dark to see or because a fight had broken out between two boys. Then we would go home for
What happened after supper depended on the moon: if full or even half full, we would be up and about until
late. We either played games or listened to tales told by the adults. And from various directions, far and near,
the throb of drums and the rhythm of gongs flowed and ebbed according to the direction of the wind as new
dances were being learnt in different quarters of Amafor or nearby towns. Many people also took the
opportunity of moonlit nights to go to the Ogwugwu stream and save on their daylight hours.
If there was no moon, a blanket silhouette covered Amafor from the height of the vegetation downwards,
while the lighter grey above made the sky look like a raised lid. Obiukwu once told me that the lightness of
the sky on such nights was evidence that some people, somewhere, were enjoying daylight while we were in
darkness. (But I later noticed that on cloudy nights in the rainy season, a uniform darkness united the sky
and the earth.) On moon-less nights, we children went to bed early.
Even in the dry season, preparations were already underway for the next planting season. Shallow compost
pits dug in the homestead farms harvested two or three months earlier were steadily filled with organic waste
from the compound. After the first rains of February and March, these pits were covered with topsoil, burying
the compost in the mounds to provide manure. Seed yams were planted on top of the mounds when the rains
started in earnest, and the tendrils were mulched to preserve moisture. A successful farming season
depended on predicting the first rains accurately; and when it was felt that the earth was sufficiently wet and
that the rainy season was well underway, maize, pumpkins, melon, okra, and beans were planted on the
sides and towards the base of the mounds.
I watched Grandpa keenly that first season I spent in Amafor as he went about the homestead farms.
Obiukwu, his youngest son and the only one young enough to run his errands, assisted him. And I assisted
Obiukwu because he was always explaining things to me. The yam mounds had been prepared by Grandpa’
s other young male children who were still bachelors: Amanchi, Anselm and Obiukwu. Grandpa then collected
from his barn the yams he had kept over from the last season. With Obiukwu, I watched as he sliced the
tubers into three pieces, making sure that each piece retained the top skin from where the shoot would
When he had filled two baskets, Obiukwu and I carried them to the farm and placed a slice on the crest of
every mound. Grandpa followed behind, opening the top of each mound and pushing in the slice of yam,
ensuring as he did so that the germinating eye faced upwards. I found it difficult to believe that they were
going to grow into huge, whole yams as Obiukwu said, and had to get Grandpa to confirm it. But even then I
still found it hard to believe. It was also with the same feeling that I watched his wives, Akuno (Anselm and
Amanchi’s mother) and Uyanma (Uncle Emeka’s mother) as they and their daughters went about planting the
maize, melons and pumpkins.
But everything depended on the rains. As I heard the adults say, sometimes the first rains came as usual and
then ceased abruptly, not to return for weeks. Farmers who miscalculated would watch in agony as the
sprouting shoots shrivelled and died. However, by late March/early April of this particular year, the rains
became more frequent. It was now that the cultivation of the distant farms, the mainstay of farming in Amafor,
got under way. Work in the distant farms continued until June, after which attention shifted to weeding and
tending the homestead farms. With the women and children doing the weeding, Grandpa was busy leading
the yam tendrils to climb the tall stakes in order to spread their leaves fully. He seemed to do this with great
pleasure and sang and whistled while at it. The words of the song intrigued me.
It told of a champion wrestler who insisted on contesting in the land of the spirits. The first spirit resembled an
ordinary human being and he won. The second had two heads and he won again. He also won against the
one with three heads and the one with four heads. The spirits then took offence and brought his personal
god, his chi. Its body glittered in the sunlight as it approached but the wrestler could see that it was made of
thorns. His flutist, who had all the while been blowing inspiration and tactics to him from the boundary
between the human and the spirit worlds, had overheard the spirits and played a tune for him to run for his
life because no one had ever won a fight against his chi. Hearing this, the wrestler fled. Just as he was
scaling the wall that separated the two worlds, his chi caught up with him and gave him a long, deep scratch
on his back.
After singing each stanza, Grandpa would whistle a solo mimicking the flutist, making the same quavering
sounds he affected in his singing. Each note glided seamlessly into the next, the waves washing up on the
shores of my senses. My curiosity was roused and I found myself asking him if the story was true.
“As true as daylight,” he said to me. “That scar is what has healed and appears as the furrow in the back of
“Grandpa!” I cried, incredulous.
“Yes. The very one you have, which I have, which everyone has,” he said, coming over to touch the furrow
formed by my backbone. He smiled at me and winked and the wrinkles around his eyes rippled in sympathy.
After tending the farms, nature was left to do the rest. By now, the rains were an everyday affair, sometimes
falling for several days without cease, now slowing to a drizzle, now pouring in a deluge. On some days the
sun would shine brilliantly, but with the rapid evaporation that followed, rainfall invariably followed the next
day. For a while this pattern would be maintained, with a day of sunshine alternating with a day of rain, which
the elders said was best for the crops. Too much of either was harmful. In June and July, maize and
vegetables were harvested. By August, the yams, especially in the homestead farms which had been planted
earlier, were brought in. But most families waited for the New Yam Festival before consuming the new harvest.
On the day of the Festival, every family cooked yam, which was feasted on after prayers. Grandpa offered
yam to the gods by placing some boiled pieces before his shrine, which was actually a cluster of medicinal
trees and shrubs in front of our compound. Fresh palm fronds were tied around the shrine to indicate the
solemnity of the occasion. His wives also offered pieces of boiled yam to their personal gods, each
represented by a small tree planted in front of their hut. After the festival, harvest began in earnest and
shifted to the distant farms.
Not long after that year’s festival, Grandpa died. When he initially fell ill, everyone assumed that he would
recover quickly. But this didn’t happen and his two unmarried daughters, Agnes and Felicia, who were
nursing him, became increasingly anxious. Then one day, in the middle of the night, I was woken by the loud
wailings of adults in our compound. I panicked.
“Grandpa is dead!” Mama said when she saw that I was awake. She turned up the flame of the lantern and I
noticed she had been crying.
“So we won’t see him anymore,” I said, for that was all death meant to me at the time.
“Yes,” she said and urged me to go back to sleep before she went to keep vigil with the other women.
When I woke up in the morning, Grandpa was truly nowhere to be seen. Mama told me he was buried just
before the grey light of dawn. His funeral was postponed indefinitely because, being a healer, it was a taboo
to hold it during a war. It would have to wait until the war ended.