A Bleak of Taste
By Chika Onyenezi (Nigeria)
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[It was all I had left for my children--the story of how we made it through every hardship--indeed it was
a bleak time I do not wish anyone to taste. It is a testament of suffering.]
I was all alone in school, in the Hamattan season reciting the little Ibo poem our teacher taught us today. I
would sing it aloud:
"Nwanunu nwanu nta; turuzazaturunza
Ino ebe ahu emegini
Ano mu aturu nnemu ose tukele ka isi atu . . . "
Then I forgot the ending of the music calling the birds. If I didn’t learn it very well, our teacher would flog
us. Our teacher was one I would never forget; she was brisk in her doings. Then I would call her a giant,
but I later discovered that those thought tall at that tender age were only average in height when I got
older. This teacher of mine had two long hairs on her jaw; whenever she was angry it would seem as
though the two hairs joined together to fuel her anger the more. When I told my mother of this wicked
nature of my teacher, she would laugh and tell me that is all the same with women who have bears in
their jaws. She said it to make me endure the pain, but I knew that it pained her too to hear of this
mistreatment given to her tender aged daughter.
As I sat in our school with the ending of the poem gone from my mind, I saw Mum coming to take me
home. She had a basket in her hand, her beautiful face lighted with a smile as she approached me.
All I could do at this time was to fumble into tears. Then my mother would drop her basket and run to me;
she held me tight and asked me the reason of my tears. I would soberly say, "I forgot the ending of the
poem our teacher taught us . . . she will flog me if I don’t recite it tomorrow."
She would ask me to sing the beginning for her. Gently I would hum the poem to her. Then she teased
me, telling me she would teach me the poem at home. I would leap as she held me by the hand, walking
We lived at Enugu city, precisely Uwani. I am the last of the family. My father was a civil servant of the
lowest grade, and was paid a paltry sum that would do for us throughout the month. He was very proud
of his five children because they were all intelligent and exhibited it in their various fields of endeavors.
Our first son was in college then studying as hard as he could. My father also hunted at spare times. He
would take his gun with his friends; they traveled to Ngwo to hunt. He came back with bush meat
each time. He would call us and say: "My children eat meat; you have really suffered; a poor man must
surely find his feast when God wants." He was kind at heart and always wanted good things for the
children-- things within his reach. I would call to him: "Papa! Papa!" whenever he was coming back. I
would run and hug his legs, then he would raise me into the air. I would scratch his moustache in my
palms and say: "Papa the teacher said we should pay our fees when coming to school next week."
He would cry: "Oh my daughter! Being poor isn’t good at all. What is three pennies that I cannot afford.
Don’t cry. I must pay it after my hunting today and I must tell you stories tonight."
Telling stories was the most interesting gift he could ever give to me. That night the moon was full,
glittering on our happy faces. Almost all inhabitants of the public yard surrounded my father, waiting
eagerly to hear his folk stories or his life experiences. This night he chose to tell us this life experience. He
told us of how the British recruited them, gave them guns, and clothed them like soldiers--sending them
to Burma to go and fight for them. My father served as a private during World War Two. He said that
before the war they saw the white men as ghosts who were indestructible; then, in the battle field, we
witnessed them die like chickens. Then they knew they were mere mortals who could equally be made
to leave their country.
He would show us the cut in his left ear and the bruise on his head and say: “That is what the bomb did to
me. I was in the thick forest of Burma digging trenches when the enemies opened fire at us. They pounded
us with several mortars that left people dead, both white and black, beside me. I heard 'Boom!' I tried to
take cover immediately. Ah! I was a hero, but the bomb got me a little and the sound distorted my
hearing for life.”
He didn’t only tell stories; he would demonstrate in a manner of adding animation to the story. He always
fulfilled his obligation. And then I would gradually sleep on my father’s lap like a baby kangaroo in the
There was this cousin of mine that stays with us sometimes. He sang for a group of musicians, but he
never made it as a musician. His name was John. I called him--Dede John. To emphasize that he was my
elder I called him Dede. Dede John liked music. He slept with us in our room. Every night he would turn
on his JVC radio and play old melodies that can never die. He so much loved the Everly Brothers, and
could not do without their track: “Take A Message To Mary.”
I saw him master the music every night till he learned every word in the track. The words he emphasized
" . . . Please don’t mention the stagecoach
And the shot from my careless gun . . . you
Can say she better not wait for me
But don’t tell her I am in jail . . ."
He also liked "Ebony Eyes" and he could sing it from the first word to the last. But the verse that trilled
me most went like this:
"Listen to the ocean
Echoes of a million seashores
Forever is in motion
Listen to the rhythmic and unwritten music . . ."
Every night I saw him play these songs. In the morning he would dress like a gentleman and leave for
hard work. He was a fellow who never made it as big as his future and endeavors seemed. I revolved
around my local father and mother and then my siblings and my gentle cousin who dined with countryside
At school I had two friends called Ngozi and Amaka. They were as little as me. When going to school, I
would go and call them one by one. Along the way I would tell Amaka “I saw Mama Ngozi cooking akpu
nhum, nhum, nhum.” I would close my nose as I mentioned that her mother cooked fermented cassava--
a food for Ibos which we ourselves ate, but we always criticized ourselves whenever we saw each other’s
mothers preparing it.
Amaka would say "Leave Ngozi. They even eat okpa . . . they are from Wawa." Okpa is also a sweet food,
but due to it being prepared by the Wawa people in Enugu, we would tease each other with it. But all of us
At the end of school year, Papa would send us to the village for the Christmas. I would stay beside the
window in the car so that I could catch a glimpse of the running grasses as I called them then. Whenever
you passed grass with speed it would seem as though the grass was running along with your car.
At the village, the car would drop us at the junction for us to find our way. Then an old man on a bicycle
would pass and shout in Ibo, “Hei! Umunnem, unu olalole--my brothers are you back?” He would carry
some of our load for us and head straight to our compound where he would first break the news of our
arrival to our family.
They would all climb on top of their bicycles to come and meet us. They would see us happily trotting
down the dusty road and embrace us. They would carry our remaining load for us and put us on their
bicycles. Then we would ride on the two-wheeled car back home.
At home, Papa would give them what he came with. Even as little as a morsel and they would happily
savor it. In the evening Papa would put on singlet and a pair of shorts. He would take me by my hand so
we would go and visit the village dwellers.
I wondered why their houses should be red mud. I wondered why they should be going to the bush to pick
firewood instead of buying it like my father did. I wondered why they said we are beautiful and well fed,
owing to the fact that they even eat more food than us. I wondered why our dresses should be more
beautiful than their own, and then we would call them village dwellers. I wondered why there was so
much love for our neighborhood in the village, unlike in the township.
I wondered why Papa would share the meat with all his kinsmen and leave only a segment of the goat for
us to eat. The most interesting part of the visit was running in the forest picking firewood. It would seem
as though all the folktales you ever had been told were all true.
The first day I saw a tortoise in one of our visits to the forest. I said to it, "Tricky animal! Tricky animal!"
as though the animal was truly tricky in the real sense. He would exhibit all the characteristics we had
learned in stories; he was slow above all. Then I would remind the poor creature of how he had outrun the
dog to submit death to the gods with his tricky nature; so now we have to die.
Then, on Christmas day we would put on our best clothing--the ones that Papa bought for us. We would
look like princes and princesses; every eye would be on us. The village dwellers shouted: “They are not
from the town! They look beautiful. There they dress. Oh! I wish I could have that dress.”
Knowing fully well that we were well dressed, we would lift our shoulders high and fix a smile on our face
as we walked towards St. Patrick's Catholic Church. Then, after the mass, we would help in killing the
Christmas chicken. We would watch the chicken struggle for its last breath. It would serve us well in the
Then we would put on our Christmas cloth and go to watch the villagers dance. They would dance like the
maiden of spirits, twisting their arms and their waists to the rhythm of the music. Then we would watch
The Masquerade perform. It was the most fearful of all; and when it drew close to out post, we would run
for it not to wipe us with its stick. It would stop and dance to the rhythm of the music, stamping its feet
on the ground, throwing its head up and down in a manner to entertain.
Then we would visit our distant cousins where we would eat food. By the time we came back home a large
moon had already set up in the sky. Mama would shout at us for coming back so late. Papa would in turn
hush her to leave the little children alone . . . that nothing bad would happen to us. And nothing did.
Then the same night our uncle James came and took us to pick udara, which is a fruit. Since I was the
youngest, he would carry me on his shoulder; I held a torch to show the way. Along the way, he would tell
us frightful stories about this fruit and its tree. He said, “In the olden days, these trees were the home of
spirits. Their famous dance of surugede is being footed under this tree. Even up to this day, if you come
here by twelve midnight they will ask you to turn stone into food."
We feared spirits although we never saw them. But we had stories of dead men that still walk on earth.
Till we got to the legendary tree, every place would be dark except for our torch that shone into all
corners. If we heard any movement near us, we would run to my uncle and hold him very strong. He
seemed not to be afraid of the spirits that he told us about. And we had faith in him as a grown up. That
was the zenith of our enjoyment at the village, picking these fruits. Then we would go back to the cold city.
One day after school, I didn’t see my mother. I waited for her to come, but she didn’t, so I decided to go
home by myself. I took a shorter way that my friends told me about--a place I have been longing to see.
The scene was a memorable one; I saw men that work in a coal mine. These coal miners were as black
as blackboard; I wondered if it was their work that made them so.
They were busy removing carbide from their lamps. Some were singing in a meticulous way that drew my
attention. They were not a choir but their song sounded like a slender bell in my ears. They sang an epic
song about a child whose earthen pot fell off her head.
"Nne nne udu arapulamo udum
Nne nne udu arapulamo udum . . . "
The song didn’t slip off my tongue until I got home. I saw people trooping in and out of our house. My
father was outside crying. Some men held him saying: "Be a man; be a man." I was asking myself why
they would ask a man of my father’s age to be a man.
As I approached the house, our second born and first sister ran to me, held me tight and said: "Mama is
dead." Though I was small, I knew what death was all about; Mama was now a ghost in summary. I would
see her no more and she would not come to school to take me home again. I would have to walk back to
our house . . . nobody to buy me chim-chim.
The song of the coal miners came to my mind like a lizard on a log of wood. I sang it in a manner so that all
the people there couldn’t hold themselves any longer. If a painter had been there, he would have painted
something greater than the Mona Lisa. So that when anybody looks at it he would start crying. That night
my elder sister took all of us with a rosary in our hand and we said a "Hail Mary" . . . waiting for a miracle
to occur. That night I dreamt that my mother woke up. We embraced and said a rosary together. In the
morning I went to my father and said, "Has Mummy woken up?"
He answered, no, and I knew he looked at me like a kid. But I knew why I asked that question; I wanted
to know if my dream had happened. But it never happened; she was laid to rest in our home town. I never
saw her again. Truly, of the little I knew about her; she was really a virtuous woman.
A few changes had occurred in my body; I was now grown up. I no longer took my bath in the open like
before. I had a few things to hide and preserve. I wasn’t much interested in politics, but the turbulence in
the country forced me to sit beside the resistor with every member of the family.
We listened to the trends of events in the nation. General Aguiyi Ironsi had been brutally butchered in a
coup. Ibos were being maimed. We had our hero, Ojukwu, who stood up before the government to tell
them the present situation of the Ibos was unacceptable. We had him declare Biafra!
We heard of how he used English to turn Gowon heads and he signed the agreement at Aburi, allowing the
Ibos to be an entity of their own. When my father’s friend Udo told the stories of Ojukwu it would seem as
though he was there in a humorous manner of wit. We all agreed with the Aburi Agreement; I even
bought a shirt boldly written: On Aburi we Stand. We believed in Biafra more than any other thing. We
listened to Ojukwu broadcast the day he declared Biafra. We rejoiced. My father bought a keg of palm
wine to celebrate Ojukwu’s bravery and tenacious attitude. He stood like a hero in our hearts. Uncle Udo
said "Ibos can beat Hausas; let them come over here. Gowon will be shamed. Our youth are strong and
brave. We are very ready to fight." Even my father said he would carry his gun and go to the battle front
if worst come to worst. We waited for the worst as though we could curtail the Nigerian aggressiveness.
One day I was in the bathroom taking my bath when I heard frightening sounds raining in Enugu. I could
hear Boom! Boom! Boom! Ratatatatatata, sounding endlessly across the whole Enugu. Then I heard a
large bang across our yard. Quickly I ran out of the bathroom with only a towel on my waist and over my
body. I saw that the building beside our own had been struck down, then I saw the plane hover around
still dropping its stools.
Men, woman and children were running around seeking a place to hide. Children were crying for their
mother; mothers were crying for their dead sons and husbands. The scene was indescribable. I saw Papa
running in panic; he held us all and counted us with his head. Only my uncle wasn’t around, but soon he
dashed in with soot all over his body. We never had time to ask him what happened. We picked a few
things we could lay our hands on; almost all our properties were left behind. Everybody was running away
from the sound of the guns and bombs, and so were we. We had no car to go in, just on foot. We trekked
for about five kilometers. Along the way we saw Biafra soldiers dressed in that beautiful uniform with the
symbol of the rising sun on its arm. Papa said "We will win within a few days. They will conquer them and
then we will return to Enugu." But it never happened that way.
We didn’t feel the distance when we trekked because other people were just like us. A car passed us and
drove back; the man in the car shouted my father’s name, Orji. My father turned and saw our village man
in the car. That was how we got to our village with nothing like before, when we had prepared for the visit.
Unlike my father’s expectation of the war ending soon; it didn’t. It lingered on. The eastern zones were
plunged into turmoil with the war spreading like a disease into all of the cities of Biafra. Then we started
farming in the village for survival. Papa put palm fronds on top of our zinc, which almost everyone in the
village did so that the enemy’s aircraft wouldn’t sight us. Fortunately, in my village there was never a
direct attack throughout the war. The only attack was the one of our stomachs. The peaceful people
became fierce in character and manner of living.
In these conditions one boy went and stole so that he and his family would have something to eat. He stole
two yams from a neighboring town; they caught him and buried him alive. Have you seen where a healthy
man is bundled like a goat, and the young men dig the soil, and they throw him inside? If you hear his
cries, his pleadings, his shouting, then your life will never be the same from that day onwards. Mine
changed as I saw them execute this young man at the market square.
Then our father called all of us and said, "Please my children don’t steal. Whatever we see we will eat. God
will keep us alive." We ate whatever we saw like lizards, the light brown back of cassava. But yet it wasn’t
enough for all of us. The tempo heightened when the soldiers came and took my only brother; he was
forcefully recruited into the army. Everyday with empty stomachs we prayed fervently for his safe
return. Papa never abandoned us; together like ants we worked for food. Later my village Awo-Omamma
was used for distribution of relief materials by the CARITAS organization. We were there to collect relief
materials. I know a handful of children that were killed by Kwashiorkor. Many lost their lives. I will
always tell my children that war is not worth experiencing.
After three years of gun shots, cries, and weeping our hero Ojukwu went into exile and the next in
command surrendered to the Nigerian government. We thought everything would go back to normal, but
we were wrong. The Nigerian government made policies that would reduce us to nothing. Even in the
bank any amount of Biafra pounds you had were just exchanged for twenty Nigerian pounds.
My brother came back safely from the battle; he is our veteran and hero up to this day. When we got back
to Enugu all our property had been carted away. Even our rooms had been occupied by a man who said he
knew nothing about the loss of our property. So, we started the world afresh. I was then forced to take up
a job in order to help the family.
Later, my elders started to do better in their various endeavors of life. Things eventually came back to
normal. The death of my Mum and the Biafra War had been a bleak of taste in my life.