25 Jun The Darkest Night
Mgbe abalị kachasị njọ, n’ezie, ọbịbịa.
After the darkest night, surely comes dawn.
The Darkest Night
Night fell quickly. The sun fled the sky, and the moon refused to start its shift, leaving the earth in absolute darkness. The darkness, like a thick blanket, was warm and comforting. Ilo slowed his pace, sticking closer and closer to the floor until he was crawling in the dirt. The grass was sharp and brittle, tearing his knees. Still, patches of grass, sprinkled on the dry soil, were still more forgiving than the earth itself. Ilo kept crawling. He could hear hisses and weird sounds rising around him. Yet, he kept crawling. He knew the only way to leave Kano, as per his mother’s instruction, would be to get to the bus station in time for the first bus leaving in the morning. So Ilo kept crawling, further and further, deeper into the night.
Ilo was born late. Very late. His mother had been to many doctors, pastors, and spiritual healers, none of which could tell her when her first child would be coming. She frequented prayer seminars, being the loudest woman in the front of the crowd, casting away the demons and devils that had locked her uterus and run away with the key. Then five years became seven and then slowly but surely she stopped trying. The seminars, prayers, and visits to secret caves belonging to fertility gods seized. She became a shadow of herself, shrunken and withered in embarrassment. She could no longer bear the taunting looks of new mothers in the market, or her mother-in-law’s constant visits suggesting a new “place of wonder and children” to go. She could no longer bear her husbands’ comforting hugs and reassurances. She had become lost to her misery, a slave to it. Smiling became a thing of the past, a memory of when hope still throbbed. Life seemed wasted on her, the way she trudged from place to place, face sullen and eyes drooped.
So, fifteen years into their marriage, her husband decided a change of environment would do her good.
“Obim.” Normally they ate in silence as though talking would make their food taste sweeter. He tried to call her again. “Obim.” That was his nickname for her, meaning ‘My Heart’. And when his heart was broken, how could he enjoy his food? “Obim, I’m calling you.”
She nodded and stopped eating, her eyes glued to the floor. He sighed and continued speaking.
“Obim, we’re moving to the North. My friend there is moving to England and he sent a letter saying I should take over his business.” She nodded but said nothing. He sighed again and dropped his plate to the floor. It was settled then. They would leave Nsukka and it’s old, quaint ways behind.
It was in her first year in Kano that she fell pregnant. At first, she mistook the symptoms of her pregnancy to be her body trying to get used to the harsh, dry Kano environment. After fifteen years of trying, missing her period was not a sign of hope, but a sign of despair. Age had caught up with her, she assumed, she was finally beyond children. So if anything, while she carried a child, she fell further into depression. It was after a few months, when her pregnancy became obvious, that her joy returned. The joy that was stolen from her years ago, after her marriage, returned with a tremendous magnitude. She had the child, and she named him Ilozumba meaning their distant home, the home that had hindered her womb, had now been forgotten.
Ilo grew up Hausa. He grew tall, dark and lean, whipped by the northern winds until every semblance to his Igbo parents was dropped. He joked with the herdsmen, spoke fluent Hausa and wore long flowing kaftans. Visitors to his house even assumed him to be the Hausa servant. The only reminders of his origin being the language he shared with his parents and his name, ironic because his distant home had now been completely forgotten.
The tension had been growing, and all the Igbo people had been acutely aware of it. Locales were a lot terser in the street. Hello’s and Hi’s seized, and drawing stares at marketplaces was a lot more common. But the events of 29th May 1966 were unprecedented. It started when Ilo’s mother came back from the market, short of breath, her skin gleaming with sweat. Ilo ran out into the blinding sun in response to his mother’s screams from the yard.
“Mama, what is wrong?” He ran to his mother’s aid, helping her to the entrance of her house. She sat on the floor now weeping, tears mixed with sweat streaming down her face. He repeated the question, but his mother’s attempt to speak came out as a stream of blubbering.
“Where’s Papa?” He remembered his mother and father leaving the house that morning with the car to go to the market because walking was no longer safe. “Where’s the car?” His mother shrunk further to the floor, blubbering and tugging at his kaftan. He was going to ask another question when loud noises at the gate interrupted him. Men clad in long kaftans, wielding cutlasses and large sticks burst into the compound, yelling vague statements in Hausa. They charged straight for his mother, their yelling growing louder as they drew closer drowning out his mother’s quiet sobs. Then he heard his mother’s voice, her Igbo frail, and quiet amidst the aggressive Hausa chants but her words unmistakable.
“They killed your father. Cut his head off while we were walking back to the car. I couldn’t warn him.” The Hausa men were even closer now. One of them beckoned at Ilo and yelled at him to leave his employer. Even now they mistook him for the help. His mother continued talking, her Igbo rushed but quiet.
“They think you’re one of them. I’d rather die in your hands than in theirs. Kill me then run. Leave tomorrow for the south.” Ilo blinked. It was like one of those ludicrous dreams that make you shudder when you wake up. Another shout from the Hausa man brought him back to reality. His mother was in his arms and a small army of Hausa men in front of him. These Hausa men would not kill him except if he provoked them. “Ilo, I love you. Just do it.” His mother looked at him, her eyes clouded over, her mouth in a lazy smile. He couldn’t. And then the Hausa man pushed him aside and grabbed his mother up. She winced, and the chanting intensified. Ilo could not do anything. He watched as they held his mother up and selected the one who would swing the cutlass. He sat on the floor, wooden with fear and shock. And he did nothing but watch as the cutlass ate through his mother’s neck, the sound of crushing bone and the spurting of blood occupying his senses. He watched, still wooden as his mother’s headless body tumbled unto the floor, a river of blood streaming unto the brown Kano earth.
Ilo had waited, frozen to the floor until the Hausa mobsters had left. They had gone with his mother’s head, parading it around the town, singing songs of conquest. He had stared at his mother’s headless body until night had fallen, thick and dark. It had brought him the comfort of no longer being able to see his mother’s body. Then he stood, and he ran, his mother’s words ringing in his ears.
He got to the bus stop early. The sun was just rising, slowly banishing the darkness and melting its steely grip on the land. He calmed himself down and found a bus to Abuja. Finding a bus directly to Nsukka would be expensive and too obvious. Abuja would be safe. Ilo was just one of the many people that had been rendered homeless that day. The frustration of the Hausa over the excessive power the Igbos’ had in government was the ever-present fuel to the flame of genocide. Hundreds of thousands of Igbo people had been killed and would still be killed in the Anti-Igbo Pogrom that continued for several weeks as the Hausa did what they believed was right and assumed control over the government. He was one of the lucky few to escape Kano that day. Nowhere in the north was safe including Abuja. But Ilo did not know that. He saw a bus and settled at the back, next to the window. The sun’s early light streamed through the window unto his face. And then he began to weep.