By Chioma Iwunze-Ibiam.
Can we forget the fight we had the other day? We shouldn’t have said those hurtful things to each other. It hurt to see you cry. And when you stormed out of the house, I realised that I had overreacted. Forgive me, my child.
You’re probably wondering—I know because you’re my daughter: did she mean all she said?
It’s true, I wasn’t happy to hear that you were searching for your father’s people and that you were writing his memoir. One can’t be happy about reopening old wounds and digging up buried memories, but perhaps, it was all fated to happen. So I have summoned up the courage to write this letter.
I’m not sure exactly what to say – how much to tell you. Perhaps, I should tell it all. It’s a dangerous territory, but I am not afraid of the truth—one becomes less afraid of the truth with age. Sometimes, I think my life is over. The truth is: I am afraid for you.
I could tell you everything about that era. How, before the war, I doubled as backup and dancer for Rex Lawson when I was studying at the University of Ibadan, and how I traveled far and wide with the revolutionaries I loved. When I wasn’t dancing or studying, I went on outings with artists or soldiers, for they were the kind of men I fancied. But I don’t want to bore you, what with your job and the memoir. So I’ve enclosed in this letter a photo of me in Ghana, during a tour. I’m smiling and standing to the right of Rex, my long lashes catching the flash of the camera. Adaure, did you know my afro used to turn heads? Your father isn’t in the picture. Although, we had met at the National Arts Theatre—this was shortly after his return from India. Someone introduced us, probably one of the directors. I can’t remember who now.
When I heard your father’s name on the radio, I sat down and absorbed every word he spoke. It was just after the first coup d’état, and he was talking about the revolution we needed. Shortly afterwards, the riots ensued, and he was thrown into Kirikiri Maximum Prison. Later, when we heard of the counter coup, we knew that trouble was brewing. Yet, I stayed around until the pogrom reached the West. Then, I quit dancing and returned to Eket. My father welcomed me home with one-and-a-half arms—he had lost half in the pogrom—and news that he had started work as the clan rainmaker. Whenever he wanted appeasement, he called upon rain. It had rained and poured at his brother’s funeral, a sign of his grief. He had even predicted thirty months of war on the day Aunt Mfon returned from Kano with the head of her daughter in a calabash. No one had understood this, but she said she couldn’t bear to see the murderers parade her daughter’s head on a stick. You have probably heard that tale. But, I digress.
To retell this story is to relive those experiences. As I write, my bones are weak and my heart is heavy with grief—and do not think that this has anything to do with the arthritis or the cold harmattan breeze blowing through my curtains. It’s the memories that make me shiver. It’s true that I’m exhausted from queuing at the State Secretariat for my pensions. Last month, Mrs. Okoh slumped in the sun. Security men carried her lifeless body away and the rest of us covered up her space in the queue. I miss Mrs. Okoh, but the thought of her death isn’t the cause of my shivering.
Has life changed much since the war ended? In some ways, but not very much. During the war, we stood in long queues, waiting for relief materials. When people collapsed they were taken away. You must believe me when I say, some things have changed. I remember your father talking animatedly about his plans of fighting the apartheid in South Africa. Just seven months ago, while I watched President Mandela’s inauguration, I imagined your father cheering in his grave, and I wept. I wished your father had survived that fruitless war. But what a useless wish that was. We were all shaped by the events of the time. It had all been predetermined.
To earn more money, I started dancing again. I traveled down to the South-East and joined a high-life band, which entertained troops. I earned enough money to take care of basic needs and to send home to relatives. It was on one of these trips that I met your father again. I fell in love with your father, the Biafran soldier, who had championed the first coup. My mother and I abandoned our lunch as we listened to his post-coup speech. His voice was firm and courageous, yet I shook with fear. What would happen next? What did he mean? Nobody knew that his coup would plunge the county into a war.
Your man, the artist, reminds me of this revolutionary Biafran soldier who wrote me love poems from war fronts. Poems which filled me with hope as I read them with my peers. He was my hero. But his heroism brought him many misfortunes. Both factions considered him an incorrigible rebel. He knew this, but hardly talked about it.
“Men like him do not last long.” My father had remarked in one of his letters. But by then, it seemed as though love had exhausted my will to leave him.
Your father was a disciplined man, probably the most decent man I ever loved—and you can guess by now that I have horrible taste in men. I suppose I fell too quickly for him. It is true that I had believed in his lofty dreams; I even made them my own. Sometimes, I had my doubts. It became clear to me that men—or even women—who tried to enforce a perfect world crumbled under the weight of injustice. I tried to tell him, but I was afraid. Of what? Losing him? Perhaps. But certainly not that he would put a bullet in my head. I don’t believe he was that kind of man.
Now, I’m afraid. You are treading the same path I trod. Adaure, loving a rebel will intoxicate you like old wine. Your heart will dance and then, he’ll disappear like a cloud of smoke. Don’t furrow your brows because you feel your soul is tied to that artist. Can you predict a love that hasn’t been tested in a war? Trust me, the machinations of the human heart are as mysterious as the rainmaker’s work. I just tipped the blinds to be reassured by the automobiles passing by, that it’s the mid-nineties. Perhaps, love is different from what it was in the late sixties.
Back then, love was rolling in a trench with shrapnel falling all around us. Love was gathering the frills of a lilac engagement gown, fleeing from chain-bombs and jumping into a ditch. I know a woman for whom love was kissing the bullet wound on her lover’s forehead seconds after he had been killed by a sniper from the Notorious Greenhouse. Yes, that was love. It was gruesome. Love also included a frightening discovery: an embryo nestling in my womb, weeks after your father’s death had been announced on the radio. Your father cut a more mysterious figure in death. Conspiracy theories abound about how he had been ambushed and shot in the back. No one has been able to explain why they gorged out his eyes, or why the government was reluctant to send his corpse to his people. It’s a good thing they eventually did; at least I got to say goodbye.
Fate indulged the superstitious and the empiricist too. True, you consider the former irrational. Both philosophies kept me alive through the civil war. Had my will broken, you, too, would never have been born at the height of the war.
CHIOMA IWUNZE-IBIAM’s first novel is called Finding Love Again, published by Ankara Press. She lives in Enugu with her lawyerly husband and two lively children. Her short story “Search for My Father,” won first prize at the Cecilia Unaegbu Flash Fiction contest in 2011. The same year, she won Farafina Blog’s Voice of America flash fiction contest. Last year, Iwunze-Ibiam attended the Ebedi Hills Writers Residency Program You can follow Chioma on her blog here.