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“Encountering Mister E” by Mazi Nwonwu

“Encountering Mister E” by Mazi Nwonwu

Standing before the nondescript one-storey building that loomed over other equally nondescript single storey buildings in a ghettoised section of Mafoluku, I saw the girl of about seven running out of the entrance before she saw me. Knowing I won’t get out of the way before she reached me, I braced myself as she collided with me. Grasping her shoulder, I steadied her as the shock of the impact rocked her backwards.

“Hello,” I said as she looked up at me, defiant eyes daring me to accuse her of anything. “Do you live here?” I asked.

Her quick eyes scanned from the top of my head to my dusty shoes and her head inclined in a manner that conveyed her unwillingness to commit to a conversation just yet. Hedging my luck, I pressed, “I am here to see Mister E, the landlord?”

She squirmed her shoulder out of my fingers, turned, and started walking back the way she came. I watched her go, wondering where all the adults were and if this is number 4 Bada Street, Mafoluku. A faded and barely discernible hand drawn lettering by the side of the door the girl was walking towards confirmed that the building was indeed the correct one. The numerous graffiti on the wall that paid homage to those who marked their passage with a call sign was the reason I had not noticed the address marker in the first place.

At the door, the girl turned around and frowned, as if surprised I wasn’t following and beckoned with her left hand.

I followed her through the dark passage, dodging pots, pans and other household utensils that spoke of the struggle for space for the families that cram themselves into 12 feet by 12 feet single room apartments. At the backyard, I found her whispering into the ears of a grey-haired man who was weaving multicoloured yarns anchored to his right toe. 

Three other girls that looked to be about the same age as my guide were playing a game of square in the far corner of the compound. The reality of city life meant they marked their squares with what I could tell from the discarded pulp was carbon from a battery. When I was younger, we drew ours on earth with a stick.

The man looked up as I approached and then startled, his eyes going wide as his yarn flew from his hand. He would have fallen from his stool had the girl not reached a hand to steady him. 

I reached out to help the man up but he shrank away from my touch, mumbling something incoherent.  The girl, eyes blazing, moved between me and the old man, her little hands curled into fists by her side.

“Is everything okay?” I asked, feeling stupid as the words left my mouth.  Off course, everything was not okay; even a dolt would have seen that.

“I’m fine,” the old man said. “You just reminded me of someone I knew…someone long dead.”

I shrugged away his words. It wasn’t the first time someone told me I reminded them of someone. I watched the old man bend to pick up the yarns that had fallen from his hands. He resumed his work.

I took a few steps back, hoping for respectable distance, and waited for him to speak. 

“Are you the one that Obiageli called about?” he asked after a while, twirling his was-white hanky in oscillating motions to ward off the few mosquitoes attracted to the dark shorts he wore. The girl had run off to join in the square game.

“Yes. I’m here about the vacant room,” I said.

“She told you how much?”

“Yes, and she also said I can pay 6 months advance…and no agent fee,”

The old man snorted. 

“She would, that daughter of mine. Sister Do Good. Always looking for who to help,” He chuckled. “Do you know she brought most of the tenants in this house? She is ever looking for people who are down on their luck to help. Every house in this street collects at least one year rent upfront. Only Mister E’s house. If I allow her have her way, she will prefer everyone pay monthly, in arrears. Anyway, where are you from?”

“I’m from Mushin sir.” I said.

“Mushin?’ he asked, laughing, “Boy, I do not mean where you live or where you were born. I mean your place of origin.”

“Oh. I am from Anambra state sir. Awka to be precise.”

“Ah, ah! I b onye Igbo? And you were speaking all these English? Didn’t my daughter tell you the landlord is her father?”

“She did sir.”

E welu sizi na ga-as Bekee ma rue ebe a? – and you decided you will speak English when you get here?”

“Mba sir, it’s habit…”

“…One that needs curing, I hope,” the old man’s eye twinkled as he teased me. I saw warmth in it, but even though I told myself I might be mistaken, I saw fear and uncertainty too. “Adaku, take this young man…I haven’t asked his name…to the vacant room upstairs,” he called to the girl, who left her playmates and ran over.

“My name is Michael sir,” I said.

A change came over his face as I said the name. He didn’t startle like before, but sadness seemed to wash over him and once more, he avoided my eyes.

“You said you are from Awka? Is that Amaenyi by any chance?” he asked, his voice so low I had to lean in closer to him to catch every word while bracing myself so I don’t turn away from his rancid breath.

“Yes sir. Why do you ask?’

He waved my question away. “Your father fought in the civil war,” he said, as if there was no longer any need for questions.  

“He was in Okigwe and Awgu,” I said, wondering what the old man was driving at.

“I was at Okigwe. Did your father tell you about the war?” he asked, a smile playing around the corners of his mouth.

“He hardly talked about it. Only to complain about how civilians don’t understand respect for authority,” I said.

The old man laughed. It was a loud and long laugh punctuated by a rhythmic slapping of his right thigh. There were tears in his eyes when he stopped. “I’m sure my children will tell you I say the same,” he said when his laughter subsided. “Go and see the room. We’ll talk more when you return. I’ll tell you a bit about the war.”

I followed the girl back into the house and up a concrete staircase. The concrete railing was memorable for its age and the coats of grime that layered where the fingers seeking for involuntary purchase as people go up and down don’t reach.  

The top of the stairs opened to a passage that was ill-lit by luminance from the wood and glass door at both ends and a dust covered electric bulb of indeterminate wattage.

“It is this room,” the girl said as she pushed open the third door from the stairwell. 

I knew enough about Lagos houses not to expect more than an empty room and wasn’t disappointed.

The room was a standard 12 feet by 12 feet, with a window that faced an identical window of an identical room in the very similar house adjacent the one I was in. Where I would have hoped for a room with two windows–one facing the road and another facing the side of the building–those ones were sought after because of the extra ventilation and are usually occupied by the landlord or tenants who never want to leave, unless they are leaving town or moving to their own house.

I flipped the switch and the light bulb came to life, revealing a room that needed a new coat of paint and at least changing one of the ceiling boards if not replace all of them. I nodded to the girl and she led the way back to the old man.

We found the old man where we had left him, twiddling his yarn.

He nodded as we approached. A smile played across his lips.

“You like the room? You will take it?” he asked. It sounded rhetorical.

“I will take it sir. However, there is the question of the ceiling. I…”

“That’s not a problem. Whatever repairs you make will be deducted from your rent. You are not the owner of the house na,” he said with a laugh. “Sit, let’s talk. Nneoma, get him that chair,” he pointed to a plastic seat across the yard.

I thanked Nneoma and took the seat. 

I watched the man’s fingers knot the last twist of the yarn—it was a headband—and presented it, with a flourish, to Nneoma, who ran off to show it to her playmates. Children, ever easy to please, ever happy, free from the burdens of the world, I thought as I pulled my eyes away and back to find the old man staring at me.  

“We were talking about the war before. You said you know about it?”, the old man asked.

I pondered how to answer the question. It sounded easy, but it was rather complicated. 

Like most people of my generation, born in the late 70s, I knew a bit, not as much as I would have if history was taught in school, but enough to keep my bearing in the time and space the old man’s words conjured.

“My father told me stories and I read some of the books available,” I said.

“Good, good. You know then that war was lost even before it started. Most of us who were in the army knew this. We had hoped it would never get to that stage, but it did.

“I was one of the soldiers in the Biafran army that served in the Nigerian army before we broke away. And this meant I was among the most in-demand soldiers. I served in different fronts, but towards the end I was in-charge of the battalion store—a shadow of what it should be—in Okigwe and I got to command a jeep, and had authority over the Red Cross supplies that trickled in through Uli airport. Ahh, Uli airport, I tell you, keeping it operational was one of the greatest heroics of the war. Many brave men gave their lives for that stripe of level ground. Any way this is not about the airport, so leave that for another day.”

The old man stopped talking, scratched his head, rounded his lips and expelled into the air, like a smoker blowing smoke rings. 

He cleared his throat, prompting his granddaughter, who had returned from displaying her gift to her friends and was at that moment leaning on the old man’s leg, to ask if he needed water. He looked at her with open fondness and shook his head: no.

“Children,” he said as he rubbed the girl’s head, “They understand more than we give them credit. Without our knowing it, they watch us and before our eyes become us. Um…that is another topic for another day, and probably not mine. Anyway, I want to tell you a secret I have carried with me since the war, not that I regret what happened, no. I just want to pass my story along and who best to tell it to if not someone for whom it would mean something.”

He cleared his throat again and settled his back on the wall. When he looked at me, his stare seemed to have more purpose, and when he spoke, his voice was firmer. 

Our sector got a new commandant, and with him came those set of officers wars have in abundance. Young men, newly recruited into the army from the university in Nsukka. In search of glory in a war that had claimed more brave hearts than could be counted, they were supposed to be the pride of the new nation and were being groomed in the university before it, along with its host town, fell to the invaders. They would not have been in the war, perhaps, if not for the rapidity with which officers died at the front. They said the General believed men of learning should lead the troops, so when these became scarce, out-of-school university students drafted in droves. Perhaps it says a lot about their patriotism, for at a time forced conscription became the norm, some doctored medical reports to get into the army.

Well, I am taking you far away from the real story, which is about one of those young officers. Captain Ezeocha was his name. A very handsome man. One of those that possess the generic Igbo look: six feet tall, fair skin, full lips and a nose that stabs the air. Ezeocha also had a way with clothes. I tell you; at a time when getting a complete uniform was almost impossible, Captain Ezeocha always managed to stand out. Mirrored boots and well-starched khaki were synonymous to him just as scabies and ringworm was to the average Biafran soldier. 

Captain Ezeocha was almost an ideal officer, the sort men were willing to follow into danger and certain death, but he suffered from a disease we came to see often as the war progressed: disregard for human life. In the case of the Captain, a desire to stay out of harm’s way accompanied his wiliness to secure any objective, no matter how trivial.

I believe it was this inclination to preserve his own life while sending others to harm’s way that made most veterans hate Captain Ezeocha. I recall a routine patrol, ‘B’ company—Ezeocha’s boys—went on one rainy evening. Twelve boys went out that day, by daybreak, only five returned. Captain Ezeocha had ordered them to attack a well-fed and equipped Nigerian patrol, twice their number, while coordinating the attack from the relative safety of the forest edge.  

Yes, they killed more than half of the enemy patrol and captured the rest. That singular act earned Captain Ezeocha commendations from the sector commander but did not endear him to soldiers who saw taking prisoners at that time, with the war winding down and most people worried more about food and staying out of harm’s way, as mad.

That was Ezeocha, always seeking ways not to just deal the enemy heavy blows but to make a name, so my friend Okey Imeobi, who hailed from the same town as Ezeocha said. Nevertheless, no matter what other ill we thought of Ezeocha, we all agreed he was a fine officer, the kind that would have won us the war had we the weapons to fight it—at least we had in abundance soldiers willing to die for their country.

I generally kept out of the way of the newcomer officers, who tend to think their education made them some sort of demigods. Except on rare occasions, I dealt directly with their batmen, who usually tried to look and sound like their bosses. You would understand my surprise when a soldier from Captain Ezeocha’s platoon walked into my tent to inform me that his oga required my presence.

Forcing myself to ignore the rudeness of the soldier, I took my time, made sure all was in order in my tent before going to answer. Though Captain Ezeocha’s office was at the other end of the football field in the primary school we were using as headquarters then, I took my jeep, something none of the new officers had.

I am not usually that way, you know, smug, but something about the Captain and his summon smacked me the wrong way, so I was determined to show him that though he outranks me, I am way higher than him in the scheme of things.

Even from a few metres, I could see the Captain’s jaws working as I got down from the jeep, and I knew immediately that he would not mind putting me in my place if he gets the chance. 

“Warrant Officer,” he said as he returned my salute, “I hear the boys in your platoon are skipping patrol duty.”

Caught off guard, I stared at him. It was not that I could not answer him; I couldn’t find an appropriate retort. 

Captain Ezeocha’s statement was a question. Officers that are more senior would not have asked that question. Believe me, that had little to do with the bi-weekly case of whiskey I send to officers’ mess courtesy of a South African mercenary, who, because I was at the right place at the right time, was recovering from his war wounds in a hospital in his home country and not rotting by the roadside in Abagana.

It was not that my boys—that’s what everyone called them—were too lily-livered to fight, it was just that at that time, there was really nothing left to fight for and I felt keeping them alive for the coming battle—the rebuilding after the war—was a greater need. 

There is also another reason.

five months before, I was supervising the offloading of a bullet-scarred pickup truck beside the battalion store when the news of an air raid at Oguta reached me. At first, I was not much bothered by the news, more because it was something that we heard every now and then, something that was also becoming much more common as the war progressed and the Federal troops got closer to the heart of Biafra and became more brutal in their tactics. 

However,a few hours later Corporal Ike Ejimobi, my clansman and friend, ran into my tent office with tears streaming down his face. It did not take much time to discover what was bugging him. It happened that he had an in-law in Oguta who had just sent a signal to him that his younger brother had been blown to bits by a Federal shell in the air raid. The late brother, just a few weeks old in the Army, was a brilliant student with a scholarship to Cambridge and was only awaiting the war to end before travelling overseas. The family had tried to keep him out of the army, even in the early days when all young men rushed to enlist. That his death was disastrous could only be said to be an understatement.

I tried to comfort my friend as best as I can but his brother’s death left a very deep mark on his person. Something apparently died in him that day. It was as if he lost the will to live. His mother’s blaming him for his brother’s fate did not help matters, especially when he started believing that he failed the dead brother by not doing more to prevent his conscription. 

Two weeks later, Ike’s bullet-riddled body was brought back to base. He had tried to provide covering fire for a group of green horns, cut off during an ill-fated sally by our troops. Perhaps, the fact that most of the boys in that platoon were about his brother’s age pushed him into his rash action, we will never know. However, Corporal Ike Ejimobi became a hero that day. He did not die immediately but even he knew he would not survive his injuries. I remember sitting opposite his deathbed watching him as he travelled between the land of the living and the dead. 

Before he succumbed, he made me promise to do everything within my power to save as many people as possible. 

You see, the only way I could save people in a war situation is to do my best to ensure those under me do not take unnecessary risks. Captain Ezeocha saw things differently. He believed that bold actions would win us the war.

I tried to explain why the boys under me weren’t on patrol, but he refused to hear. Agreeing with me that there was no patrol planned for that day, he still insisted on merging my boys with his for a frontline patrol. To teach “tent huggers a lesson”, he said.

I had a shouting match with him and was arrested, on his orders, for insubordination…

The word ‘insubordination’ drew me away from Mister E’s narration, back to my father’s house in Makurdi. It was a word he used all the time, one that marked my relationship with him.

“I will not take insubordination from any son of mine. I say you go to school, you go to school; I say you pray before you sleep and when you wake up, you pray; I say you read your books every day, you do just that; I give you orders, you just obey them. No insubordination. Do I make myself clear?” He would scream at me in his soldier voice. A voice I believed he cultivated, for I doubted his stories about playing an active role in the war. For one, he was drafted when the war was already winding down.

My father was not like Mister E. He did not care much for stories, except when he wanted to use them to set an example about the importance of obedience. My sister and I grew to fear him; to fear something he feared: failure. 

My father worked hard. He lost a leg in the war, and rather than stay back at the veteran hospital in Oji River, living off the charity of a people who remained proud of the men and women who fought for the Biafran cause, just like many of his peers, he returned home after the war. “To contribute my quota,” he said. It wasn’t disability that made my father bitter. He became the man I grew up to hate when he found out that while he was a hero south of the River Benue, he was considered a traitor by the rest of the country, a label that carried a bigger negative inflection than many of those who mouthed it would have imagined. Though he managed to get a job with the railways, promotions eluded him, as it did many of his kin. But while others were quick to scream tribalism and nepotism as being responsible for their lack of forward movement, father blamed his lack of proper education. He must have sworn to ensure his children did not suffer the same fate, for he tried very hard to ensure my sister and I got an education, even if it meant the family had to do without many things, at times food.

I hated school, all that reading and abstract thinking. My father knew this and the scolding and caning were his way to keep me on a straight path. “Even the dog knows enough to nip at its pups when they misbehave,” was his usual defence when mother complained about his heavy hand. 

I wanted to please my father, I wanted to come first in class one day and run home to show him my report card. Since I couldn’t cultivate the discipline to do the extra studying required to top my class, that dream never came to pass. 

When I got to the university, I couldn’t wait to finish, get a job and buy a car. A car would please my father. It would be a dream come true for him. This time I read. I took to spending hours on end in the library. I was unshaken in my belief that good grades would translate into a good job.

Six years after I left the university, I was still waiting for a letter of employment from thousands of applications I had sent out. Three years before, my father passed on. He had collapsed at work and died before they could get him to the staff clinic. He was 56. We had had our usual shouting match a day before he passed. He, as usual, accused me of being a failure, of not believing in the powers of prayer, that with Christ I could do all things. I had replied him with similar heat. Really just mouthing off, blaming everyone else, him included, for my fate, but deep down I knew what I was, a failure. 

Realising I was being rude, I tuned off my recollections to find that the old man had stopped talking. A feeling of guilt washed over me. I wondered how long I was gone. I wondered if he had noticed. 

He wasn’t looking at me; instead, he was staring at a place beyond my shoulder. I spied tears, unshed, in his eyes. I wanted to tell him to stop if telling the story was too painful for him, but I didn’t. He must have sensed my concern for he smiled. 

“It was not the fact that I was locked up in an overflowing lavatory and made to lie in the pungent mixture of urine and excreta that made me do what I did,” He continued, “It had little to do with the indignity I felt when they let me out late next morning. I tell you, not at all. My anger came from a sight that greeted me when I returned to my tent…”

Again, Mister E paused, this time it seemed more out of recalled anger, then he regained control and went back to his tale as if he never paused. 

I was released from my smelly prison the next morning by a military police corporal who was thoughtful enough to bring along fresh clothes, a bucket of water and soap, saving me the indignity of walking across headquarters in a shit-soaked uniform. 

As I walked by Captain Ezeocha’s tent, I wondered why he did not appear, to gloat.

I felt a sense of justice as I floored the accelerator of my jeep a few times before driving away. The engine noise and thick smoke did not compensate for the anger I felt but I was glad I could be a nuisance.  

Perhaps I should not have celebrated too early. As I neared my office, I noticed an unusually large number of soldiers standing around my tent.

Believing they were sympathetic to my recent imprisonment, I buzzed the engine a bit, parked and walked towards them, only for my smile to fade when those in front parted to reveal a sight that still haunts me to this day.

Lying in front of my tent were four bullet-ridden bodies I recognised immediately by the uniform they wore. I had issued those uniforms days before. They were Russian style camouflage that were recently sent to me by my South African mercenary friend.

Sadness overwhelmed me. I do not know where, but I was able to find the strength to cross the few feet between me and the corpses. I stood over them, dry-eyed and strangely clear-headed, even though the knot in my guts had unwound into a gnawing pain and emptiness.

The soldiers were looking on. We had all gotten used to death and people had learnt that tears don’t bring back a dead colleague. We had learnt to carry our pain inside, where it expands and causes more grief.

He stopped talking and turned away. I looked away too, allowing him the privacy to dab tears with his hanky. 

“I find talking about this hard, but I intend to tell you everything.” 

When he again went back to the tale, his voice was almost a whisper. I had to lean forward to hear.

I refused for the boys to be buried in mass graves, something that became common as fatalities mounted towards the end. Instead, I sent their bodies to their villages. As for Captain Ezeocha, he made sure our paths did not cross and when they did, which was inevitable, we only had harsh words for each other.

Then my company merged with Ezeocha’s during the ill-fated attempt to retake an insignificant town outside Okigwe. 

From mid-morning to dusk, we fought Nigerians, losing ground, and gaining it back, all on the back of brave young men motivated by national pride and ample supply of kai kai.

Yes, I tell you, we had brave hearts in large supply, but lacked one thing that makes an army, weapons. We had weapons, if you call World War 1 era rifles weapons. I guess you could, but they pale before brand new Kalashnikovs. Have I ever told you about the Kalashnikov?  Ah, that gun, that is the father of all guns. The Russians supplied Nigeria that gun; we also ordered, but got rusty Mark IV’s and water pipes instead. Saboteurs… they, more than the British, and Russians, cost us that war.  

Anyway, this tale is about Captain Ezeocha, and me, not dogs that ate dogs. 

It was already dark before it became clear to everybody that though we had the heart, we lacked the bullets to push the Nigerians out of the village. Though, we had already retaken some of the outlying houses and the town clinic, where we set up a field hospital to treat the injured, much of the village remained in Nigerian hands.

I was headed to that clinic when I noticed Ezeocha walking towards the forest with some soldiers. I immediately knew what he was up to, and that those boys were headed right into danger.

I followed them, keeping well out of sight, for about two hours, conscious that each step took me towards enemy lines, away from the safety of the base.

I had just skirted a fallen tree trunk when sudden silence in the forest stopped me. Knowing signs of danger as well as anybody bred in the forest belt, I looked for a hiding place. Hardly had I hunkered down before guttural words, unmistakably Northern Nigerian, reached me from close quarters.

I barely had time to ponder the fate of Captain Ezeocha and his company before a well kitted, fresh-looking Nigerian patrol walked into view from the opposite direction. They were all young, about twenty of them, all charcoal dark tall irokos. They were moving at fast march heading towards Captain Ezeocha and his boys. My blood was pumping and my only thought was to warn those boys. Without thinking about my own safety, I ran into the bush, meaning to cut across the forest and reach B Company before the Nigerians.

I crashed into B Company’s position from the front, calling out to them. Ezeocha was readying for an ambush, and did not believe me at first when I told him the Nigerians were coming from the rear not the front. He argued a bit, but seeing how serious I was, agreed to move his Company, not away from the forest path, but to refocus the ambush towards the rear. I watched the captain in action and understood why men put themselves in harm’s way at his command.

Perhaps, it was pure chance, or fast thinking on the side of the Nigerians, but as soon as the first rounds rang out from our Mark IV’s and the two leading soldiers screamed as bullets tore into them, the others reacted. Only they did not turn to flee as Ezeocha had hoped, but fell as palm trees and began returning fire. 

With AK47 bullets rattling around us, our surprise ran away faster than it had come. Though we still had the advantage of cover, flying bullets forced us to clutch the forest floor.

Chancing a look around, I discovered two young men behind me had not hit ground fast enough when Nigerians began returning fire and had paid with their lives. It was then I made up my mind to kill him…

“Kill him?” I interjected, in English, dreading my having to interrupt the old man, but unable to stop myself.

“I suppose kill am na,” he responded. “I need to kill am, no be revenge. Maka Okorobia anyi—because of our young men—but wait out the story, I am already telling you all, am I not?”

I nodded, noting he had spoken Pidgin English mixed with Igbo, something he hadn’t done since I told him I was Igbo. He looked at me for a bit, squint-eyed, as if reading my mind before going back to his narration.

The fighting was still going on and I could hear Ezeocha shouting orders. 

I crawled as fast as I could towards his voice and found him and some of his men crouching behind a fallen tree trunk, strategizing. I did not listen much to what they were saying, but when I heard he wanted them to rush the Nigerian position, my resolve deepened.

I tried to voice my reservation against rushing better-armed and trained troops with rookies, but Ezeocha was confident we could defeat the Nigerians and capture their AK47s. 

At Ezeocha’s signal, the boys executed a flanking manoeuvre that would have been a masterpiece had we had more—better trained, and better armed—men. It was suicidal.

The boys moved off and he, as usual hung back, directing them from behind with series of wolf whistles. I followed them, keeping in front of him. Then I waited until the Nigerians began shooting, lifted my service pistol and called out to Ezeocha.

I can never forget his sneer when he saw the gun pointing at him. I did not wait for him to drop or to see if he lived, knowing the bullet lodged in his forehead spelt his end. 

I turned back to check if any of the boys had noticed my action, but those I could still see were crawling towards the Nigerians. I called them back to me and indicated Ezeocha’s body. 

It was almost daybreak when we took Ezeocha’s body back to the base. Of the twelve boys that set out for that patrol, only nine returned. Two days later, the war ended.

The old man’s body became very still and his eyes, which previously brimmed with tears, were now dry as they stared into space. 

The silence was not complete, at least not around us. We did not speak or move, but the world continued in its phase, unaware of the charge in the air about us. 

He broke our collective silence. “You wonder at the possibility of me being a murderer,” he said, a statement, not a question, “but I do not regret my actions, I only regret the necessity of it.”

I did not answer, feeling that there was more to his story. At least I felt there must be a reason for him telling me this story. 

“You wonder why I tell you this story?” He asked, as if sensing my thought.

“I understand you feel guilty about a pre-meditated murder you committed during the war, but from your narration, I would say you saved many lives. Or didn’t you?”  I asked. I wasn’t judgemental or dwelling on a possible crime that was committed. Far from it, I felt he had a good reason to do what he did. I saluted his courage in my mind.

He laughed, said wait, before getting up to enter the building. He came out about two minutes later and handed me a picture with shaky hands. I took the picture and turned it towards the fading light. 

Seven soldiers stared out at me from the photograph. It was an action picture, the sort soldiers in wars pose for, a show of bravery. The men in the picture were in two rows. A younger version of the old man was visible in the front row, brandishing an unsheathed jungle cutlass. However, my eyes were drawn to a younger man smiling into the camera. I was captivated by that face, not because he chose to smile into the camera when the others, the old man included, maintained fierce grimaces, but because the eyes and forehead were familiar. I see them every time I look into a mirror.  

I turned to the old man, alarmed. “My father was in your platoon?”

He smiled and shook his head. “No, he was in Ezeocha’s platoon. He is one of the nine men I led out of the forest that day. I thought you were him when I saw you for the first time. Then I said to myself. “No way this isn’t Michael Ani’s son. You can go now. The room is yours, so move in when you want.”

I stood outside the house staring at the photo the old man had given me. “Take it,” He had said as he pushed my hand back as I made to return the photo, “You and the other children I know are outside are the reason I sleep well at night.”

I felt I knew what the words meant, but then thought that it conveyed a message to me too. It says my life is worth something and that I have a debt that I needed to pay.

I turned over the photo and saw that names where scrawled behind it. The blue ink scrawl was now faded, but looking closer I could make them out.

September 15 1969

Elijah Eluwa in Okigwe with survivors:

Okoye Mbanugo

John Obodo

Nicholas Nta

Michael Ani

Christopher Okafor

Okeke Nwauba

Simon Ogbuagu

John Eze

I placed the photo in my shirt pocket and turned to look at the one-storey building. The old man was there, by the window of the upper floor room facing the road, looking at me. I waved at him and received a nod in response.

As I walked away, I became aware that tears were streaming down my face. I let them run. I didn’t cry when my father died. It felt right to cry now.

Mazi Nwonwu is a Lagos-based journalist and sometime writer of speculative fiction. His work has appeared in two AfroSF anthologies, the Lagos 2060 anthology, Brittle Paper, Storytime, African Writer and elsewhere online.

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