Akancha was still very sleepy when she left their makeshift hut.
“Why do we have to go so early?” She asked when her mother woke her. “The sun is not even up yet.”
“Please don’t ask me useless questions. The girls are waiting for you,” her mother said.
“The woods are not running away.”
“Bia, get up from there. Are we not going to eat this morning eh? Your sister left since to gather leaves and you are here complaining.” Her mother’s temper was very short. Akancha knew better than to argue further. She got off the banana leaves that separated her from the bare ground and served as a bed.
As she stood, her wet clothes stuck to her body. She hissed as she straightened it out. It had rained heavily all night, and the palm fronds that were supposed to serve as roof did absolutely nothing to save them from the onslaught of the rain. Her father’s coughs kept her awake all night.
“Papa kwanu?” She asked as she joined her mother outside the shelter
“Hurry up before the girls leave you”, her mother said. Akancha looked around the shelter, her step mother wasn’t around, she wanted to ask her mother, but the woman was scowling at her. Akancha smiled sheepishly at her then left. Other girls were waiting for her.
“Try to wake up earlier, eh, this girl”, Urenna said to her as she joined them. Urenna was the oldest girl there and talked a lot, she was their pseudo leader.
“I’m sorry”, Akancha said, but no one heard her as the girls were already walking away, Urenna in the lead.
“So, my brother kept on crying and crying”, Urenna was saying as Akancha walked with them. “Mma and I tried and tried to keep him quiet but no he won’t stay quiet, the guns did not stop and then the rain started”. Urenna was talking about the gun shots that filled the air, sounding all night and synchronizing with the rain in an attempt to keep the whole camp awake.
“Ete Ude did not wake this morning”, Nwagu said. Nwagu was Akancha’s agemate, the two of them were the youngest in the group. They all fell silent for a moment, as the information sank in. Ete Ude was an old man, he was several years older than Akancha’s father and his cough’s were several times hoarser. His death was hardly surprising, in fact, death was more attainable than a good meal, far much more attainable. The grim reaper had become such a frequent visitor, many welcomed him happily into their homes. After all, what was the need living in such terrible conditions? Hell sounded like a better deal.
“I heard the ikpirikpi ogu dancers ran back in the night”, Chidinma broke the silence as they walked pass the shelter of a dancer. The pot bellied man was lying on his back on banana leaves while his wife furiously dabbed a deep gash on his leg with a wet rag. She was muttering something about deaf ears and widowhood.
“I don’t even know why they go there”, Urenna said. “If they want to fight, they should pick a gun and fight, eh, not go there and dance”
“It’s a war dance”, Akancha said, as if Urenna didn’t know.
“It is still dancing.”
“It is for moral support”, Akancha argued.
“Moral support my foot, it is a death wish”, Urenna said. “Have you forgotten Uche’s father?”
Uche used to be Akancha’s classmate before the war. Her mother who worked in Enugu never made it back home and her father was killed by a stray bullet at the trenches on ugwu rubber. He was an ikpirikpi ogu dancer. Ihey had gone to lift the spirits of the soldiers. Akancha remembered, a little too vividly, how Uche’s aunt screamed when her brother’s body was returned to the camp, carried by the other dancers. She could still see clearly in her head the look on Uche’s face, the blankness of it, her wet eyes, confused and static. Uche went to live with her aunt at Abam but Akancha had seen the girl recently in the camp. The hair that once crowned her head were no more, her head seemed to be inflated, like a balloon, her limbs like broom sticks flailed in the wind, her stomach, like that of a pregnant woman. She had kwashiorkor.
Akancha had seen many children with kwashiorkor. Many of them never lived long after she had seen them. So she had cried when she looked at Uche’s swollen foot and stomach.
“This girl, Akancha!” Urenna shouted. They were already a few yards ahead of her. “Biko, I beg you, hurry up, some of us have other things to do after fetching this wood.” Akancha jogged up to the group. Urenna stared daggers at her but continued leading the group out of the camp and into the bushes around. They soon passed the nnoo, the public toilet, at the edge of the camp. The aroma from the latrines, filled the air and Akancha held her breath.
“Men and women having to struggle to defecate in such putrid conditions at the same place and time is perhaps the worst thing about this war” Mma Ukwu, Akancha’s step mother once said. Akancha thought the conditions at the nnoo was bad, but there were worse things about the war. Like the total lack of food, having to go find leaves, barely edible leaves and using them to make very watery soup or stew. The fact that there was no more bush meat, and people were improvising – Okoro’s father made a mean lizard stew. Or the fact that the nnoo was not very far at all from the stream were they got drinking water from or the fact that they had run out of space to bury loved ones who died everyday.
The group soon got to the stream, which was flowing faster than normal.The rains had made it overflow and increased the current. The sun had not come up yet, so people hadn’t come to fetch water yet. The girls carefully placed their legs on the slippery stones on which the clear stream rushed over. Akancha was behind, the force of the water hitting on her leg nearly sent her slipping and falling, but she caught herself. She wondered if she could crossover carrying a heavy bundle of wood on her head. Once they crossed over, they walked a little more into the forest and began picking dried up wood. They did it as fast as they could. They were not safe on that side of the stream. Once soldiers had come from that direction, they raided the camp and took young men to go and fight. At another time, a girl’s body was found on that side of the river, she had been beaten to death. Akancha’s mother told her the girl was raped and not beaten, the men did not want to release that information as it would shame the girl’s family.
Once, they were done picking, they carried their bundles of firewood on their heads, using leaves as shock absorber. Urenna helped Akancha lift the heavy bundle on her head. When they got to the fast flowing stream, the older girls carefully crossed over chatting animatedly about a lazy girl they knew who never helped her mother do anything. “She sleeps like a dead man”, Urenna was saying.
The current was too much for Akancha. She stood perplexed at the water. Nwagu, who was the same size as Akancha, tried but she fell into the stream. Her scream synchronized with a barrage of gunshots that exploded suddenly in the forest, sending birds flying away in a confusion. The girls who had crossed the stream scurried away, leaving the other two girls behind. When the dust settled, Akancha opened her eyes, she had shut them involuntarily. She rushed to Nwagu, who had come out of the water, her bundle of wood had been carried away by the current.
“Sorry”, Akancha said as she held the wet girl. The gunshots came again and they instinctively held each other. They were still holding each other when the guns stopped. It was not unusual at all, the gunshots, they heard them everyday. Sometimes too close for comfort other times it was a faint noise in the night sky, but it was a constant presence in their midst.
“I have to pick another bunch of wood”, Nwagu said after they let go of each other.
“I will help you”, Akancha offered. The two girls picked some wood tied them together and waited on a stump for the girls who had left them behind to come back and help them across. Returning to the camp without the wood was not an option. Akancha had not eaten anything in almost a day, neither had anyone in her family.
“This day, last year, they came and took my brother to fight”, Nwagu said after a few moments of silence. “My mother fetches the firewood, but she has been crying all night and this morning too. She hasn’t gotten up this morning”
“My brother joined willingly, when the war began”, Akancha said. “He used to come back home, but since we ran from Abiriba, we have not seen or heard from him.”
“We never heard from my brother since that afternoon. He used to go and hide in the backyard every morning, so that when soldiers came looking for young men, we’d tell them there was none and they’ll leave. My mum used to carry food to him in the backyard. They came by night, once, and they took my brother, from where he was sleeping”
Akancha did not say anything, they sat in silence for a while, watching the stream cascade over the slippery rocks.
“Let’s play tin kom tin kom” Akancha suggested. Nwagu smiled. They faced each other and started a song while clapping their hands together in an already rehearsed manner, paying attention to not miss the other’s palm. They clapped and sang, creating beautiful music and soon sunlight filtered through the canopy and lit up the forest floor and engulfing the forest in unimaginable beauty. This same forest, where dead bodies had been found, where brutal acts had been committed took the look of paradise as the girls sang and clapped. Their pre puberty voices sounding as that of angels.
They were singing when the other girls came.
“You girls are here playing, come let’s go” Urenna said as she carried Akancha’s bundle of wood, another girl carried Nwagu’s own and they carefully crossed the stream and headed towards the camp, they crossed people carrying buckets and headed to the stream.
“These girls have made me miss being the first person to go and fetch water”, Urenna complained. “Now all these people will go and mess up the water before I can go back”, she hissed.
Urenna carried the wood to Akancha’s shelter “Mma Akancha, here’s your daughter. You see we did not eat her, eh”, she said to Akancha’s mother and dropped the wood and rushed off, ignoring the thanks from Akancha’s mother.
“Akancha, go and rest, biko” her mother said to her “or help your sister and clean the shelter.”
Akancha, nodded and entered the makeshift hut, her sister was seated on the floor staring into space.
“You are back,” Ada, Akancha’s sister said.
“Your ogbo is dead”, Ada said. “That is where papa and mma Ukwu have been since.”
Akancha’s leg shook a little, her father’s younger sister was more than just her namesake, she was like her godmother. Before the war, Akancha spent most of her time with the woman. It was her house she first went into when she dismissed from school. She loved her as she loved her mother. But as much as the lump in her throat weighed her down, she held herself, it was the war, it had made them immune, too immune to mourn.