Love In A Time Of War – By Albrin Junior

Okafor started out at the break of dawn, he could wait no longer. The love of his life leaves later today and every moment with her counted. Today wasn’t going to be momentary like other days when he defiled Nna and Nne, sneak out under the moonlight to go be with her so to be lost in her warmth embrace – how he cherished those moments. He remembered that night Nne almost died due to his carelessness, he was supposed to have watched her till Nna returned from the native healer with some herbal drugs, but no, he left, to be with his love.

She meant everything to him. The mere thought of seeing her no more tortured his heart, troubled his soul and hunted his existence – that’s why, that’s why he was going to do what he intends to do. He’d damn all consequences, damn tradition – it hasn’t helped in anyways, and more importantly damn his parents.

The atmosphere around Iva valley was serene and placid as usual. The morning dew wetting the flowers and plant had gone about its duty, now all plants were dripping water from their morning bath. Everything was changing in Enugu especially since the building of the Iva valley mine in 1917, after Udi coal mine was closed. One could guess the reason for the closure, but it didn’t matter anymore.

The sun was beginning to rise, Okafor quickened his feet, his appointment was getting nigh, and nothing in this world was going to make him miss it. Anything other than showing up, under the mango tree – at the heart of the town, spelt doom, one which his heart would forever hold against him.

“ututu oma” he greeted. This was the sixth time and it was beginning to bore him. It’s the consequence of knowing too many men and women, and their sons and daughters. He has Nna to blame for such popularity, one which he antipathies.

“Okafor,” he heard a feminine voice call from a distance. He swiveled, plastered on his face was a feigned smile. Many thoughts of his meeting with Onyinye in few minutes stiffened his neck, he didn’t get to see the face of who called his name, he had turned too slow. He kept his gaze on her, he thought she looked extra ordinary then she shot him a weird glance and made a turn, she was gone. There was something odd about her squint – it implied mockery, he couldn’t be sure. Did she know of his plans and mocked him because the idea itself was foolery and him a fool for thinking the gods would bond him with an abomination? Love itself is foolish, he always did convince himself.

His heart had gone ahead to carry a reconnaissance under the mango tree to see if his love was there, patiently waiting for him, but he couldn’t see clearly, the air hampering his sight. Love is blind after all. He had picked under the mango tree for its significance. Enugu was fast growing into a giant city stride; increased infrastructure meant the city was standing at the dawn of a new era. Everything old about Enugu had been destroyed but for some reason the famous mango tree stood, and there lovers met. It was rumored that before Amadioa left for his sanctuary, he and his lover exchanged loving vows under that tree. The whole town knew what happened when lovers met under the tree, it was nothing new.

The morning was now in full bloom, empty roads wanting wear had feet’s striding to and fro their homes and local working place. The cocks played around in roo – no one to wake from their slumber, but in the stillness of the morning, there was something odd, no miners – either of Nna and his friends had made away for the mines. Such wasn’t normal of them, they hardly ever waited that long to head to the mines, they mostly raced against the rising sun. They always won.

The coal mine was of importance to the town and Nigeria as a country, especially during the war, and continued to be vital in the rebuilding of infrastructure by the post-war labor government, who sought to maximize output to pay off its debt to the United States of America. In 1943, with inflation raging, they had been called upon to make up the shortfall in the British coalfields caused by the war. It was nothing new to them that they had saved the British arse and had been led to believe their sacrifices would create a better world, whilst their bosses were planning for a future that don’t exist.

“Okafor,” someone elderly called his name, the tone gave the voice away before he even looked, it was Nna close friend; Nna Makuochukwu.

“Good morning sir,” he greeted in the most humbling of tone so it doesn’t betray his intending action. It was said that the elderly are too wise and could sense evil in a person’s voice.

“How wish the morning is as good as you’ve greeted,” his voice was disturbing. This time, it was the other way around, the texture of his voice suggested something was wrong, urgent and raw, but it was impossible to detect what was. That part was probably for the elderly alone. “Is your father still a home?’

“Yes, I left him………”

“When you get home, remind him today’s date in case he has forgotten,” he said in a hurry and left, not hearing the joking reply, “he forget a lot of things these days,” he grinned to himself.

The mango tree was in sight, but not Onyinye, she was nowhere near. He hurried beneath the tree and looked around, assuming she was watching him. She had been here, he was sure; her pleasant whiff of ardor saturated the air, but not her physical company.

How could she have left in the hour he had hoped on the most, leaving him in odium despair. He found his feet, he was going to walk home the same way he came, angry at her, angry at love.

“I didn’t think you’d come again,” he heard a soothing voice from behind him say. He knew that voice, could identify it any given time and day. It had only been two weeks but that’s enough to keep glued to your ears the rhythmic voice of an angel in human form. He smiled and swiveled to her.

“I’m sorry I wasted time getting here.” He embraced her, tightly, grabbing the curves of her waist, and seduced by the edges of her nipples. He’d miss that, but he planned not to.

“My father said we’d leave before the sun set. What he had hoped to do wasn’t productive,” her eye lid falling, “I’m sorry,” she echoed. Considering their background, it wasn’t surprising. Nobody dared associated with her kind, it was a segregation only love could break, would break.

“I know,” he finally said, “I wish it wasn’t so.”

“I’m just glad our love blossomed while it lasted, goodbye,” he didn’t let her words end when he grabbed her by the arm.

“No, I’m not giving up on you, I’ve a plan,” he retorted, observing the look in her eyes, it was a mixture of hope and fear.

“Hope it’s not what I’m thinking?” he held firmly her hands and she understood. “No, it can’t work. My history has decided my fate; I’m an Osu and would never be accepted by your people.” There was a long pause, to bury the pain in her voice and then she added, “I’m cursed.”

“Fate you say. I refused to be driven by fate, or do you not know that men sometimes are master of their own fate? I’ve decided to be master over mine.”

“Your people forbid it, it’s a tradition that has……..

“I do not care about a tradition that was founded upon greed and hate by our ancestors. Tell me, why should we hate another fellow man just because he was a slave? Were we not all once slaves to the whites? And who sold us? It was black who sold black,” he let out a long sigh. “The bedrock of our tradition is laid upon thorny grounds. We cannot continue to hate people because their great great great great parents were slave to gods.” he added.

“I know, but what can we do? Our ancestors made these laws, we can’t disobey them.”

“But we can question them,” he retorted, “and anything that isn’t logical or is against another fellow man, I do not respect such authority.” He could sense the fear in her eyes; smell the worry in her thought, thinking his love for her was pushing him away from his tribe, away from tradition, but she didn’t know he had always hated it, affronted their decision. She was giving him a reason to responsively go against their laws based on selfish individualistic desires. “All I want to know is will you marry me?” her breath ceased, “If you had the chance would you?”

She wallowed in sudden silence, let out a deep breath followed by a long minute of smile that seemed like it would never end. “Yes,” she said, “Over and over again.” Nothing mattered anymore; he heard the only thing that did. They embraced.

“Let me go home and tell Nna my intention, to marry you,” she wanted to say something but he placed a finger on her lips. “I do not care the outcome, we’ll get married regardless.” She didn’t want to hear those words, it meant him disobeying his family, his tradition, but she loved that he said them.

Okafor left for home straightaway, all through the journey thinking how he’d break the news to Nna and Nne. It would break Nne’s heart but she will eventually come around, all good mothers do. He had a feeling Nna would forbid such abomination, marrying an osu into the family. That was insult enough.

“Amadioa strike your stupid mouth,” Nna flared up. He was already dressed for work, but delayed a little, to treat his son growing madness. “You will not bring shame into my household, I forbid you.”

“It’s too late nna, I already asked her to marry me and she said yes.”

“What do you expect her to say if not yes? Is she not but an osu who will dive into the naïve and desperate hands of a true son of this lands who doesn’t know his left from his right.” It was difficult to tell if that was a statement or question, yet either of the two made no difference. “I forbid you to insult my household, my ancestors and our tradition.” At that he set out for the mines, his last gaze at Nne – a guilty stare that accused her rather than suggested she had a hand in his budding stupidity. She was used to him.

“Have patience with him, you know how stubborn your papa can be,” Nne tried to persuade, but Okafor was having none of it, his heart was filled with rage and determination. He would go against everything Nna had mentioned, he would build his own legacy. One not built on baseless traditions. “I’ve always told you to not be harsh with him. You both have the same adamant and conservative nature same,” Nne finally said.

“Nne that doesn’t change anything, I’m his son, he should be considerate,” his face fell, “he mustn’t always be too rigid, at least not to a law he has no idea why it was made in the first place,” he sounded more depressed than raged.

“Are you sure she’s who you want to marry?”

“I’m very sure, and I would………” he paused, a thought hit him, rejuvenated, he found his feet. “I’m going to meet Nna at the mines, he must agree to my marriage.” He left, but heard Nne in the distance plead, “Please don’t expose our troubles. Once the wind gets hold of it, it’s no longer for our ears only.”

He got to the mines but he met a different scenario, he should have suspected, he knew something was wrong but this didn’t come to mind. Nna sat across the end of the mine, reaching him meant going across but he feared the hostility before him. He watched from the distance. Nna had a red piece of cloth around his arm, so did the other striking miners, it marked solidarity.

He didn’t think the miners would take the strike serious, they feared the British. The fear of the British was the beginning of living, yet there they were, all in unison for the first time in a long time, kicking against their poor working conditions, poor remuneration especially as they have worked their arse to save the British. He had often heard Nna complain to Nne the backlog of money owed them during the time of casualization which was known as rostering, but was later declared illegal and was sacked following a work to rule. That was surely the main cause for their striking action, it was justifiable.

“November first, fifty workers were sacked, this is the eighteen and they’ve responded with a strike. This is fearlessness against oppression,” he whimpered to himself with a wide grin.

Nna stood to go shake hands with Okwudili Ojiyi, his coworker who a mister T. Yates had slapped some years ago. Okwudili did one of the bravest things by suing the British man for assault and to the town’s surprise, he won, Yates was prosecuted and penalized. Both men walked in.

Okafor learnt from one of the miners striding the field that the management opted to remove the mines, fearing the growing agitation for independence was a hidden motivation to their strike. For that reason, the white man in the center, holding his gun firm and fierce; Briton superintendent police captain – F. S. Philip alongside two others were sent to oversee the local police removing the mines since the workers refused to help. He could tell Philip was on edge all the while, the way he held onto his gun, his bewildered gaze, suggested he saw the miners as a threat. He simply saw them through the same lens as other whites did, primitive, savage and hysterical natives doing dangerous dance and squealing incomprehensible noises. Dangerous black men poised to attack.

Okafor didn’t want to forget why he came. Nothing was going to distract him, not even captain Philips apprehensive silent gesture. He was about to make way across to the other half of the field where Nna was talking with Okwudili, when Ebere his closest friend grabbed him.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Ebere queried; his eye all over the mine.

“To talk to my father,” Okafor shot back.

“Can you not see war looms right ahead of you? What’s so important that can’t wait till he returns home?”

“He doesn’t want me to marry the woman of my choice.”

“You mean Anulika? But you both look good together!”

“No not her. I fell in love with a girl from Anambra and I intend to marry her but Nna refuses because she’s an osu which is not fair,” there was pain in his recollection.

There was for some seconds’ ambivalence in Ebere’s stare and thought. He laughed, “Nothing is fair in love and war.”

“Love and war! Who said anything about war?”

“What is in front of you?” asked Ebere, exasperation in his voice. “I sense today would end in blood and tears. It’s not like it’s the first time the British have attacked us with our country looking the other way. “I’m sure of one thing though; this singular action today will serve a motivation for the zik movement for independence.”

“I don’t bloody care,” Okafor retorted arrogantly. Ebere let out a wide grin and said: “What life can’t change, death will.”

“What do you mean by that?” he enquired

Ebere said nothing further. It was noon; the workers seeming to get tired of their protest but the captain didn’t see it that way. That’s when he, Captain Philip, becoming hysteric, gave the order to shoot, himself pointing his revolver gun at Anyajado – who had recently just got married. Before anyone could say Jack Robinson, he fired the first shot, killing Sunday Anyajado, and other officers followed suit. In the chaos arising, Okafor Agani rushed out and asked, “Anything wrong?” he too was shot, he’d get his answer in the grave.

There was pandemonium, miners outside running, and the gun shots mostly misfired went into the backs of many, sending good folks to the ground. The gun shots stopped, blacksmith Emmanuel Okafor, injured, shouted to the captain “I surrender, take me to the hospital,” to which Philip replied “I don’t care.” Captain Philip and his band made away, after much havoc has been done.

“Okafor!” Nna called, he was laid at the edge of the mines, injured too. Okafor took him by the arm, helped him home. The walk was silent, but in the inside of his thought, he was glad that now Nna would agree with him for what he had always said ‘the British are killing us,’ but importantly, this event would help change his course of reasoning to let him marry Onyinye. Death had a way of making men see life in a different form, to know that life is but a cloth we wear and would one day fade and wear off. It had nothing, nothing too rigid and dogged that one should carry about, rather, one was to maintain and fancy it while he still can.

Nne was cleaning his bullet wound, it merely grazed him; luck must have kept him for a purpose. “Their action mustn’t go unpunished, they should pay. They will pay,” Nna voice was becoming fierce, like he had a plan, Nne touched a part on his shoulder and he screamed, he was injured there too.

“Nna, I hope now you see I was always right when I said the British are killing us?”

“They are, yes they are,” his voice drowning in the pain of his wound. “By now, Azikwe must have heard the news and have begun making plans of an attack,” Nne shifted an unfriendly gaze to him, he knew what she meant, “Or a strike back of some sort,” he corrected. But it has become clear Nigeria as a nation must fight for our independence from this modern slavery we’ve found ourselves in.”

Okafor nodded, not really caring at this point who must fight for what, he cared that Nna had agreed with him on something. “It’s the same way I’m right about marrying the woman I intend to marry.”

Nna at first said nothing. He probably didn’t hear the words clearly until he paused in his effort to move his leg. The words wrung in his ear. “I already said no and nothing will change that. What is wrong with you people, first the British brings an abomination to my home town and my son wants to bring an abomination to my household. The gods forbid.”

His face lit with red, curves of pain shaping around his mouth, eye prickling in livid dismay. He has spoken and wouldn’t change his mind for anything. That was clear.

Nne finished cleaning his wound, moved her gaze between the two men in her life. It was easy to know what she was thinking.

“What about Anulika,” Nne asked, she was getting somewhere, “you had once said you would marry her. Didn’t you?”

“It’s you people who wants me to marry her, and that was before I met Onyinye.”

“That is her name? Onyinye!” I forbid that name in this house, Nna shouted. “You want to disgrace me and my father’s name, for the whole town to make me the topic of their conversation, never, not in this lifetime.”

A kind of silence erupted, one that nobody speaks after. There was conflict in his thought, pain in his heart, Nna would for his own selfishness make him not marry the woman he had come to love. Who cared about what people would say about his actions, it was his after all and not theirs. What annoyed him more was that the same people, who rumor about, committed same or worst crime in the hidden, most likely in a different manner, but same. Hippocrates, that’s what they are, hypocrites!

“I’d rather die than live and not marry the woman I love because of some stupid tradition created by selfish men,” Okafor burst to his feet and started for the back. “Let him go,” he heard Nna warn Nne, “he thinks death is child’s talk,” she continued to tend his wounds.

Okafor dashed to the back, clouded by love and anger. He had decided he’d take his own life, his death would make Nna and the elders learn from their mistakes. He tied a rope above the tree branch nearest to his height and choked his necked inside. He would have preferred another means of death, one without struggles and pain but suicide had a meaning in Igbo land. He was choking, breathless, legs dangling above the ground, just a minute more and death would cover him, instead the rope cut and he thundered to the ground.

He looked up at the branch, examined the rope, he did everything right, maybe fate was talking to him, telling him that death doesn’t solve anything, there were other ways. He decided he would be master over his own fate. Run away with Onyinye before the sun set.

He packed his bag and peeped at Nna, still mumbling something to Nne. They had no idea he was going to run, to do the abominable and dear the so called gods. He would first visit Anulika one last time, he at least owed her that much.

Nne was applying native medicines made from leaves to Nana’s wound. One thing was sure, he’d everyday look at his scar and remember the year 1949 of November 18, the day Iva valley lost men in one fell swoop to a massacre, and he, Mr Okafor lost a son who fell in love in a time of war.

Bio: Albrin Junior is the pen name for Aigbike Alex Junior, a Nigerian lover of art who is an author, poet, scriptwriter, speaker and filmmaker. Twitter/IG: @albrinjunior