My Undiluted Skin
By C.V.C Ozoaniamalu
An Igbo adage says “Ife amaro kwuru” which can be translated to “Things are not standing well”. Of course, everything has fallen apart, families have been broken, prides have been wounded, hearts have been touched, and an air of tension hung on the air at the Biafran infirmary camp at Ifitedunu that morning. The infirmary was a kind of reminder of the vicissitude of the flesh, the pendency and inevitability of death. Though I have seen so many pass away during the war, I still can’t think of what it would look like on my own day.
The white nurses had this English pointed courtesy and the only doctor at the camp had given his life. There were several seats at the infirmary hall. The biggest of the seat was occupied by the women of Sacred Heart of Jesus League formed by Mama on each camp we went to. Mama was at the center and the remaining of them stood at the back of those seated, in the manner they would were they to take a group picture for the Bazaar brochure at St. Theresa’s Parish at Jos, with their rosary circled around their fingers. The only thing missing was their smile and the absence of a Camera man, nevertheless their mouths moved in prayers. The other seat next to theirs was occupied by Ifechi’s Mum, with the two women from Jehovah’s witness, who had always moved around the camp preaching on how the world would be brought to an end by the very war and how they would inherit the earth afterwards. Seated next to them was a man who seemed to be Ifechi’s Uncle or one of their kinsmen whom fate had brought to the same refugee camp with them and whose appearance told of someone that had done his preparation hastily, his reddish T-SHIRT spoke more of no option than of style, wearing it with a big trouser, which under normal circumstances, Obinze and I would have laughed at. Obinze (Obi ololo as I fondly call him) was seated next to the man, his classic lively nature had been diluted into a pale uninterested boy. He as well was surrounded by most of the mutual friends I made at the camp: Julius, Obika, Adaora. The elderly men at the camp were busy counting everyone to know who was still missing. The man who had counted the people beside me skipped me during the counting and I was never bothered because all I wanted was for Ifechi to survive, it was indeed my worst day during the war. The day I wished to erase, just like a sponge.
I’m Enyinnaya, the kindest soul you would ever meet, but with the weakest of heart. I have grown up in a world where people like me are loved only from a distance because we are not wearing the normal brown skin. I had always built an imaginary world of my own, where my skin is without keloids, and where I’m not asked terrible questions like:
I heard you don’t see well in the afternoon?
Do your skin peel off?
Do you release pink sperm?
Why are your eyes not steady?
I learnt how fragile I look by observing the world, by observing people make unnecessary pity for me when they say, “How can you give that to an albino, he possibly cannot carry that”. I have been a terrible eavesdropper, and I have heard one or more of Mum’s friend advising her to better find solution in order to avoid having an albino daughter, because to them, it would be a disaster. Before the war, I was down in Nsukka as a chemical engineering student while my people stayed at Sabon gari in Plateau State. At the University community at Nsukka, my social life was dry, firstly because no girl wanted to do anything with an albino, and secondly because I had lost every esteem in me attempting to try. I sometimes felt like asking God questions for my being. The incompleteness I felt. I had two siblings (Obinna and Anike) who were nothing like me, because they were perfect resemblance of my parents, inheriting their nice brown skin that looked like honey. Most times, I wished we all were the same, and I not been excessively fairer.
The massacre at Jos brought my parents down to our hometown at Mgbagbuowa in Ezeagu, Enugu state, after having lost everything my father owned, including my younger siblings.
The massacre as I was told by Ifechi, a young Igbo girl who lived with her people at the next street at home in Jos, and whose father and younger siblings were also victims of the massacre, had narrated that it all started at the St. Theresa’s primary school built by Christians for the education of their children. Thirty children were massacred in cold blood, and this included my beloved Obinna and Anike. My parents and so many others were sneaked into the Biafran land through a truck carrying refugees. The shock of this did not leave us until the war began, bringing with it more terrible things.
During the first six months of the Nigerian civil war, I cannot actually remember if it was October or November, but I still remember it was one of these afternoons during the harmattan, probably because sleep came too quickly, and the earth was dusty, and that the bushes burned, and its smell reminded me of the burning carcass of our fat goat at Christmas, when our world was at peace, when laughter was the language of home, but now there was no Christmas, it was war each day, I could remember my lips were dry and how Ifechi would teasingly tell me “Your lips are dry like sandpaper”.
I remember too that my throat was dry, itchy and sore, a kind of leftover from the crying at Jos massacre, producing a hollow and unenthusiastic sound, which everyone at home would have likened to the voice of the huge man at St. Theresa’s, whose name we knew not but whose unappealing voice covered that of everyone at the tune of “Pater noster chant” in each of Fr. Alexander’s Latin Mass.
I was at the camp because the Biafran commander of the second squad had rejected me. “What does an albino have with the war” he had said annoyingly. I had to take refuge at the camp. Families had been scattered, But I was lucky to have been in the same camp with Mama while we lost track with Papa. The camp smelled of pity, of children dying of kwashiorkor, of families mourning loved ones. The news of the Nigerian soldiers taking over the whole of Nsukka had reached us at the camp at Ifitedunu.
I had overheard one of the soldiers tell one of the white nurses that the Biafrans were out of food and weapon, that he hoped Ojukwu would retreat. I knew then was my time to contribute to the war since I couldn’t be at the Frontline. Like a Knight in shining armor, I went round the camp gathering young girls who had been in the University or college before the war, in weeks I had formed a group of young Nigerian students at Ifitedunu camp to help build a local bomb, which was later tested at Enugwu-Ukwu, on the Nigerian soldiers that had entered Awka through Amansea, and its resultant success brought about the name “Ogbunigwe” killing 10,000 foot soldiers.
On the news of this, Ifechi had come to me saying “I love that you are a genius”. It was her saying this, that brought us together. I started seeing her everywhere I went at the camp, her patrician face, her lithe and sensuous body rich with promise, her large mouth and smiling lips made me forget that there was war. She was peace, the peace I had searched for. And the most beautiful thing was that she looked at me in a certain strange beautiful way, that no girl had looked at an albino before.
Weeks before that terrible day, the news of the Aburi accord agreement had reached the Biafran land, there were shouts of victory, that gleeful moment of dancing and shouting, Ifechi had come to me rejoicing, she held my hands and kissed me. I felt the trigger, I felt loved, I felt seen. I had laid awake all night too stimulated to catch some sleep, too busy replaying what had just happened.
On waking up weeks after, news had gone around the camp on how Gowon had denied the Aburi agreement and sent more troops to the Biafran land. The sun that afternoon burnt the back of my neck. I was headed to meet Ifechi to tell her the news when the sound came. It was heavy and shook the whole place. People were running for safety, Ifitedunu camp had been attacked. I had taken cover, lying stretched out on the dry grasses. The earth shook, pulling down with it the old walls of the Ifitedunu community which had been turned into a camp. It took 20 minutes for things to die down.
I had risen up, my heart still beating faster. I saw elderly women carrying a girl and Ifechi’s uncle carrying a young boy of my age heading towards the infirmary, which was a normal routine anytime the camp was attacked. Last time it was an elderly Ihiala man, whose legs had been cut off and who spoke in a rapid tongue that he sincerely believed was perfect English but was a funny combination of his native tongue and pidgin. I began to run towards them in a faster graceful speed than I never imagined. On reaching the infirmary, I learnt it was Ifechi by the way her mum yelled, but Mama too was yelling uncontrollably too. I reached where Mama was and asked her what happened but she didn’t respond nor did she recognize my presence. I wanted to ask Obinze whom the injured boy was but he too seemed lost. I just sat there, waiting and hoping.
After 15 minutes, one of the white nurses came out, his face expressionless, but his hands shaky, he was saying, “The girl is safe, however we … we…we lost the young man”.
“Which young man?” Mama had asked furiously.
“The genius albino” The white nurse said.
I stood up, confused, “the albino?”, I repeated…But I’m not dead, there’s a mistaken identity. Mama had fallen to the floor, the women from the Sacred Heart of Jesus League were comforting her, I had moved to show them that I was alive, that the white man was hallucinating, but I realized no one could see me nor hear me, that I had become an air. I was terrified. Is this what death felt like?
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