is one of the towns where the east meets the north in Nigeria. Hilly
and dusty, its semi-arid landscape is typical of the barrenness that
jumps at anyone leaving the east for the north. Its earth is the
color of Mars; its trees are gnarled and dwarfed, while the rest of
its vegetation is baked a rusty brown by the menacing heat seeping
from the desert close by.
are as common here as the dust that layers up over everything for
most of the year in the town. Also peculiar to it is a ruthless snake
known by locals as “echi ete-ka” because of its deadly
venom. Roughly translated this means, “tomorrow is too far,”
for once bitten by the viper, few victims live till the next day.
vividly remember an incident that happened when we were kids. On our
way back from farm, we had fetched firewood for Mother to cook our
dinner. We gathered the wood and rolled them into bundles before
tying them up with ropes. We carried these on our heads as dutiful
children do all the time everywhere in rural Africa.
trotted home in a single file along a bush path with our parents
trailing. Suddenly something started wiggling in the bundle of wood
my sister, Ime, carried. Thinking it was a lizard, we continued on
our journey home, unaware of the lurking sinister threat in that
we soon knew how foolish we were when the dreaded snake dropped out
from my sister’s bundle of wood. The first person to see it let
out a bone-chilling scream. Everybody, including our father, a war
veteran, scampered for safety. It was our mom, when she regained her
composure, who grabbed a machete and dealt the viper a deathblow
before it had any chance to harm her kids!
in our childhood innocence, we paid little attention to these horrors
despite our parents’ frenzied concern for our safety. We kicked
stones under which hid scorpions. At school, kids who were born and
bred in the laidback town even taught us how to pick up scorpions
without being stung.
were happy to be part of the town. Being the site for the first
university in eastern Nigeria, Nsukka held so much promise and charm
to our young imagination. I guess that attraction made our parents
seek employment there, for without the university the place was just
as obscure as our village deep in the southeast of the country.
of it now, the university looked like a page carefully torn from
science fiction. Its well-paved streets and glimmering modern
sky-rise buildings, its highly winsome lawns and the cultivated
students quietly studying in the polished citadel sharply contrasted
with the rest of the tawdry surroundings.
fact, the university was a precursor of emergent Nigerian cities —
an oasis in the desert or glimmerings ringed by sprawling slums.
was in 1967. From that year and three years following, its genteel
elegance would be voided and its rosy promise terrifyingly squandered
by our grimly disruptive history. In 1966, in a manner that eerily
anticipated the bloodletting in Burundi decades later, some northern
Nigerian tribes assembled pyres and burnt thousands of easterners
alive. Those who could not be burned had their throats slit.
formerly polite students in the hallowed halls of learning were
convulsed by rage. They marched and demonstrated against the outrage.
When the bloodshed snowballed into a choking war, the college
students formed the base of the officers’ corps of the
punish them for their audacity, the university was sacked when
eventually rampaging federal forces seized it. Their well-stocked
library and labs were incinerated and the fires used by the vandals
to warm themselves in the chilly nights.
became aware of the impending troubles when adults at first spoke in
whispers careful not to let the horrors they discussed get into our
ears. But no matter how hard they conspired to contain the evil,
signs of it ripped through their barricades. At first refugees who
came back in trickles started pouring in like a deluge.
even more ominous were dust-caked trucks laden with decapitated
bodies brought home from the North for burial. These trucks, because
of the decomposing human remains they ferried, were even in the dark
of night, chased by battalions of flies that hummed like swarms of
irate bees. When outrun by the trucks, they settled on humans,
animals and plants like ravaging locusts.
was in the midst of this raging violence that Mom escorted me to
school one morning. On our way she bought me, akara, a bean cake
fried and sold by the roadside. Akara dipped in tomato and onion
sauce is sheer goodness.
we walked, Mom rolled out her vision for my future. “One day,
you shall be a professor in that place,” she said pointing to
the university nestling at the slopes and valleys of the encircling
hills. I would teach others to become doctors, lawyers and teachers,
she continued, speaking in a nasal voice to mimic expatriates and the
new Nigerian gentry.
between she scolded me for eating sloppily and thus soiling my white
shirt. Passers-by patted my head and taunted, “ota akara,”
meaning, “akara eater.” I smiled shyly and snuggled
behind Mom’s skirts. She stuffed my breast pocket with roasted
peanuts and cashew nuts to snack on during break time.
was then that something came along to pour cold water on the party
and turn our happiness into a puff of smoke. One of the trucks now
turned emergency hearse speedily took a sharp corner, careened and
keeled over. The accident spewed its gory contents on the road.
sight was as wrenching as it was bewildering. The stench was as
horrid as something escaping from the playbook of plagues that
anciently tormented Egypt. Mom literally turned into rock like Lot’s
wife. When she got back her voice, she let out a ghoulish scream and
tried to shield me from the awful scene spread before us like a
it was too late for by then my innocence had already been violated. I
saw worms and maggots bursting from every part of the corpses strewn
on the road.
years after the menacing violence, I have been unable to shake off
the broad daylight nightmare. Throughout all these years, every time
I recall the incident, I feel stricken by a pervasive fear and other
Imo Ben Eshiet was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Raised in his village, Uruk Enung, and at
several cities in his country including Nsukka, Enugu, Umuahia, Eket and Calabar, Eshiet is a
detribalized Nigerian. Although he was extensively exposed to Western education right from
childhood in his country where he obtained a PhD in English and Literary Studies from the
University of Calabar, he is well nurtured in African history, politics, culture and traditions.
Imo is currently a teacher in the high priests group in the Summit Ward of the Greensboro North