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March 5, 2014
African Voice
A Menacing Violence
by Imo Eshiet

Nsukka 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.

Scorpions 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.

I 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.

We 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 bundle.

But 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!

However, 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.

We 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.

Thinking 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.

In fact, the university was a precursor of emergent Nigerian cities — an oasis in the desert or glimmerings ringed by sprawling slums.

That 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.

The 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 breakaway East.

To 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.

I 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.

But 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.

It 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.

As 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.

In 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.

It 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.

The 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 horror movie.

But 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.

Fifty 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 anxiety-induced cramps.

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