|Print | Back||December 08, 2015|
African VoiceGenocide as a Carnival Romp
by Imo Eshiet
“This is a wonderful time to be on earth. Although there is much that is wrong in the world today, there are many things that are right and good. There are marriages that make it, parents who love their children and sacrifice for them, friends who care about us and help us, teachers who teach. Our lives are blessed in countless ways.” President Thomas S. Monson
At Thanksgiving I was to give a talk on gratitude. I loaded up on scriptures and remarks on the subject by prophets both old and new. Feeling prepared, I set out to deliver my talk.
I was listed as the third speaker. That meant I was supposed not to make errors needing correction by another speaker. The problem was since all speakers spoke on the same subject, what was I to say that others had not already covered?
I grew even more apprehensive as both speakers rendered me redundant by commenting on all I had in mind. Nervous, I forgot that while my audience was looking for originality, it equally looked for messages that reinforced and strengthened their minds. Lacking my earlier bounce, I dragged myself up to the adjustable lectern.
Until then, I lost sight of the scriptures, “Take ye no thought how or what thing ye shall … say. For the Holy Ghost shall teach you in the same hour what ye ought to say.” Presently, the brand name that made that promise dawned on me and I swung to something I had completely left out in my preparation.
I decided to share my story and let my listeners see how the Lord uses our thanksgiving to preserve, heal and restore us.
Once I settled on that, I made a gesture that secured attention. I narrated a ritual my children insist I do whenever I stand before an audience delivering a talk. My kids tell me since I am so bald my scalp shines, I should always warn my audience that light could bounce off my head and blind them if they failed to put on sunglasses!
Instantly the audience guffawed and leaned forward. I then expressed gratitude for the love of family and children who cared enough to warn me against anything that could attract a lawsuit. More laughter followed.
When I said I was a genocide survivor, a massacre that claimed more than two million lives, my listeners’ jaws were figuratively on the floor.
I told them about my father. He was a playful man who treated his kids as if we were his mates. He would make funny faces, tell animal stories, and mimic them in action. He could ball up like a pangolin or play possum as if warding off a predator.
He could growl like a lion, jump like a gazelle, grunt like a boa, rumble and trumpet like an elephant, hoot like an owl or shriek and squeal like a homeless pig. With his arms outstretched, he would make as if he was soaring like a hawk or with those same arms flailing, he could just as easily transform into a wingless bird. He never failed to get our attention.
Sometimes, he mimicked fluttering hummingbirds, or herons and flycatchers or flew backwards like these birds. Mother nicknamed him the official jester of our family court. Hearing that, he would roar so heartily we joined in his infectious laughter. His cheery antics were a great tonic when our mood was low.
We were having one such family time when a shattering darkness suddenly swooped in on us.
For several weeks we heard the raucous chatter of rifle fire, the racket of machine guns, and the boom, boom, boom of bombs echoing across the hills where we lived. As the salvos came increasingly close, our stomachs fluttered and rumbled.
The government of our new nation, Biafra, said not to panic, for the unsettling barrage came from our gallant soldiers driving back the vandals. “Vandals” was the name we called the invading federal troops. The federal radio returned the favor and made us squirm with a promise to squash us underfoot like ants. The federal side said we were rebels and would be crushed.
It was not an empty boast. When it descended on us, we literally saw our ears and heard with our eyes as explosions stalked us daily. The law of the land was anarchy, violence and chaos, and like the survivors of a tsunami, we soon learned the real meaning of pain and loss as many dropped dead like leaves at fall.
At first it all seemed like a carnival float: packed rallies, thunderous marches and colorful parades with chanting, festive folks romping the streets in thousands. Schools were shut and in its place, we had paramilitary drills. Beardless young men carrying sticks that they pretended were guns, mimicked how to shoot, how to stab and hack with bayonets, how to take cover, or smartly toss grenades.
Barrel-chested drill sergeants shouted themselves hoarse with orders: “Chest out! Attention! At ease!” When they barked “Preseeeeent arms!” the recruits put forward the sticks they carried and stamping one foot hard on the ground, held the sticks to their sides and slightly pushed them forward as soldiers with guns. Women and children cheered the impressive military moves and maneuvers.
Giant banners hoisted bamboo poles with our national flag proudly emblazoned, its half of a yellow sun over stripes of red, black and green glinting in the sun, danced in the air. Red stood for the blood of our people shed during an ethnic cleansing in northern Nigeria. Black was a sign for mourning, but the green color got us high on hope for a bright, fruitful future.
I remember vividly the mass panic when the federal planes came flying bombing and strafing sorties. Mother grabbed whatever she could and after a family roll call, we headed for the bush. Along the way, my parents exchanged our meager items for food, water, and medicine. We rejoiced whenever we came by a muddy pool to drink and bath. Water from vines also gave us refreshing drinks.
When everything ran out, we turned to insects for food. After an initial nausea and disgust, we savored palm maggots, beetles, termites, rodents, and snakes. With no salt for the three years the war lasted, we got along without unseasoned food. Awfully emaciated, our rib bones were so conspicuous anyone could count them from afar.
Weakened by starvation, sinister illnesses like kwashiorkor, cholera, malaria, and yellow fever menaced us mercilessly. My nails started rotting and stank offensively. We trekked so long our feet blistered and puffed like sodden boots.
Though we did not know where we were going, we kept moving, for whenever we stopped, we were shot at from behind. Bodies in various stages of decay and oozing with foul odors littered everywhere, but we jumped over them and kept fleeing.
War-scarred, every new day was a gift of grace. We pushed back privation with faith, prayers, fasting, and family traditions, including stories our parents told. No one ever needed God more we did and that desperation helped us sustain hope.
Surviving the valley of death, I now appreciate President Monson’s teaching that, "Regardless of our circumstances, each of us has much for which to be grateful if we will but pause and contemplate our blessings.”
At the end of my talk, a stunned old lady said to me, “I thought my childhood was exciting. Your story makes my history seem so dull.”
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