Men Bökú: Diary Of A Nigerian Traveller, Ross Alabo-George

I had just boarded a plane for an urgent trip to Port Harcourt from Abuja, and settled into my space by the window. I pulled out a pen to jot a few thoughts for the meeting I was going for, and had just started doing that when a certain elderly lady occupied the aisle seat next to mine. I greeted warmly like a host, did a quick scan and considered that she was about my mum’s age. Immediately, I realized that I probably wouldn’t have my peace for the next hour or so. I prepared to be a good company and assistant. This wasn’t the first experience.

As one of the female crew members announced the safety procedures, she turned to me and asked, “na woman be the pilot?” I smiled, understanding her implicit (stereotyped) concerns, and answered “Mama, the pilot na man.” I could feel her anxiety disappear as she muttered “Thank God.”

I could tell she was a little over 70. She had her make up done really well, though the foundation did not shade her wrinkles completely, she looked well kept and had a likeable energy. She seemed like a happy woman. As we took off she grabbed my arms, and I assured her it would be a smooth flight.

As the fasten seatbelt lights went off, the air hostesses paraded the aisle to prepare for the inflight entertainment service, the woman took a quick glance at all of them and turned to me and asked “Why all these yellow beautiful girls still never marry?” She quipped like I was responsible for dispensing spouses. Again, I seized the moment to calm her down with a rather sarcastic response, “Mama, we scarce o. Men scarce for this country.” She gave a dismissive look and said, “Taa! Wetin you dey talk? For this country, men too böku.”

I knew I had switched on her story button. “My pikin,” she started, as she made herself comfortable turning to my direction, “I marry my husband when I be 17 years for Isiokpo (Rivers State), na that time the Biafran war come start.” Her voiced cracked a bit, and she whispered “This mama wey you dey see here don see something for this life o.” In the next few minutes she started telling me her Civil War experience. “All these people calling for war in Nigeria never see war before. We suffer o,” She said with a teary eye.

She got married at 17 in Isiokpo and a few months later, the Nigerian Civil War started. Her husband was an Ikwerre man, a Biafran soldier who had been deployed to Udi. Just as the war started, she discovered she was pregnant. She recalled of the vicious atrocities of both Nigerian and Biafran troops, and how families had been scattered.

She told me of her weeklong trek from Isiokpo to Udi in search of her soldier husband, and how many mothers had to abandon their sick, hungry and dying children to escape artillery fire and bombings. At this time, she had delivered a baby boy, and she told of how she tried to protect him, but how at the tipping point, she considered abandoning the baby.

A few months later, she searched for her mother in a village around Umuahia and found her. To her chagrin, the village was calm and she joined her mother in her “mama put” business. “Na there my problem with officers come start. My skin too dey shine. Officers no allow me rest…” She shook her shook her head and enthused with a sheepish, almost guilty smile. “Wetin, I no do to make dem for no notice me…I even rub charcoal for my body.”

I did not press her for her experiences with officers, but it seemed to me that it was the part of the sad war story that she would rather only narrate to her best friend and not a “small boy” like me.

“My pikin, even during war, men boku…You hear?” She looked at me, expecting a response, so I nodded in agreement.

She made it through the war. Fortunately, her husband survived as well, and the family was reunited shortly after the ceasefire and surrender by Biafran troops. Her husband passed on seven years ago. Her three sons are all doing well — one is based in Atlanta, the others in London and Abuja. She visits them regularly, and calls herself an “international grandma”.

Her greatest joy in life, she says, is not abandoning her baby during the war. “Every single day, I dey thank God,” she says, as she reminisces the tortuous journey and the sacrifices she made to keep her baby alive. She had determined to dump the baby close a church, but decided to breastfeed him one more time. She was famished and drained as well, but as her baby began to suckle, the baby wore a strange frown, and gave her a penetrating look, as though he was issuing her a stern warning.

That baby is in his fifties today, a multimillionaire businessman and contractor in Abuja.

I was so enthralled, I didn’t hear the landing announcement. The gist was too tight. As we got off the aircraft, I helped her with her luggage, but just before she went her way, she sent a message to the “war mongers”:

“Tell dem o…. War no good o.!”

Amazing woman! So let me pass the message:

Let’s value the peace. War no good.

  • Ross Alabo-George is a Port Harcourt based tech entrepreneur.