My Nightmare Returned.





By Ike Okonta

Okonta is a writer, scholar and journalist. In 2005, he earned a D.Phil from the University of Oxford where he has also taught.

 He was shortlisted by the Caine Prize Judges for his story, Tindi in the Land of the Dead. He has published many books and articles. His latest book is When Citizens Revolt: Nigerian Elites, Big Oil and the Ogoni Struggle for Self-determination (Africa World Press, Trenton, 2008). Ike is a native of Asaba

My Nightmare Returned.

Before this, there was an older nightmare, going back to when I was little but which time, mercifully, has now dissolved into benign memory. But the song from that older time still comes back to me occasionally:

My brother, don’t you worry
My sister, don’t you worry
If I happen to die in the battlefield
Never mind, Biafra will rise again

The boy-soldiers would march past us singing cheerfully, their faces lit up by the early morning sun. We were living in a refugee camp then, and we children would rush out to the football field to admire the brave boys in their new Biafra Army uniforms going to the front to fight Nigerian soldiers. The war was going badly. We knew because the boy-soldiers would jump into the big lorry and our mothers would start shouting and crying and throwing themselves up and down in the dust and then the lorry would drive off and we never saw the boy-soldiers again.

One morning, when the rain was falling, I saw Nigerian soldiers drive into our camp in open Land Rovers and jeeps. They were laughing and waving green cassava leaves. We knew then the war was over. Nobody knew whether to laugh or cry.

We returned to our hometown. No one came out to welcome us. The town was quiet, almost desolate, as though an important man had died. We reached our street in the evening, just as the sunlight was beginning to fail. The house was still there but a bomb had removed the entire roof and two rooms at the back. As my father neared the front door it burst open and a wild-eyed man came out. He peered at us in the gloom. Then he said, his voice shaking, ‘Children of my mother, happy survival!’ He fled into the gathering dusk.

My nightmares began after we had picked up the remains of our shattered lives. I had just turned seven and my father had taken me to the school opposite the bombed-out ruins of Holy Trinity Anglican Church on General Gowon Street. I had the first dream that night, after I returned from school.

My nightmares began after we had picked up the remains of our shattered lives. I had just turned seven and my father had taken me to the school opposite the bombed-out ruins of Holy Trinity Anglican Church on General Gowon Street. I had the first dream that night, after I returned from school.

I do not know where I am, but it must be a refugee camp, yes it must be a refugee camp because I am not alone. There is Mama Felicity and my playmate Felicity and several other people who I do not know sleeping in a long row right down the big hall. I do not know where my father and mother and big sister are and what I am doing here sleeping far away from them in this big hall. It is a church hall, I think. Yes, it must be a church hall because there is a big wooden cross on the wall and Jesus with only a dirty loin cloth wrapped around his thin waist leaning from it with his big eyes sad and watery with tears. I do not know what noise it is that wakes me. But I am awake now. That is when I see the first Nigerian soldier. I know he is a Nigerian soldier because he is very fat and has marks on his two cheeks. All Nigerian soldiers are very fat because they eat a lot of beans and that is why they cannot fight very well. He is walking on tiptoe, like a mouse, making his way to the center of the hall. Then he turns and whispers something to others I do not see and then suddenly the hall is full of Nigerian soldiers all carrying guns. I open my mouth wide and let out a loud scream as four fat Nigerian soldiers throw themselves on top of Mama Felicity sleeping beside me tearing at her clothes and hitting her all over with the butts of their rifles. Mama Felicity is shouting and fighting with them but there are four of them and they all very fat and strong and then she is naked and two of them are on top of her and still hitting her and then more Nigerian soldiers run into the hall and they begin to shoot. There is a lot of smoke and blood everywhere and people are running and falling all around me and I am trying to get to my feet but my feet are heavy as if they are tied to a heavy stone. Mama Felicity is still shouting, ‘I will give you anything you want! I will give you anything you want but please don’t touch my daughter! Don’t touch my baby!’ She is shouting on and on and the two soldiers are still on top her with their trousers down and their fat hairy buttocks moving up and down, up and down and Mama Felicity is still shouting from under the two soldiers but her voice is getting fainter and fainter and people are falling all over me and dirtying my shirt with their blood and I am on my feet now running from one end of the hall to the other and can’t find the doorway because there are so many people and they are all shouting and crying and falling one on top of the other and all the gunsmoke and the dark unsmiling faces of the Nigerian soldiers who are firing and the smiling faces of the ones on top of naked crying women all over the floor and their fat hairy buttocks moving up and down, up and down. Then there is Felicity beside her mother, throwing herself at the two naked Nigerian soldiers and shouting and crying and the two Nigerian soldiers knocking her down and she standing up again and crying and shouting and throwing herself at them and they knocking her down again. And Felicity her big eyes wide open and full of tears and her buck teeth bared shouting my name, shouting my name and me just looking at her too afraid to get to my feet and run to her side to stop the two fat soldiers from knocking her down. And then I feel a hand grab me by the shoulder and I look up and it is my father lifting me up, lifting me up and throwing me across his shoulder and a Nigerian soldier shouting and throwing himself at us and my father knocking him down with one arm and still holding me to him running through the doorway and into the bright sunlight and the guns still firing and my father throwing me into the bush and diving in after me, the guns still firing and people shouting and the Nigerian soldiers on top of the women laughing as if it is Christmas Day.

It is at this point that I always wake up, the laughter of the soldiers w ith the fat hairy buttocks still ringing in my ears. I will wake suddenly and then realise that my mother is beside me on the bed holding me close to her and putting a cup of cold water to my lips.

I will tell her about the dream. I will tell her everything, slowly. I will tell her about the tiny hairs in the Nigerian soldiers? naked buttocks gleaming with sweat. After I had finished my mother would pat me gently on the head.

‘Everything is alright now, heart of his mother. Go back to sleep. Everything is alright now.’

‘But it all happened? I am not just dreaming it?’

My mother would look at me in the dark. Then she would sigh. ‘It is such a long time ago. You were too young then to remember anything, thank God.’

‘But I remember.’

‘No you don’t!’ Then she would calm down quickly and say in a gentler voice, ‘You are having bad dreams. It is bad dreams you are having.’

‘Then what about Felicity? Where is Felicity? I want to marry her.’

‘There is no Felicity.’ Then my mother will begin to cry. ‘You bad boy! Where did you come from? What evil spirit put you in my belly? You want to kill me with your dreams. You want to kill your own mother!’

When do you dream? When do you remember? The confusion I carry in my head today was sown in those early days when neither my mother nor my big sister would tell me anything about the war. As for my father, he merely shook his head from side to side when I asked him if he remembered throwing me over his shoulder and knocking down a Nigerian soldier with his bare arms.

‘Don’t you remember, Papa? Don’t you remember, eh?’ I cried out one day. My father sat me on his lap and stroked my head gently until I had quietened down. Then he said to me in his calm voice: ‘To remember is good, my son. But to forget is wiser.’

What do you think about this story? Please comment below.




4 Comments on this post.

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  • Rosemary (UK)
    12 September 2010 at 9:00 AM - Reply

    Oh my God, my sister and i use to have nightmares about our experiences with soldiers during the war in Nigeria. I saw teenage girls go through hell, i was only seven years but i could remember every detail of what happened. My sister and i use to talk about our nightmares and one day we decided to block it out of our memories. The nightmares stopped fifteen years ago. We are now in our early fifties and happy.

    • Asaba
      15 September 2010 at 11:26 PM - Reply

      Yes. It was a crude time in Nigeria. And those
      Nigerian soldiers committed all kinds of atrocities.

  • Emma Ikemefuna
    15 September 2010 at 11:33 PM - Reply

    Thank God you and your sister were able to overcome the nightmare.

    • Rosemary (UK)
      30 September 2010 at 9:23 PM - Reply

      Thank you Emma.