by Akumbu Uche
For surviving the Civil War, my mother’s family is indebted to a crocodile.
My mother remembers the day she was at the stream with her brothers. The war had just started. That was the first time they were surprised by mortar falling from the sky. From her doorway, my grandmother watched helplessly as her children ran uphill. They made it to the house a little out of breath but otherwise unscathed from this brush with death.
My grandmother immediately began packing and by the next day, they had left Port Harcourt for Uyo where my grandfather, a magistrate, was stationed.
Because of my grandfather’s job, the young family was used to changing addresses. Name any major town in former Eastern Nigeria — Owerri, Enugu, Umuahia; they had schooled, churched and made friends there. This time, my grandmother felt the need to explain.
“If we are going to die in this war, we will all die together.”
Her eldest child was eight years old.
In Uyo, the children studied the region’s vernacular in school. At home, they practised their newly picked-up Ibibio so much they drove their mother nuts with it; they heard accounts of their father’s courtroom dramas – how he had remained impervious to the spells some witch or the other hoping to influence his verdict had tried casting on him. With friends, they took turns learning to ride the same bicycle and whenever meals took too long to cook, they snacked on okra, freshly picked from the house garden.
Life was idyll until the war flew into their lives a second time.
Previously, they had run indoors to escape the air raids. This time, they did the opposite. As soon as they heard the sirens, they would run out of the house and into the garden where they would lie flat, face down on the ground and wait for silence to return.
My grandmother is practicality defined and my grandfather had studied Law at an English University so it baffles me that they had once thought the canopy of fruit trees would shield them from harm. Perhaps this was their way of ‘running into the bush’ since nothing in their Western education or Native wisdom had prepared them for modern warfare. Maybe war robs us all of rational thought.
A different kind of death threat changed everything. During one of their take-cover outings, they noticed a crocodile’s snout jutting out of the loamy earth. This was not a demonic apparition. Neither was it some random swamp creature disoriented from its natural habitat. No, this was the family’s pet crocodile. The one they had apportioned a section of the grounds to, complete with a makeshift shallow pool, fenced in. The one they used to feed a live fowl to every three weeks or so, watching in cinematic delight as its strong jaws and ragged teeth snapped up the squealing bird.
Apparently, animals adapt to war. This one, it seems, had secretly dug a hole; and during the raids would attempt to tunnel its body out of its pen. To prevent the possibility of his family being eaten alive, my grandfather had an underground bunker built. Shortly after, the compound was heavily shelled; all the mango trees, citrus trees, vegetables obliterated.
But seriously, fenced in or not, why would anybody want to keep a crocodile on their premises? As a totem? As a thief repellant? To remind oneself of the wild in the face of encroaching urbanity?
My grandfather would later keep another reptile, this time a tortoise; an animal so reclusive that in all my visits to his Enugu townhouse I have never sighted it. I am never at home, it seems, whenever it makes appearances, as my siblings report to me, “under the hedge”, at Easter, or “near the poultry house”, during the long hols.
I do, however, remember a time during my childhood when he had once kept a caged eagle, gifted to him on the occasion of his coronation as Eze Ndikelionwu X. Kept in the hallway near the entrance of what we now call Old Palace, that bird would shriek and rattle violently if anyone passed by, which was a lot.
More tame are the fighting turkeys and the peacocks who, with their less colourful female kind, currently parade the grounds in my grandfather’s newest home, sweeping his gravestone with the spread of their long tail feathers, leaving droppings on balconies and on the grass they often eat.
I think that during his lifetime, he was just attracted to animals. But I doubt, with the exception of that old crocodile, that he had any attachment to them.
The time came during the war when the family decided to evacuate themselves from danger to what was considered one of the safest places at the time — the village. And if the war reached there as well…at least the entire Ike family would be together.
The crocodile must have been considered a member of the family too, seeing as my grandfather repeatedly tried to get the beloved pet on board a hired truck. Adamant to remain its own individual, it would not budge and so, was reluctantly left behind.
Akumbu Uche (blog) considers books to be her first love. Even so, there is enough room in her heart for good music, engaging films and bright nail polish. She lives in Uyo.