WHEN WE talk about this woman, we always start off by saying: What a time Arrọ-yo stepped into! 1967. The land’s named Nigeria and the Biafran War was upon us. Heavy and dirty. Anyone would have felt sorry for Arrọ-yo. This was not the place she remembered, but home was still home.
“Selfish,” she hissed to herself as she headed home, blinking away tears. “I’ve been so damn selfish!” She’d been away a long time, seeing the world. Now, she had to get home. She had learned much while she was away. She knew about courage and fear, she knew about gain and loss, she certainly knew about love and anguish, but now she was about to learn about death.
She’d read about it at the restaurant as she sat in the sun drinking a cup of milky tea. Someone had left the Time Magazine on the table after they had finished their meal. The headline read: “Biafra’s Agony.” She’d almost dropped her warm cup. Then, like so many of our people who were abroad, she’d felt the words deep in her bones.
The rest she would learn along the way. You see, our lands had finally gained what the British called “independence.” But when a place is made up of false boundaries strategically sketched and strictly enforced by foreigners, there will eventually be trouble. Many of the new rulers were chosen by the British, and these chosen men were magicians and sorcerers gone wrong. They used juju charms like magical walking sticks to repel bullets and secret elixirs to prevent poisoning. They wore sunglasses to hide their dry red eyes, eyes that always looked worried because they could see their victories, but also their deaths.
These leaders had intercourse with woman after woman, sapping their feminine life force and then throwing away their shriveled, sad bodies. But those broken bodies still birthed children, giving these men thousands of sons to ensure that no power would be lost if they were assassinated. This of course, didn’t matter, for inheritance is ignored in any coup d’état.
As the chieftaincy of our country was snatched by party after party, frustration eventually turned to violence. On May 30, 1967, our tribe’s leader proclaimed the land of the Eastern Region of Nigeria as the Republic of Biafra. A grand name for a grand place. Oh, how it made us think of the great Biafran Empire so so long ago. “We will have it again!” we cried. Soon afterwards, Nigeria declared war on us. We, the men, women and children of the Igbo tribe, became Biafran soldiers.
We asked “Igbo Kwenu?!”
We responded, “Yah!”
Even as Arrọ-yo made her way home, she too asked and responded to these words. Igbo Kwenu?! Yah!
When she got to Nigeria, as she flew home, there was combat in the forests and gutted villages. Bodies were scarred and killed by machetes, nailed to their huts, raped, torn by bullets and bombs. In Biafra, we invented the Ogbunigwe bomb and self-guided surface-to-air missiles to help us. Women became spies and soldiers. Children did their part, too. Scientists on both sides spoke of developing nuclear and biological weapons. But our weapons could not match the Nigerians’, whose were supplied by foreigners. And then the enemy was able to cut off our food supplies and we began to starve, we began to lose faster.
After years of being away, this was the warring land that our Arrọ-yo flew into. There was no place for guilt here, but she bore it and it consumed her.
Her first day back in Nigeria, still hundreds of miles from her village, she came across an exodus. Now she saw it with her own eyes. Thousands of people were going southeast. They were Igbos fleeing from the north, back to Igboland, what was now called Biafra. They were tired, scared and hungry. For a while, she just stood there staring.
She wanted to continue her journey home, but these people were desperate and she had skills that could help.
“I am finished being selfish,” she said to herself.
She approached people saying that she was a nurse. She found what she needed in the nearby forests. Herbs, bark, flowers, leaves. She brought down fevers, eased pain, stitched up machete gashes with palm tree raffia, fished out bullets, helped people fight their infections, and she watched some die. It wasn’t quick for these people. It took nights and days of pain, crying and sometimes a resigned motionlessness.
Once Arrọ-yo sat with a girl of about ten. Her name was Onwuma and her family had been killed by soldiers who’d raided her village in the north. The girl had no one to look out for her but herself. She was too young and soon she began to suffer from kwashiorkor. The girl had been eating only handfuls of uncooked rice for weeks and her belly was swollen as if she carried a baby herself. Our Arrọ-yo knew it was too late to try and help her. The girl had lain still that night, her eyes open, looking through the trees at the night sky. All around them, people slept.
“I’ll go soon,” Onwuma said softly. “They’re waiting.”
Arrọ-yo wiped the girl’s forehead with a wet cloth. She was hot. Arrọ-yo wasn’t surprised at the way the girl spoke. The girl’s name meant, “Death knows.” It was an ogbanje name. This girl had probably been hearing the calls from her friends in the spirit world all her life. Now that the girl’s family was dead, she had no one to keep her alive. An ogbanje child was always torn between family and his or her friends in the spirit world.
“Can you see them?” Arrọ-yo asked the girl.
“Yes,” she said. “They’re above us. In the trees.”
“What do they look like, Onwuma?”
“Like…” she giggled softly. “Like large pretty green lizards with long long rough tails.”
“What do they say?” Arrọ-yo asked.
“They say…” she trailed off in a sigh. Her breathing slowed. Arrọ-yo gently shook her.
“What is it?” the girl asked.
“I was asking you what your friends were saying,” Arrọ-yo said, fighting to keep her voice still. The girl was so young. She hasn’t even seen much of the world, at least not in this life, Arrọ-yo thought. And the last part of her life has been riddled with things no child should ever see.
“Your spirit friends.”
“Oh,” Onwuma said after a long pause. “There’s one with its claw on your shoulder. It says thank you; that it’s okay to let me go now.”
Then she shut her eyes and never opened them again.
Soon after Arrọ-yo left this group of people, she tried to continue going home but before she could even get close to her village, she came across the real violence. The fighting. Men slashed and shot each other in the forests and in ruined towns and villages. Arrọ-yo saw many die everyday. She flew into the sky to get away from gunless, machete-bearing, desperate men gone mad who tried to attack her. She was shot at several times, but somehow she was able to escape unhurt. Behind her, as she flew into the sky, she heard cries of shock and fear. Some ran away, others simply stared up. Still others threw themselves on the ground and shouted to her for forgiveness.
“No!” she’d shout back, tearfully. “You forgive me!”
The violence spiraled into a tornado, and our vulnerable, guilt-riddled Arrọ-yo was easily pulled in. She didn’t know how many people she saved. There were children with bloated bellies that she dragged from fires. Men she slashed to ribbons with her blade for their attempted rape of women. She no longer heard the different languages people spoke. She didn’t see the tribal markings on their cheeks or the styles of their uniforms. The people fighting all looked the same to her. She made her decisions according to who was hurt and who was doing the hurting.
The first time she saw the giant birds, she thought she had somehow stepped into another world. For where else would such monsters exist? But then she realized that they were made of metal. She remembered that these were airplanes.
She’d been in the forest, helping several sick men and women. There were also children in the group and a pregnant woman. She’d been tending to the pregnant women when, suddenly, there was the sound of flapping wings. No chirps, squawks or whistles. The birds were soundless except for their wings frantically trying to launch them into the air as quickly as possible. She didn’t have to look up to know these were vultures. Only vultures behaved like that.
The woman Arrọ-yo was helping gasped loudly and jumped up. So did everyone else.
“What is it?” she asked, as she held the pregnant woman’s arm, so the woman wouldn’t fall. Before the woman could answer, Arrọ-yo heard the war cry of an enormous beast.
Then everything exploded. Arrọ-yo was thrown against a tree. The moment her mind regrouped, she flew up as fast as she could. Her clothes were covered with blood and chunks of moist flesh. She coughed, her nostrils filled with smoke and blood. But she flew and flew, higher and higher, her heart beating as if it would burst from her chest. She breathed with her mouth open. Once she was high enough to no longer smell smoke, she looked back.
They zoomed back and forth over the forest, destroying everything alive. Trees, bushes, grasshoppers, vines, human beings, plants, owls. For several moments, her mind could not comprehend what she was seeing. She had seen so many amazing things in her travels but this…man-made disaster… she couldn’t understand it.
When the metal birds flew away, she flew down. Everyone was dead. She flew on. She didn’t want to be around when the vultures returned as she knew they would. And somewhere else, there were people who were still alive and needed her. She’d forgotten that she needed to go home. To her, everywhere had become home, everyone was a relative she’d abandoned to go see other places.
She saw the metal birds of destruction many more times after that. She knew she couldn’t stop them. They were too big. Too fast. Too murderous. She began to patrol the skies. Wherever the metal birds went there would be people in need, if anyone lived.
Those were days of blood. She did what she could, but she always eventually flew away. Like a lost bird searching for her home. But there was one man she could not bring herself to leave. She’d seen him running, looking back into the sky as the metal birds approached. There were many others running. But this man caught her eye as she flew by.
His face was not familiar to her. He was just a man. His skin was dark, his eyes were wide, and he was shouting as he ran. Then the bombs exploded and she could no longer see him. She had to wait as the metal birds dropped the rest of their excrements of death. Then they turned and flew away. On the horizon, she saw another one coming but she didn’t care. She flew down anyway.
She found him and he was almost gone. He was covered in his own blood, his clothes burned, his body quivering. His abdomen had been blown open and half of his face was gone. He called to a Creator in a language Arrọ-yo didn’t understand. Where he found the breath to speak, she’d never know. His voice shook and his lips were coated with blood. Arrọ-yo stood over him, her mouth open. No words.
She clutched her chest. Her blue dress was stained with dried blood from others and her own sweat. She’d flown so many miles. She didn’t remember the last time she’d slept. She could barely remember her own name. But here was another man dying, alone, at her feet. Still.
She fell to her knees and took the man’s head in her arms. The man’s one open eye looked at her and he stopped calling to his Creator. Arrọ-yo sat with the man’s head in her lap until the man’s body stopped shaking.
When this man died, it was as if she woke up. She remembered that she was Arrọ-yo from the Calabar region. But awakening to one’s self can be painful. She leaned forward over the dead man, feeling her blue dress stretch and tear. The fabric was now old.
She wished the airplane she’d seen on the horizon would hurry and come with its exploding excrement. Then it would be finished. Let it be done, she thought. I’ve had enough. I’ve had enough. I’ve had enough. Let me be reborn as something other than myself. But she continued to live and breathe. And even with the man’s body turning cold in her lap, she could feel the pull of the sky.
Minutes later, with care, with kindness, she lay the man down. Then she stood up straight, finally free of what had taken hold of her since she’d come back to the warring country of her birth. Snapped from her guilt. Then she flew home.
Those she saved who were Christian called her an angel. They said that she was sent from the heavens to help those who needed help. Those who were Muslim were sure that she was a servant of Allah. Others called her Yemeja, Mami Wata, and many other things. People now might compare her to a superhero of some sort.
But she was just a woman. Our woman, our Arrọ-yo.
And even after all this, our Arrọ-yo stayed. She remained. She did not fly away; for what good does it do anyone to run away from home? Even when home is in turmoil? When this woman who could fly found her home, she found round-bellied children, some who were her nephews and nieces. She found her mother carrying a gun and a wild look in her eye. She found her father’s body in the ground, full of bullets. And Arrọ-yo never flew again.
Or that is what some say. We all tell stories about her. She is a legend. Still we don’t all believe such a woman could ever be grounded; but worse things have happened.