Growing up in the barracks was the best childhood experience. The communal life was second to none. The sharing of both Christmas and Sallah rice was always something to look up to; it tasted different from the Sunday ritual rice. The constant brawls between wives was mischievously a delightful sight to behold so far your mother was not involved. However, a day came that forever altered my affinity for my safe heaven.
7th January 2003 06:30HRS
I shrieked with excitement as mother pulled my white stockings and forced my feet into the brown cutina bata. It was worn from prolonged use but mother ensured it remained well maintained and polished. Next she forced on my little green gown with its double white strips. She took pride in herself that she raised the neatest children on the entire block. Mama Ibeji, as she was fondly called, was among the few soldier wives who were literate – half a term in the Teachers’ Training college before dropping out to marry my father qualified.
Today was particularly a joyous day at home; Taiwo’s admission slip into the Nigeria Defense Academy (NDA) was delivered yesterday by the dispatch unit. To the envy of his friends and admiration of all block D girls, he passed, on merit. Secondly, Dad was coming back today – the first time since he left for the operation in October. Mother therefore stalled the celebration until he returned. I could hardly contain my happiness. I still remembered how routinely dad’s sparse visit were: First, he would drop his small leather bag then the long green duffle bag. These bags contained all sorts of items ranging from his dirty camouflage clothes which we quickly tossed aside, to kwilikwili, kilishi and desiccated date palm. Occasionally, he brought back very dried bush meat. Next I would help him pull his boots, wrinkling my nose from the emanating stench. Mama would quickly serve him a bowl of amala and gbegiri and unbuttoning his shirt, he would tell tales of Maiduguri amidst mouthfuls of food. Few minutes after, he always dozed off on the lone cushion in the sitting room snoring very loudly.
7th January 2013 7:00HRS
I dashed out to join the other girls as we strode towards Command Children Schoo. I overheard mother instructing Kehinde to kill our fowl in preparation for the evening. I told the girls it was a miracle the fowl had survived four months without being stolen – truants from the Day secondary school often came to steal chickens. My friends planned to come to our room in the evening in the guise of visiting in a bid to get a piece of meat. I could barely concentrate in class. My mind wandered many times until the teacher grew tired of calling me back
At the stroke of 1:30, I grabbed my school bag and ran all the way to the soldiers block. Approaching my block, I observed a small crowd close to our room. I took it as a sign my timing was accurate. You see, dad’s battalion always left Maiduguri at dusk. That way, they were sure to arrive Jos (the divisional headquarters) before 8:00HRS for the change of guard parade.
People milled around the ground floor and the staircase. They were mostly the wives of other soldiers. I thought they came to see if dad brought any message from their husbands or if they was still alive and well. Some husbands will send gift items to their wives, and some money. Only a few sent letters, something considered too weak in the war front. Perhaps if I had looked closer, I would have seen it in their eyes. Squeezing through, I tossed my bag aside screaming Daddy! Daddy!
Then I saw my mother. She was wearing a black jalabiya and weeping uncontrollably. She was surrounded by Mama Ciroma and Mama Adekunle, her best friends. I needed no one to tell me what happened. I had seen this scene repeatedly and it meant only one thing: dad was no more. Tears filled my eyes, and my head became hot. I heard words like ambush, Boko Haram, bomb and death. I stormed out of the house and headed to my favorite spot – the bank of the small river that passed through the barracks. My father was the most patriotic soldier I ever knew. He loved Nigeria more than his own life. He gave us names from Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba tribes and many people often teased him that one day, he’ll name his children after the towns in Nigeria. I still remembered how he always shined his shoes till my teeth reflected on them. And how he always told us “always do your best, because you are the best.”
I don’t know how long I spent there, I must have fallen asleep because I only recall that I woke up on my bed the next day covered in thick duvet. Taiwo must have found me and carried me back to the house. I was exempted from school that day and the day after. All I wanted was my father, my Warrant Officer.
January 15, 2016
It has been 13 years since dad passed on yet his death remains my greatest loss. I still remember the pain like it happened yesterday. Watching the President as he lays the wreath today, I know it’s time to journey back home. Jos is the only one I ever knew.
P.S. In loving memory of Col. G. Ahmed, Col. U. Yakubu, Capt. Kenneth Onubah, Lt. SK Leo, Corp. Ahmed Usman and countless others who have died that we may be safe. Though tribe and tongue differed, in brotherhood they stood.
By Chizzy Odilinye