28th January 2002
The morning was cold, Mama and I fell asleep in the kitchen. We woke up when we heard the sound of the television set coming from the sitting room. Mrs. Nwosu was awake so she put it on NTA Channel 10. The newscasters talked about the explosion. She and Mama listened to what the newscasters had to say, with the hope to hear the names of the survivors. But, Uchendu’s name was not mentioned.
According to the news report, the red cross recovered at least one thousand bodies. And some were missing and never found. Five thousand people were injured in the explosion while twelve thousand left homeless. With the entire areas of the city left in ruins. Twenty thousand people fled the city on the night of the explosion out of fear for their lives. While the lucky ones to survive returned over the night.
Later in the day, at about 2 pm, Mrs. Nwosu left for her house to prepare lunch in case her husband returned. While Mama returned to watching the news report on NTA Channel 10. The reporter, Omotosho Olukayode reported the President’s presence at the scene. She said, “the Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo arrived with national politicians. He asked the military for answers on why they kept huge ammunition dump in a public location.
The military infrastructure was an old structure that had no defensive system whatsoever. It was not bulletproof. The base was not expected to store any kind of explosives. It was also reported that there had been a small explosion only known to the military task force in 2001. The city authorities counseled the army to remove and update the armory. But no action was taken towards implementing the counsel giving to them.
Mama stayed glued to the television set while I prepared lunch for the boys who were craving food. I knew if I had disturbed Mama, she would have brushed me off. After setting their food on the dining table, I went to join Mama in the sitting room. We sat on the black soft cushion for a while before she left to clean up herself. Once Mama exited the sitting room, I put off the television set to get my thoughts together. I prayed Ma woke up and Papa completely healed; I knew Ma would need a miracle. Papa had walked through the rubbles of the destroyed building to carry Ma’s unconscious body. Papa was a hero.
The boys and I finished eating lunch. I washed the plates and returned them back to the plate hanger. The birds chirped and I wondered if they knew what had happened. I wanted to experience freedom and peace like they did.
I was ten years old when the explosion happened but I remember that day very well. The pain, side talks, anguish, and death that filled the city. No one had expected it, neither the army nor the traders. No one knew what had caused the explosion that took thousands of lives. But one thing was certain, there was war in the government, in the army and in the city.
I left the kitchen for the room, where Mama laid down on her back. She tried to keep things together for the boys and the family. I watched her sleep. The boys were fighting and in high spirits on this day. They ran around the house until they finally slept off. But, I spent the quiet time to read ’Things Fall Apart’ by Chinua Achebe. I was drawn to the title of the book, I wanted to know if they ever came back together.
As I was to get into the next chapter, I heard Mama’s dragged feet on the floor. “Chigozie, turn the TV on to NTA Channel 10,” Mama shouted. I turned on the TV and dropped my book on the shelf behind the cushion in the sitting room. I knew I was not going to finish the book until everything had gotten back to normal in the real world. Mama sat down on the long black cushion. Her legs opened and her wrapper put between for comfort. She was ready to watch the evening news. I wondered how long Mama willed to stay up-to-date with the happenings in her condition. Yet, I saw her determination in how focused she was on the news reports.
It was time for the evening news. I expected Mrs. Nwosu to return. The three of us watched as the commander of the Ikeja base, Chuks Edwin gave out a statement:
“On behalf of the military, we are sorry, this is an old ammunition depot with high-caliber bombs. Some efforts were being made in the recent past to try to improve the storage facility. But this accident happened before the high authorities could do what it needed.”
This made Mama especially Mrs. Nwosu furious. Mrs. Nwosu complained and wailed. She went on about how the commander was lucky he was not a victim. I felt sorry for her because she had not seen her husband or son. There was no one to comfort her. I wanted to blurt out my feelings but I held it all on in for the sake of the elders. Apart from Mama and Mrs. Nwosu, Chuks Edwin’s statement provoked anger from the people of Lagos city. They said the military was giving excuses for their incompetence. Ever since Nigeria gained democracy in 1999. Many people including Mrs. Nwosu feared that the explosion represented the start of another military coup. “Hmmm…God sees us through” Mama said to keep Mrs. Nwosu’s mind at ease.
Meanwhile, the reporter continued to give updates on what happened at the crime scene. She did state that investigation was ongoing. At the background in the TV set, there were bodies laid on the concrete rubbles. The bodies left opened for the public to see.
Innumerable relief agencies provided help to the thousands of homeless and lost people. They attempted to bring together about two thousand separated families.
For the safety of residents, authorities asked people to evacuate from Ikeja. The explosives experts had to remove the large numbers of munitions from the area. But, the residents were not left without roofs over their heads. According to reports, the authorities gave temporary accommodation to victims. And, the Abalti Barracks Yaba.
“There were a lot of things to be thankful for in spite of the loss and incident,” I thought to myself. On that fateful day, I and the boys should have been at school with Uchendu. But, Mama had picked us up during the week for a family weekend. “What if Mama had not come to pick us? Was Uchendu alone? What if Papa did not make it early to were Ma laid unconscious?” my thoughts continued. I wanted to be sad but my heart found its way to Thanksgiving.
Mrs. Nwosu kept cursing the government and country. I could not believe she still had the strength to waste, having not heard from either her husband or son. But that was the best way Mrs. Nwosu knew how to cool off some steam. There was this one time, she had a heated argument with her boss at work. Once she returned, she cursed her boss, the labor market, and her enemies. She went on cursing and made fun of her boss. “I am very sure, she said nothing when her boss shouted at her. She only has mouth where it is weak” Mama had said to me in a funny tone.
Mama and Mrs. Nwosu had been childhood best friends from the same hometown. They were the exact opposites of each other but they always found a way to make their relationship work. So I understood the immense pain Mama felt when she heard Uchendu was missing. He was like a brother to me, my best friend. He was a year older than me, still, he had respect for me.
The moon was finally owning its place in the sky. The boys were asleep after we had had our baths and I was in the kitchen working with my hands with the mortar and pestle. Mama excused herself from the sitting room, to have a shower and rest while, Mrs. Nwosu stayed glued to the TV, which had resumed its normal programs.
In a sudden, I heard a knock at the back door over the generator noise, “knock-knock-knock.” I left what I was doing and opened the door. It was Papa in a half burnt Jean pant and a charcoal stained pink shirt. I stood staring at him until he called my name, “Chigozie.” Tears crawled down my cheeks, I ran to him and hugged him tightly. “Papa, I am happy to see you”, was all I could afford to say.
Mama walked in on us. As soon as Papa sighted her, he released himself from my embrace to hug Mama. She hit him on the chest and chewed her words “you had me worried.” Papa smiled and replied “I missed you as well.”
They left the sitting room where Papa and Mrs. Nwosu exchanged greetings. She did not bore Papa with her long discussions because of his health. I stayed back in the kitchen to make dinner before Papa had finished taking his shower. Mrs. Nwosu was not one to escape any chit-chat so I knew she would bug Papa once he came out for dinner.
Thirty minutes later, I served dinner on the dining table. I went into the room to wake the boys up. It was a kind of tradition that we all came together to eat dinner. Once the boys saw Papa, they jumped on him as they kept singing “Papa! Papa!!” The room was filled with euphoria and Papa could not hide the joy that shone on his face. Papa dropped the boys down and we said the Lord’s prayer. This night, Mrs. Nwosu joined us. I felt sorry that she had not had dinner with her own family for days.
Mama ate like no man’s business. Her hands swirled round in circles as she tried to get the Eba and Okra soup into her mouth. The boys, messed up their own corner of the table with drops of the soup. Whenever the thought of Uchendu crossed my mind, I would shake it off because I hoped he was alive.
Between, Mrs. Nwosu teased Mama “nwan yi Oma, what can you do without your husband?” she said. As though on cue, Papa and Mama glanced at each other then laughed. The boys joined in the laughter out of ignorance and me too. Who would have imagined laughter in the state of emergency?
After dinner, we went to the sitting room. The boys played behind the long black cushion near the book shelf. It rained outside. It was time for Papa to narrate his experience.
I had finished the interview at Mutual Benefits Assurance Plc, along Ikorodu Road by 5 pm. When I received a call from Anthony, he heaved on the phone. I asked him what the problem was and he said there had been an explosion at the Ikeja Military Base. I walked back to the car as I reckoned with the fact that it was the incident that had made the atmosphere gloomy. I saw cars reverse (they followed one-way). As I entered the car, I saw Ma’s scarf in the back seat and that was when I remembered Ma had gone to the shop. Without waiting for another second, I entered the car. And sped off towards the direction of the explosion. “Ah! You are brave” Mrs. Nwosu exclaimed. Mama hissed and told Papa to continue.
I called Anthony again, to have an idea of the explosion’s extent. He warned me not to go but I thought of Ma. So, I took my chances. There was congestion of vehicles and people. Both children and adults swarmed the area. I saw people jump from high-rise buildings only to meet their death. As they tried to cross the busy road, some cars and bodies were on fire. I forced my way through the crowd to search for Ma. I found her body under the small broken concretes. She was unconscious. I carried her up in my hands and ran back to the crowd. I had to go back through the Island to Saint Nicholas hospital near Freedom Park since it was the nearest.
When we arrived at the hospital, they were a lot of victims at the hospital. It was chaotic. “Why did you not call Dr. Mike?” Mama chipped in. “Yeah, I did. And that was what saved us” Papa replied. I thank God, that I found Ma on time.
There was a woman who had to use her body as a shield to protect her baby from the flying debris.
“So how is Ma doing?” Mama asked Papa. “She is still in a coma. The doctors said we have to wait and see. I am sorry Oma”. Papa was the only one allowed to call Mama by that name. He left where he sat to console Mama whose tears crawled down her cheeks. Meanwhile, the boys had slept off on the floor.
Papa carried the boys into their room. At one corner of the sitting room, Mrs. Nwosu slept on a blue and black mat. I had given her an extra pillow from my room to place her head on. I left Papa and Mama in the sitting room. The day was pretty exhausting the way I had expected it to be. And, I wanted to thrust my body onto the soft viafoam matress. As I placed my head on the pillow, I remembered what my best friend used to say “body no be firewood”. I laid my back on the bed as I thought of if she was alive or had been at the school like Uchendu on that day. I knew it would take a while before I slept.
To be Continued same time next week.