My birthday is about to happen, which means that Nigeria is older than me by about three months, but I feel very ancient because of the way the country has dealt with me.
The ready advice for any Nigerian who wants to survive is to run away from the country for good.
Me, I have refused to run away, and I am bearing the brunt of refusing to be a criminal in a land where only criminals thrive.
Talk of the bird Chichidodo that hates excrement but only eats maggots that grow in a lavatory in Ghanaian novelist Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, or the other image about Aboliga the Frog and the old man-child, an oddity born with the features of a normal human being but completes the cycle of childhood to adulthood and dotage in seven years – and actually dies on the seventh year.
It’s as though Nigeria as a country died with the Biafra war, and we are today living a lie as a nation being run by scalawags.
I was living with my uncle, the late linguist, Job Okwuoma Aginam, in Onitsha, at the Tutors Quarters of the celebrated secondary school, Christ the King College Onitsha, and had just started primary schooling at the nearby Sacred Heart School, Odoakpu, Onitsha, the old school of former Rivers State Governor Dr. Peter Odili.
The war started and I was transported to the village, where I lived with my parents, brother and sister, and a host of relations and dependents.
My brother, Isidore, and I played a lot during the war, hunted and ate rats and lizards and crabs, and dredged whole streams to catch fish.
We only dived for cover when the jet planes flew overhead with satanic bombs.
Starvation was not our forte because our parents were somewhat well situated in the circumstances, but it was such a tragedy seeing death and hunger and disease all over the place.
When the war ended, in 1970, I got back to Onitsha to regale my playmates from the Akudinobi, Eneh and Odikpo families at the CKC Onitsha Tutors’ Quarters compound with tall tales of how I was such an intrepid warrior in the Biafra Boys Company, carrying out “Ogbunigwe” forays with fabled soldiers of Biafra such as Nzeogwu and Achuzia into the Nigerian enemy territories!
My main boon companion back then, Emeka Akudinobi, called me up from his United States base the other day for us to recall our childhood escapades whilst growing up in the Tutors’ Quarters of CKC Onitsha after the Biafra war.
Emeka & I enjoyed more high jinks than Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, if you had read the books by Mark Twain.
Any “crime” committed anywhere must be by Emeka & Maximus together!
For instance, one sunny evening, we were leading our boys of the Quarters to kill all the lizards in town by throwing stones and promoting ourselves to Field-Marshals when the woman we dreaded most in all of Onitsha called Onye-Wee-Iwe sneaked up like a witch and arrested me & Emeka!
She said the stones we were throwing had gored out the eyes of a passerby and she came to gore out our eyes as replacements!
As a result of the war, we used bare cement blocks to sit in our classrooms.
I was put in primary two at the end of the war, but promoted myself to primary three.
We played football with the brownish basketball-like soccer ball donated by UNICEF.
At primary four, my mates and I formed the football club known as Nico Football Club, alias Up Nico. Coach Obi Okoye taught us to do the sign of the cross before taking a penalty-kick. I stuck to the habit as a rule today and I never missed from the spot!
I left for secondary school in my fifth year as there was no need for me to take the First School Leaving Certificate.
I was put in the rural setting of a boarding school where I made most of the friends I still have today.
My comrades and I formed the Bic Insurance Company (BIC), insisting that all the students must insure their biros with us by paying five kobo, and incidentally all the students who thought we were joking had all their biros missing that day!
A teacher who entered our class also got his pen missing because he did not sign up with our insurance company, BIC!
We also formed the Baayi Society to challenge the senior students, and I became known because of my coup-plotting propensities as “The Young Dimka” – after the coup plotter that killed Nigerian leader, General Murtala Mohammed!
The education back then was well-rounded unlike the charade that passes for learning now.
It was such an uplift passing into my chosen Dramatic Arts Department of University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) with Prof Wole Soyinka as the kindling Head of Department.
Public libraries were available, and great television with the dramas of the likes of Obi Egbuna and James “Giringory” Iroha were special favourites.
The coming of Network Television from the 1970s brought Village Headmaster from Lagos, My Pikin Friday from Ibadan and Sonny Oti’s Life of the Odd Job Man from Jos, etc to Nigerian homes.
I still cherish how Jude Akudinobi (now a Professor of Film at the University of California at Santa Barbara) took us – the younger ones – to Chanrai Supermarket at Onitsha and asked us to pick any book of our choice, and he would pay.
I picked a book strangely titled The Good, The Bad, The Ugly only to later learn that it’s an immortal western film.
This way, I read of “The Ugly” Desperedo Tuco (Eli Wallach: “If you wanna shoot, shoot; don’t talk!”) and his gang before watching the film that also starred Clinton Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef.
The children of today will only probably watch the film and not bother to read the book!
Now all the beauties of Nigerian life are gone and one is feeling very ancient in the land where all lives have been totally devalued.
But then, as my great friend, the late South African legendary poet Dennis Brutus wrote: “Somehow we survive.”