In While Dust Howled, Ekenta reconstructs Nigeria war narrative

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The Nigerian Civil War, popularly known as the Nigeria-Biafra War, which lasted from July 6, 1967 to January 15, 1970, is one of the most dominant issues in Nigerian literature. Different writers, especially retired soldiers, have in their memoirs, vilified or sensationalized events leading to this tragic period of national history.

However, with the avalanche of histories, biographies, autobiographies, diaries, memoirs, political accounts, journalese, etc, one question has remained unanswered: What is the true story of Nigeria’s civil war? Why has all the accounts forgotten the war heroes? Who are even the war heroes? Soldiers or the civilians? Who out of these differing odds, survived to become a hero?

In Ifeanyi Sylvester Ekenta’s first book, While Dust Howled, there is an attempt to construct the civil war through the innocent eyes of Amaechi, who suddenly becomes mature to fight the war.Electing to use a character that is innocent, young and inconsequential, this book, like Isidore Okpewho’s The Last Duty, deals with psychological wounds: the effect of man’s inhumanity to man. It also treats empathy, indicating that under pressure, every human being is capable of such despicable actions.

However, unlike most books on war that deal with physical casualties of war such as, devastation of farms and residences, mass killing of soldiers and civilians, missing children and rape, he uses circumstances such as deprivations, hardship, and zeal to tell an ugly story.

Ekaranta, a native of Enugwu-Ukwu in Igbo land, South Eastern Nigeria, who was born in Kano, Northern Nigeria, where he equally had his primary and secondary school education, focuses on the casualties of the war, using his own experience. The book is not a fiction, neither is it non-fiction, but what many have described as faction.

The author uses dialogue to capture the conflict and pressure that engulfs all the characters. He tries to be even-handed, giving younger readers seeking truth, life as it were in the early days. In giving objective accounts of the tragic drama, he tells the story from the innocent eyes of an unknown hero.
Tracing the origin of the war to the period of political barbarity, he reconstructs the crises from 1966 to 1970, without delving into the personalities who shaped Nigerian and Biafran policies.

Divided into 23 chapters and three parts, the well-structured narrative is organically linked. There is no struggle to link events. Part one, which has five chapters, summarises the life of Amaechi growing up in Maiduguri and Kano in Northern Nigeria. This part begins from the early 1950s until he completes secondary school in 1966. 1966 was the year the Nigerian crisis took a definite turn for worse with the country’s first military coup in January. The part describes what growing up was like and what schooling was like through Amaechi’s experiences.

Part two, which is the shortest, with three chapters, introduces factors that led to the Nigerian crises. Both the remote and immediate causes are explored.
It tells what happened to the commoner, as the crises deepened. There is a second military coup in July 1966. Five weeks before this coup, on May 29, there are riots in the northern part of Northern Nigeria resulting in the loss of many lives. Many more lives are lost in the region after the July coup.Part three tells the story of how the unfolding events lead to an exodus home, especially of Easterners in the North, to the East. This part is the longest and has 14 chapters.

On May 30, 1967, Eastern Nigerians declare the region a sovereign state of Biafra. Biafra becomes a war zone five weeks after the federal government resolves to forcibly bring the region back to the country. The book ends the day the war ended.From Kano to Maiduguri and back to Kano, the reader is taken through the simple lives Nigerians lived. It exposes the feeling that home is where you have found joy. The simple narration that sustains the 309-page book is captivating and does not whip up sentiments.

From one chapter to the other, the events unfold in a gripping manner until the last moment of the war, which he titled, The Last Parade. At first glance, the book might look poor, because of the print, but persistence will make you dig out its beauties. You are sure to get lost in the pages that are spicy and laced with concrete imageries. The narrative is lucid and simple.

While Dust Howled is an evocative narrative that shuns political propaganda. But it does not avoid the heated polemics of the period: The war could have been avoided if the country’s leaders reasoned.