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Emmanuel Iduma’s “I am Still With You” Contemplates War, Loss, and the Burden of Memory

Emmanuel Iduma’s “I am Still With You” Contemplates War, Loss, and the Burden of Memory

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Like many memoirs of the Biafran War, I am Still with You contains enough depressing, sometimes bitter-sweet, details of the war that would shock and elicit tears from the reader…

By Chimezie Chika

Think of a journey that begins in the 1960s, trudging through time, space, geography, culture, and history. Imagine a figure moving through changing landscapes, a family standing on the bank of hope, a trauma that persists through generations. Emmanuel Iduma’s memoir, I am Still with You, is that story that encompasses all these. It is a quest in which Iduma himself goes in search of a past he knows very little about, but still a past that has haunted his family for years; a quest in which he attempts to tackle the “question of recovering the origin story” of his name and, in his words, “locating myself in my country’s history, of traveling to the heart of the mystery that is the Biafran War.”

Emmanuel Iduma
Emmanuel Iduma

In this panoramic memoir, Iduma sets out in search of the remnants of his long-lost uncle—his father’s older brother—who disappeared during the Biafran War. There is an air of uncertainty in this claustrophobic memory, the elusiveness of the story that surrounds a figure that had hovered over his family’s postwar existence like an invisible sprite. Iduma bears the same name as this uncle, Emmanuel, a name whose sound his father replicated in his own son, in memory of his brother, its comforting meaning reflected in the title of Iduma’s book: God is with us/I am still with you. Thus, a purposeful wayfarer, Iduma, spends years traipsing through the breath of Igboland, through cities and towns, looking for clues. In the end, what he finds, in the random scattering of tiny facts, reveals the correspondence in his parents’ sense of loss.

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By accounts, Iduma’s uncle, Emmanuel, was a gifted young man, full of bright promise. It seems to be in the nature of such grave losses that it is usually the brightest that are taken from the living. Or perhaps, in the blunt passage of years preceding a loss, what is recalled becomes beatific. One striking story, told by a cousin of Iduma’s, narrates how his uncle’s spirit persistently visited the dreams of the oldest man in the village, and the villagers, determining that the spirit was an aggrieved one, proceeded to conduct burial rituals, thus putting an end to the dreams.

The book sets its own mood. The sense of loss is crushing. Perhaps it is something in Iduma’s careful description of people and scenes, but you are enveloped by an overpowering elegiac tone. Each new revelation about Iduma’s uncle seems like the completion of a stage in the race to salvage life from the clutches of death. We are thus drawn into an investigation that appears to be primal to the very existence of humanity. It is a journey through a halting, haunting memory suffused with—in its silences and intense, unspoken feeling—a sustained sorrowful keening for the people and things that were lost.

Along the way, Iduma’s search for his uncle’s story is indexed by frustration, for he is only able to get paltry scraps of information from the recollections of relatives. At best, these varying recollections constitute only a skeletal description of the subject of Iduma’s inquisition. Beyond his extended family, Iduma looks to documented sources on the Biafran War to find information or clues as to the whereabouts of his uncle. His search is constrained by the inadequacy of preserved records, not only of his uncle but also of events in Biafra. In one passage, he notes what Godwin Onyegbule, the Director of Foreign Affairs in Biafra, said about the danger of not keeping records during the war. Today, there are no official attempts to preserve the memory of Biafra, most radically expressed in the absence of history as a subject in secondary schools and in the censoring of Biafran literature sections in notable libraries.

An example of the damaging result of the suppression of history is illustrated when Mummy Onitsha, Iduma’s aunt, asked an apparently innocuous question about the cause of the war. This is a woman supposedly born in 1966, a year before the war. It is a surprising question, to put it mildly, but it shows the level of ignorance occasioned by the deliberate removal of any pedagogical attempts to examine the Biafran War. There is a valid argument to be made that the dissimulation of history is part of the problem of contemporary Nigeria. For it is in history that we understand and make sense of our progress in the trajectory of things. In Iduma’s beautiful, controlled language, Mummy Onitsha had become “emblematic of a middle generation, those born neither before the war nor after, wanderers in the strait of time. They inherited, most acutely, an ability to transmute trauma into unvoiced questions.”

Part of the modern dilemma of Nigeria is the blatant refusal of those in power to acknowledge this trauma and make moves to cure it. This trauma, and its trail of grievances, encapsulates all the violence—acted, muted, or implied—that plagues the country. Everywhere one turns in the Biafra story, one is met with one depressing episode after another. Again, the abundance of chaos and propaganda, and the lack of authentic documentation during the war, meant that a lot of facts—including enlistment papers, death lists, and other important records—were lost. Iduma’s search is made more difficult by this reality.

I am Sill with you

The narrative alternates between the historical and the personal, creating a fine balance between hard, uncompromising facts and the emotions that draw the reader ever-so-steadily into the maze of Iduma’s world. The occasional scenes with his wife are full of light and pulsing tenderness, and “a touch of exhilarated wonder.” Occasional moments of hilarity appear throughout the narrative. One is a perfect illustration of the intrusiveness of Nigerians: when Iduma arrives at the airport in Lagos and is embraced by his wife, Ayobami, one of the bystanders says to her, “Cook pepper soup for him this night o.” In the bare, unencumbered beauty of Iduma’s sentences he describes Lagos in the light of his anxiety at the beginning of his search: “What I envisaged upon my arrival in Lagos was like the shimmer of light in a far-out sea.” There are other random moments that evoke sudden emotion: father and son crying in a subway train in New York, a young eager teenager on a bus to Owerri.

The more Iduma found out about his uncle, the more his story seems to transmute into the mythical; his uncle’s features are described in varying details as if, in retrospect, no one could make sense of his existence, his brutal fate. In the corollary of loss, Iduma explores other losses connected to him—his mother, his father, his uncles on both sides—in a language so intimate as to become as impactful as the divulging of a long-cherished secret. The author has a way of linking historical events to his personal reckoning with his uncle’s disappearance. In one episode, he wanders if a stowaway in a relief plane bound for Libreville in Biafra’s twilight moments was his uncle; in another he wonders if a fair-skinned soldier with a broken jaw lying in a hospital in Emekuku could be his uncle; in yet another he wonders if his uncle has suffered a fate as brutal as Christopher Okigbo’s.

Christopher Okigbo, a great poet by any modern estimation, had his life cut short during the Biafran War. Iduma’s admiration for Okigbo and his poetry is obvious. It has become almost a practice among certain memoirists of the Biafran War to mention, or to, in some manner, touch upon the topic of Okigbo’s death or the reckless manner in which it happened—the ultimate metaphor of irreparable loss for Igbo people. There is no greater sense of loss than that to be found in the death of an active, swashbuckling, extremely talented young man. The crushing symbol of that loss brings to the fore all other such losses in the war. Iduma’s story becomes a thread in that huge enigma of wartime loss that touched almost every family in Igboland. It is interesting to me that Iduma was unable to locate the Idoto stream at Ojoto, Okigbo’s hometown, when he went there. I have been to Idoto and to Okigbo’s ceremonial gravesite within his family compound. It seems, I am afraid, that Iduma had been misled by a loafer.

Again and again, the reader is assailed by the tone of melancholy that pervades the entire book—a deep, brooding, searching sadness that saturates everything as the story progresses. It is like the dirge of a people’s grim past, a history long gone, hazy and unrecoverable. Like many memoirs of the Biafran War, I am Still with You contains enough depressing, sometimes bitter-sweet, details of the war that would shock and elicit tears from the reader. What gives Iduma’s book its power is the immense pathos that each passage evokes, the intimate language with which Iduma describes his meetings with relatives.

Iduma’s gaze is unsparing when it shifts into history. There are shocking revelations of massive corruption in the upper echelons of the Biafran military, prismatic in their connection to the author, such as a passage about how top military officers take more than half of relief materials for themselves and their cronies, a practice which, in Iduma’s reckoning, might explain the good fortune of his father while he was serving as a houseboy to a Biafran colonel during the war. In other places, Iduma’s portrait of Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu is unflattering. The Biafran leader comes across as a selfish, power-hungry military technocrat with despotic tendencies. The evidence on offer hardly proves Iduma’s assessment wrong.

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Iduma blackwhite

Iduma has an impeccable style marked by an astute psychological insight into the throbbing soul of events, both private and public. Often, you feel the author stepping back to look at things in a panoramic sweep, zooming in and expanding the view as if he sees things through the lens of a camera. His insights into each slide of human life is acute: “The preceding condition for any life is found in one that predates it.”

Ultimately, this is a love story: of family, of country, and of the human craving for companionship and certainty beyond the treachery of loneliness and the history of death. By the little consolation at the end, we are left, not with satiation, but with questions of how the past enacts an overbearing drama on the present. Since his first book, The Sound of Things to Come, Emmanuel Iduma has been building a unique and extraordinary body of work. I am Still with You is an important addition to Biafran War narratives. Indeed, more than that, this deeply personal work is, without doubt, the best memoir to come out of Nigeria in the last ten years.

 

 

Chimezie Chika’s short stories and essays have appeared in or forthcoming from, amongst other places, The Question Marker, The Republic, The Shallow Tales Review, Isele Magazine, Lolwe, Efiko Magazine, Brittle Paper, and Afrocritik. He is the fiction editor of Ngiga Review. His interests range from culture to history, art, literature, and the environment. You can find him on Twitter @chimeziechika1.

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