Monday, April 1, 2013

My First Time In A War Zone

By Jenni Gate

Car in Sandbox
Photo by Tim Lang (CC by 2.0)
At the age of six, I was magical. I had the power to create and shape anything I wanted in my sandbox. I spent hours creating and destroying, shaping mud into magical foods and fantastic animals. In my sandbox, I was like Aladdin flying on a carpet around the world. With magic thoughts, I visited my grandparents in America. Magic sang from me in my sandbox. I traveled down a river on a raft, through a jungle with snakes hanging from the trees. With a blink of the eyes, I was on a camel in the Sahara.

In 1966, our house in Kaduna, the capital of the Northern Region of Nigeria, was in the suburbs of the city in the agricultural heartland. There was a large field surrounding our house. Nearby, cattle grazed on dry, grassy plains, hot and dusty, with snakes slithering through long grass.

We loved Nigeria. We had an active social life, clubs and parties, friends of every nationality, road trips into the country, lazy days spent by the river or at a hotel swimming pool. We loved our nanny, Martha, who watched my little sister and me when my mother was out during the day. Ussman, a highly-respected hajj in our community, managed our household. 

At night, before we crawled under our mosquito netting, we watched termites swarm around the light posts on our street. As some touched the heat of the bulbs, the lights sizzled, their bodies popped, and they fell to the ground. Sometimes the hot, charred scent wafted past our noses in the night. The Nigerians gathered and ate the fat termite bodies. Ussman said they were a gift from Allah, to feed the people. It was magic.

When I played in my sandbox, I created swarms of termites to feed my pretend people. My older sister Susie dug streets and built houses on her side of the sandbox. She honked the horns of her match box cars, revved engines and sped the cars through her town. She was not happy when my imaginary termites tried to feed her imaginary people by dropping in big clumps all around her cars.

Sometimes when we played, we saw dik-dik, small bush deer, watching us from the field next to our house. Magic shimmered in the air, as if the deer could talk to us.

Every afternoon, Ussman came out on the porch at dusk and called us in. "Pickin," (children) he called, "time to come in now." He worried about the cobras, adders and scorpions living under our house and porch and in holes in the ground. Once we were safely inside, large, black cobras, as high as my shoulders and as dark as the night swayed before the windows, spying on us from the pitch black night.

My parents loved to entertain. The Irish Catholic priest, Father Bell, was a frequent guest. At Christmas, he always blessed our house, expecting a nog in return. If Dad shared his good whiskey, Father Bell blessed the house no matter what the season was. He was jolly and loved to drink and dance. We once had him in a conga line, and a woman dancing in line behind him flopped his cassock up and down with the beat of the music.
"Father Bell, do your blessings really work?" I asked.

"Aye, child," he said, "they keep you safe and happy." He was the most magical person I knew.

Playing in my sandbox one spring day in 1966 while Susie was at school, I heard explosions. I hurried inside as a crowd of angry people ran down the street, sticks and machetes in hand. Ussman reassured us that he would not let anything happen to us.

That night, we heard on BBC radio that the Premier of Nigeria was assassinated, and his home a few blocks from our house was destroyed. Military leaders of Ibo ethnicity seized power. 

There were frequent riots, and school was often disrupted. I sat in my room, scooting Susie's matchbox cars along the windowsill, wishing my sandbox could be inside.

At school, air raid practices became the norm for Susie, who never believed her desk would really save her. Whenever she dove under her desk, she invariably found herself with her nose butting up to the smelly boy in front of her. She began to think she would take her chances if there ever was an air raid.
Masks & Spears

One night we were robbed as we slept, and the blankets were stolen from our beds. In a patch of brush across from our house, Dad and several neighbors and servants armed with poison-tipped spears and bows and arrows converged on a hiding place and found curtains, weapons, our silverware set, even a typewriter. The thieves had a spear and some ground nuts in a little wooden bowl with primitive animal patterns burnished into the surface.

Thieves' Bowl
It turned out our night watchman had failed to pay his "dues" or protection money to the corrupt police chief who was running a protection racket. Dad fired the watchman and hired one Tuareg, a fierce nomadic warrior, to guard our house. Although we hired only one, at night we saw hundreds of small cooking fires in the bush surrounding our house. When we put our lights out, they hid and waited for thieves. I felt safer with the Tuaregs guarding our house, their fires flickering magically into the distant brush. But I still made Dad check under my bed every night.

Playing in my sandbox, I used sticks as spears and knives. My make-believe people locked their doors at night. Sometimes they fought battles and had to have a priest bless their homes.

In July, 1966, there was a second military coup, putting Colonel Yakubu Gowon in power. There were several riots. Kaduna, as the capitol of the Northern Region, became embroiled in turmoil. The Muslim Hausa from the north swept south, slaughtering Christian Ibos from the east. The Ibos retaliated. Portrayed as a religious war in the international press, it was probably rooted more in nepotism than religion. Thousands of refugees fled across Nigeria. Bodies lay in the streets near our home. 

Throughout 1966, we heard sporadic gunfire and fighting. Mom worried about Dad being stranded from us at his USAID job in the city, and he often was. Ussman began warning us to stay away from certain areas of the city because there was going to be a spontaneous riot. His predictions were always right. 

Magic thoughts dimmed as I started school. Our Embassy advised that if there was an air raid, we should dive into the ditches along the road, essentially open sewers. Mom said she would rather take her chances with the planes. Life went on.

We lived with riots and gunfire in the night. Our dreams were full of army men coming into the house while we slept. Susie sometimes whispered, "If anything happens to our parents, Ussman can walk us north to Niger. We will find people to help us there."

"What's going to happen to them?" I asked.

"I don't know," Susie answered, "but we need to figure out how to get back to the States."

I no longer fantasized about magic. Streams of refugees passed through our city. My childish prayers and magic would not help anyone. I stopped pretending.

In 1967, after months of violence, the evacuation orders came. We said a quick goodbye to Ussman with no time to say goodbye to the other people we loved. The plane loomed large before us. Dead and injured bodies littered the tarmac. My magic was also dead.

In our absence, the Embassy sent packers to pack and ship all our belongings to us. When our things arrived in America months later, everything of value had been stolen, but the packers had carefully wrapped all the garbage in our wastebaskets and shipped it to us. Unpacking the box from my room, I smiled when I noticed a sandy matchbox car cocooned in the trash.


  1. Jenni, I just love the way you wove magic throughout this story. This is such a moving piece and it made me teary eyed. The loss of innocence is a powerful emotion.

    I still look at old Matchbox cars with fondness, and remember the wonderful days of playing in the dirt making my towns and roads.


    1. Thanks, Susie. We were lucky that we could leave eventually. I think a lot about the people we left behind and what may have become of them. Dad told me he met Ussman after we had moved to Kinshasa, and Ussman still wanted out of Nigeria, but because of his ethnicity, language barriers, etc., it wouldn't have been safe for him there either.

      I remember the sandbox fondly too. :)


    2. I was going to ask about Ussman. Did you ever hear of him after that? Anyway, this is a lovely post. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

    3. Hi Rhonda,

      We never heard from Ussman again after leaving Kinshasa. I hope he and his family made it. He had a brand new baby when we left.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. :)

  2. Jenni, I remember on a European tour when we got to the Austrian border our tour guide warned us that typically any non-white tourists were always removed from the tour bus and questioned. We were alittle nervous and sure enough two armed guards came aboard the bus and walked down the aisle and chose all the non-white passengers - we were all separated and then placed in small rooms and questioned. It was scarey and I felt like I was in trouble - the questioning was terse and in your face - really confrontational. I can't imagine what people go through in a "war-time" situation. We were held for about 30 minutes and then finally allowed to reboard the bus. During that time I didn't know what was happening, where my husband was nor what was being said - you feel very helpless. Needless to say we didn't get the warm and fuzzies entering that particular country, but we did end up meeting some very nice people who made up for that drama. Thanks for sharing.

    KL Mullens

    1. That is frightening. That separation and feeling of helplessness can be overwhelming. It's disheartening that that sort of racial profiling still goes on - in Europe and the US.

      We had lots of tense border crossings when I was growing up, so I can definitely empathize.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment.

  3. Jenni, we're so glad you've joined us. I think this is an outstanding piece because you have so successfully written from the point of view of a child. Many writers fail at this endeavor, but you've succeeded brilliantly. Welcome aboard.

    1. Thank you, Patricia! I am so excited to be part of this talented group of writers.

  4. What a truly awesome blog. It was so interesting to have it written from "your child's" point of view. You were fortunate to live in Nigeria as a young child and have all the good memories as well as the 'scary'ones. I particularly liked the Warrior hired to watch over the house, and how comforting it was for you to see the campfires of your fathers security team.

    1. Hi Diana. Yes, we were lucky we had 4 good years there before the war broke out. Days spent by the river searching for tadpoles or playing in the pool, lots of friends and parties.

      The Tuaregs were fierce, and very effective, but for years when I went to bed at night, I had my dad check the closets and under the bed. I was always worried someone was waiting to stab me in my sleep. Seems silly now.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  5. This is a lovely piece, Jenni. You lived through some intense times at an early age.

    I've never been in a war zone. The closest I came was a visit to Kermanshah, an Iranian province on the border with Iraq. It was the height of the Iraq War, and a member of the Kurdish family I was staying with offered to take me across the border to Iraqi Kurdistan. I was tempted for about five minutes but then common sense prevailed. I did get a chance to look across the border from high up in the Zagreb Mountains a few days later. The scenery was just wilderness and so peaceful it was hard to imagine that a war was raging not far away.

    I'm so pleased that you agreed to join us as a regular contributor. You have a lot of fascinating stories to tell and you know how to tell them well.

    1. Thank you, Heidi! I'm so happy to be here.

      I'm glad you didn't wander over the border during the height of the war. I think the Kurdish area was under control pretty quickly, but I wouldn't want you to risk it! Wars are unpredictable at the best of times.

  6. We're lucky you remember your childhood happenings so vividly! Thanks for bringing them to us.

    1. I remember quite a bit, but relied heavily on my parents and my older sister for the details because I was so young when this happened. I have to credit my family for filling in the gaps.

      Thanks, Kaye, for commenting!

  7. Yvette Carol wrote:

    Wow, powerful, evocative piece, Jenni. I too adhered to the thread you wove through this tapestry of words, the thread of magic that started out so strong, only to thin beneath the harsh reality of war. Exquisite.

    1. Thank you, Yvette. I remember so well feeling like I was magic when I was six. I had a sea monster puppet, Sigmund the Seasick Sea Monster, that spoke when I pulled a string. One day a Nigerian woman came to our house with a bucket full of bottles on her head. I pulled the string and Sigmund spoke, and she dropped all the bottles and ran screaming from our house, "Juju! Juju!" I asked Ussman what juju was, and he told me it meant magic. I remember feeling pretty darned powerful!

      I'm happy the thread is there all the way through. Thanks for reading it.

  8. OK, wait! This is your FIRST time in a war zone? Are you going to tell about the others in the future? I've never been in a war zone!

    1. Ah! Very astute reader! ;) Yes. Aside from riots and uprisings against 3rd World dictators and so-called bloodless coups, I went through the first Russian-backed coup in Afghanistan, which was brief, but very violent. Russian & Afghan soldiers, tanks, MiGs, missiles, etc. If I don't share the story here, I may share it on my own blog at some point, Nomad Trails and Tales, I have posted a companion piece there to this one, with more details about the war in Nigeria.

      You don't want to be in a war zone, believe me. :)

  9. I too was moved by your child's voice, the loss of magic in your life. And thoughts of Ussman, and all of those innocents caught up by such violent twists of fate.

  10. Thank you, Diana. I'm glad it resonated for you. We could leave when things got rough. They could not. I hope some day humans are able to move beyond violence, but I worry that it's built into our DNA.

    Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  11. What an incredible story and a journey from childhood and magic to the awareness of war. Beautifully written.

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting. And thanks for the compliment. :)

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