Sometime ago, I fell in love with a man whose father had been a child soldier during the Biafran War. Just like my father had been. But second-generation war survivors are still casualties of war. Even in love.
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War displaces people. Not just physically, but emotionally, too; and many of us are not aware of this until we try to make homes with other people only to realize that we are still fragile from the experience of having our homes so easily taken away. I am a generation removed from the Nigerian Civil War and embedded in the story of my life is a knowing of how wars destroy people, relationships and communities in real-time as well as for years to come.
Also known as the Biafran War, the Nigerian Civil War happened from 1967 to 1970. There is still no official death toll. But the loss was staggering. The celebrated ‘father of African literature’, Chinua Achebe, who was born nearly a century ago in the Igbo town of Ogidi, once wrote that ‘…at the end of the 30-month war, Biafra was a vast smouldering rubble. The head count at the end of the war was perhaps three million dead, which was approximately 20 per cent of the entire population.’
It had only been a few months into the war when my father, barely nine years old, watched Nigerian army troops raid his village. They beheaded his own father in front of him, then kidnapped him. My father does not recall much about that time except that he was traded around and later found himself conscripted by Biafran forces to be a child soldier. He spent part of adolescence in war camps, coming of age in the midst of men in battle. Later, he was transferred to working as a domestic help for one of the men in Biafran leader, Colonel Chukwuemeka Ojukwu’s cabinet and served him until Biafra surrendered in January 1970.
The war ended, but the story continues.
Half a century, a generation and several military regimes later, 8,000 miles west of Nigeria, across the Atlantic Ocean, a new story was unfolding.
In 2018, I fell hopelessly in love with J, a young Igbo man whose father also had also been a Biafran child soldier. When we first met, I did not yet know this information about him. I just knew that there was something that made me want to pull him close. And there was something about me that made him open his heart.
J and I met in America, through mutual friends, a few weeks after I had moved from Alabama to Northern California. He had arrived there a year before I had. Both of us sought a fresh start. The first few times we spent time together, I was impressed by how easily he moved through the city, while I felt completely overwhelmed by living in such a large urban space. We had both relocated from mid-sized towns to one of the biggest cities in America. I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of possibilities available to me in the Bay Area but thrilled to be living my California dream. Like me, J lived in Oakland, worked at a prestigious firm headquartered in San Francisco, and collaborated on projects that took him to neighbouring cities like Marin, Berkeley, Sacramento, and San Jose. He was at ease with hour-long train rides, knew the least crowded restaurants and what day parties to attend. I was impressed. I wanted to spend more time with him to make my transition to California easier.
When we discussed the previous lives that had led us to California, I discovered that our stories originated in small towns in the south of Nigeria. So, I was even more comfortable with him.
I lived my early years in the serenity of Calabar, under the protective watch of my parents, passing the time with mundane activities: playing with my siblings; taking care of household chores; seeing the same people day in and day out; feeding the chickens and goat; taking a nap after school; doing homework; prepping for dinner; reading bedtime stories; praying before going to bed.
I lacked nothing.
I enjoyed the rare adventures of accompanying my older relatives to the open market. It was this childhood sense of home, this nostalgic feeling of calm and simplicity with small doses of adventure, that I missed most when I emigrated to the United States as a teenager. It was this same sense of calm and simplicity that attracted me to J.
J and I had not only had the shared experience of growing up in southern Nigeria in the 90s and early 2000s. We had also both emigrated in our early teens to mid-sized, predominantly White towns.
We shared stories about the culture shock of going from eating eba and soup to eating burgers and pizza. About how long it took for our bodies to adjust to an American palate. We connected on the invisibility and hypervisibility we felt as people who were often the only African people in our spheres of influence. By sharing these stories with each other we helped give language to things we had experienced individually but never really knew how to talk about publicly.
One of such conversations revolved around the microaggressions we experienced as both Black and African people in predominantly white spaces: like being asked if we wore clothes in Africa or being told by a new person that they had a South African friend in college when we mentioned we were Nigerian. We also talked about the larger microaggressions we experienced that had marked us. He shared with me an experience he’d had when he was younger about being targeted by a cop during his nightly run and how scary that encounter was. I told him that I was rejected from an advocacy intensive course when I was in law school because a member of the selection committee insisted that even though my writing and advocacy skills were strong, I would not make a good litigator because of my Nigerian accent and because my hair, being in an afro bun, was too distracting to an audience. I became conscious about how I was being perceived in front of every courtroom I stepped into after the incident.
We shared meditations on home, identity, spirituality, values, philosophy, economics, technology, pan-Africanism and architecture.
We shared a common pride of knowing that we were living out our dreams in a megacity where we were making more money as mere entry-level professionals in our own fields than our parents had ever made at the height of their careers. He and I pondered on how drastically our lives had changed in just a decade. Before we met, we each felt like none of the people around us understood just how improbable it was for us to be where we were: children of working-class Nigerian parents with no generational wealth, now sitting in spaces where we had access to some of the biggest names in our respective industries.
We went on walks together around Lake Merritt and had lunch dates on weekdays in the city since our offices were less than a mile apart. Our friendship deepened. He had kind eyes; his demeanour was a little shy but beyond that, he had a deep interior world.
Ever the curious one, I asked questions that led to introspective conversations—about what we both wanted from life, the kinds of legacies we wanted to leave behind, the deep fears we had, and the wounds we were still working on healing. He was more introverted and reserved than I was so his trust, vulnerability, and openness with me meant the world to me.
J and I were clearly attracted to each other. His attraction to me was something I appreciated because as I was coming of age in Alabama, I rarely felt desired.
People appreciated me for my friendship, but neither the White nor Black men I encountered in my university and law school days expressed a desire to be in an intimate relationship with me. Whenever I saw J, he drew me into a hug that felt like he wanted to be near me. He looked at me like I was art. He complimented me, appreciated my curves and treated me like I was special, ethereal. He wrote me poems; we flirted through DMs every day. I liked his broad chest, the dimples in his smile and the way his eyes lit up when he saw me. I complimented him generously and I could not stop sending pictures to my friends of him because of how attractive we all found him to be.
Our connection felt destined. It felt like everything in the universe had conspired to bring us together.
My feelings evolved into a passionate wanting. It’s how I love—with urgency, fierceness and a hint of possessiveness. I was 23 years old; I did not know how to take my time. Life and love felt urgent and the feelings I had were new for me. My desire was insatiable.
And this was where the demise of our ‘thing’ began.
J began to pull away, inch by inch. There was another woman.
He had been transparent about that from the start. I was comfortable with it. Maybe a little cocky at that point because from the little I knew of her, I knew she did not remind him of home in the ways I did: I was the one who understood his early life in Nigeria, his immigration experience, and who knew the intricacies of the cultural nuances he possessed, because that was my story, too. I was the one who went to the Nigerian store with him to get our favourite things like ripe plantain to fry on the weekends and meat pie from Ruth’s Buka.
I was the one who slipped the little Igbo I knew into conversations with him. We exchanged ‘Kedus’ and ‘Odi mmas’ easily in text conversations. She was not Nigerian. I was. So, I thought I would be the person he would eventually end up with. I told myself that I was comfortable with loving him regardless of where the outcome of this thing between us would lead. We cared for each other without pressure, leaving room for our hearts to guide us. But what happens when your heart takes you to the person who reminds you less of home?
The actual unravelling of the relationship we had spent months nurturing happened in a week. It was also the week I realized I was in love with him. I was looking forward to spending time with him and maybe mentioning my feelings. Lots of things were going on in both of our professional worlds that week, so I was not particularly concerned with the unanswered text messages and lack of check-ins from him.
But my entire world shattered that weekend when my cousin, who was social media friends with the other woman J was seeing, sent me a post from her Instagram stories showing her publicly claiming him as her man.
I felt blindsided by his decision to move on exclusively with her. Even more overwhelmed and betrayed to have found out through social media. I took my time to process it and when I later confronted him about it, he apologized for how I found out and told me he was still seeking the right words to tell me that he wanted to move forward exclusively with her. He told me how wonderful it had been to get to know me and tried to reassure me that I was brave and beautiful and worth someone who would want me fully. None of that made me feel better.
‘Grief is just love with no place to go.’ — Jamie Anderson
It took me over a year to get over J.
My best friends told me I was better off without him. Told me any person who could not see my magic was not meant for me. But the most hurtful thing was that he had seen my magic and had let me know clearly and regularly how wonderful, brilliant, and brave he thought I was. I grieved for the future I wanted to have with him—one where music, flowers and poetry filled our home; where we enjoyed travelling around our favourite African cities for vacations; one where we spent weekends laying around the local lake we both loved to frequent.
On good days I was happy he had found someone who made him happy. On my bad days, I would pick myself apart, wondering why he chose her over me. I stalked her social media pages and spent many moments I’m not proud of comparing myself to her. I was convinced she was more beautiful, smarter and more talented than I was. I went through every text I had exchanged with him wondering how I could have missed any signs he may have been sending even if subconsciously of withdrawing from me. I could not find any. I blamed myself for allowing myself to believe that kind of love could happen for me. I blamed myself for allowing myself to be all in so quickly. I blamed myself for believing all the sweet things he said to me, for feeling so confident.
During my year of grief, I eventually came to a place of acceptance and found meaning in our break-up. It was during that time I thought back to our conversations about our childhood. Both of our dads had been kidnapped and made child soldiers in the Biafran War. We traded stories of growing up with the memories of the war haunting both of our dads. Our dads had not shared much about the war with us, but we pieced together a few of the stories they had told us and carried the trauma of our parents. As I thought back through that conversation, I realized there was a point of diversion in our stories: my father had lost his father in the war but after the war when he came home, his ancestral home in his village in Akwa Ibom still stood.
In J’s story, when his father returned from the war there was nothing left behind. The Nigerian army had destroyed homes, people and lineage. His dad had to leave home and never look back. He had shared with me how he thought this was the reason his father disassociated from home, rarely spoke Igbo and was obsessed with leaving Nigeria. It was his coping mechanism. Ultimately, his dad emigrated to America with his own children with the intention of making them forget. To find and build a new home for them. J had shared how his dad never wanted him and his siblings to go back home to Nigeria. I wondered if my former lover, who had once told me he didn’t envision himself with a Nigerian partner, had inherited his father’s trauma of not indulging in anything or anyone who could remind him of home because it could be taken away. I thought about how very ‘Nigerian’ I insisted on being—the first and only Nigerian woman he had ever dated; making him speak Igbo with me; weekly trips to the Nigerian store; knowing the Nigerian vendors in our city by name. I thought about how much it hurt that he chose to be with a woman who was not Nigerian and realized that maybe what he needed was someone who did not remind him of a world he and his family had been trying to forget.
I thought about my own father’s trauma. When he returned from the war where he had lost his father and so many of his relatives, all he had left were his mother and his one brother. They had to rebuild from scratch. The war made my father hold tight to the people who were left. I inherited from my father’s trauma—an urgency to love people wholeheartedly because when all is lost, all that is left is the memory of the love you shared.
In the end, perhaps J and I’s connection was fraught with the collateral damage that comes from being children of war survivors—casualties of a war we did not experience in our lifetimes.
Ultimately, our ‘us’ dissolved into thin air because the trauma of war that haunted our fathers shaped our view of love and without a conscious awareness of it, led us to make impossible demands of each other.
Our childhood traumas created the perfect storm—me loving too hard out of fear of loss. Him, feeling the need to pre-emptively walk away from anything that felt like the world he wanted to forget. This is how the trauma and scarcity of war lives on emotionally generations after the physical battle ends. Some people experience war and run from home, run towards a new life with a determination to never experience loss like that again. Others experience war and run towards home, holding more tightly to anything that feels like home. Wars are terrible things and our attempts to make sense of our lives afterwards are just that: attempts to survive things that came to obliterate us⎈
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