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Boeke | Books > Rubrieke | Columns > English > African Library

The African Library: A Wreath for the Maidens

Annie Gagiano - 2010-03-01

A Wreath for the Maidens by John Munonye (1973)

Awful events often produce very memorable literature (and other art) and the so-called Biafran War, a conflict that went on from about mid-1967 until January 1970 among Nigerians, was no exception. Brilliant texts such as Chinua Achebe’s short story collection Girls at war and other stories (1972), Wole Soyinka’s Season of Anomy (1974), Cyprian Ekwensi’s Survive the Peace (1976) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s recent Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) explore the mortal dangers and moral dilemmas brought about by this war.

John Munonye’s A Wreath for the Maidens addresses the same topic, but both the author and this particular text have been somewhat overlooked – unjustly so, since (in its low-key, understated way) it is a fascinating exploration of the role of the intellectual during a time of grave social crisis. The novel is, in addition, a moving depiction of a friendship: that between two young men (Roland Medu and Biere Ekonte) who are at first fellow-students, then remain in contact as teachers at different schools. Eventually both are roped in as useful committee members of a body set up by the military leaders of the breakaway province of the three of which their recently decolonised country consists.

Like Soyinka, Munonye thinly disguises the local allusions by renaming the Igbo East (later Biafra, the seceding region) Doda State; Western Nigeria (the predominantly Yoruba region) is renamed Bokenu State and the (Hausa-Fulani) Northern region becomes Sakure State. The above-mentioned two young men are depicted as politically astute and sophisticated and neither is an ethnic chauvinist, but they accept the responsibility assigned to them in the committee (later the Publicity Bureau or Plobe) of helping to maintain civilian and troop morale during the wartime period.

Dread of war is felt from early on in the text, although the signs are not initially as clearly understood by Roland (the more naïve of the two friends) as by Biere. Christopher Okigbo’s wonderful, ominous articulation (in his posthumously published poem “Come Thunder”, 1971) gives more concentrated expression to the seemingly ineluctable build-up of war in a formerly peaceful society – Munonye depicts it in a less grandiose and more socially realistic fashion befitting the fictional mode. Whereas Okigbo was killed as a combatant in this civil war, Munonye and his characters outlive it, experiencing and describing the progress of hostilities and the eventual collapse of Biafran resistance.

Roland is the main focaliser of the narrative, but since he always consults and discusses (often, indeed, debates) matters with Biere, we are throughout the course of the novel given both their points of view – a clever way of communicating a dual, more complex perspective. Roland and Biere are well matched: both are intellectually gifted, politically concerned and courageously outspoken; their personalities and attitudes nevertheless contrast in interesting ways. Munonye suggests that the ways in which the two friends differ in their view of issues are to be linked to particular experiences: in Biere’s case, a beloved, bubbly younger brother died of a burst appendix because of local laziness and inefficiency and irresponsibility on the doctor’s part; in Roland’s case, as an adolescent he inadvertently witnessed unjust, humiliatingly abusive treatment of his father by his bad-tempered British colonial employer. Biere initially seems more cynical and aloof, although eventually he is the more far-sighted and sensitive of the two men; for one so young he is also remarkably ascetic and abstemious and unshakeably principled. Roland is rather more sensuous in his tastes and more passionate in his convictions.

Although sensibly tempering the general distrust and the broad accusations with fond appreciation for particular, worthy Englishmen, Roland sees the manipulative hand of the former colonial power (Great Britain) in most of what goes wrong in Nigerian affairs immediately before and after formal political independence (conferred in 1960). A classics student, he seldom refers to Britain (or to the British companies doing business in Nigeria) by name, preferring to employ the (to him) damning term Imperator. Although more recent historians have confirmed several of Roland’s suspicions (such as that the British favoured the more tractable, largely Muslim North of Nigeria, particularly by ensuring that the population count gave that region a post-independence majority), he at times seems obsessive in his denunciations. It is Biere in particular who constantly alerts him to the extent to which local greed and skulduggery are responsible for social imbalances and exploitation and that the enemies within are more dangerous than the manipulators from afar.

The text opens by relating Biere’s bitterness and emotional disturbance at his brother’s death a month earlier. Roland has been describing a campaign meeting that he (but not Biere) attended and compares his friend’s dismay at the account of the meeting with Biere’s sense of loss at his brother’s demise. As reader one does not initially understand what seems like an over-reaction on Biere’s part, but gradually one begins to recognise that to him the signs are sufficiently ominous to predict the death of the dream of prosperity, peace and justice in the land a few years on, when the already promised independence becomes a reality in Nigeria. This is Ronald’s description:

I was relating to him my experience in the Town Hall earlier in the day. Eduado [formerly Edward!] Boga had come into the hall in full glory – resplendently white, voluminous robe edged with purple lace, and a feather fan; twenty or more stalwarts followed close behind, most of then carrying some patently dangerous weapons.

"Eduado is our man!" the stalwarts shouted, to which he replied, waving his fan aloft like a benevolent potentate: "You’ve spoken the only true word." Then the armed escort started bragging about their latest achievement, the gist of which was that they had dispatched some younger ones, their Youth Front, to throw a bottle of acid into Kintu’s face – Kintu being Eduado’s most serious rival [candidate] for the parliamentary seat for Oban constituency. The object was to get rid of the man before close of nominations on the following day. And although they had merely succeeded in hospitalising Kintu, it was clear they had dealt a shattering blow to his ranks. This explained the triumphant air with which they were now leading their hero into the hall. The meeting was brisk enough, right from the start. Before Eduado could walk up to the platform to address the gathering, a sizable piece of stone went flying across, towards his face. And for the next one hour, the efficient policemen on duty were busy dispersing the assembly. (3-4)

The thuggery, murderous in intention as it is, evidently augurs ill for the future independent state, since it happens here among members of the same state, even the same party, and by implication within the ranks of a single ethnic group. What is established is the vicious, ruthless greed and power hunger among those poised to take over in Nigeria, although it is Biere rather than Roland who has a better grasp of the implications of what Roland has witnessed.

We see further evidence of the manipulation of supposedly democratic politics when Roland is warned by those in power not to take any part in political campaigning (in another state and outside school hours) if he wishes to retain his teaching job. Unless he desists, the school in which he teaches will in addition lose its official funding, as his principal is warned – or rather, threatened – in an official letter (39-40). The other side of the political coin is shown when a British company donates a car (and a "secretary") to the party for which Roland now works (44). He expresses some qualms, but accepts both eventually (albeit the "secretary" only temporarily).

Roland opts to leave teaching for political employment by a particular party to at least some extent because that pits him against the wealthy and corrupt Chief Lobe, for whom his former "girl-friend", Ruth, left him. Chief Lobe attempts yet a further intervention by "informing" Biere that, if Roland were to leave his party and declare for the Chief’s, he would refund Roland’s party the price of the car, Roland himself would be “reinstated as a teacher, with all arrears paid” – and in addition he would be “appointed director of one of the statutory boards in Bokenu State” (46)! Again the picture is balanced when Roland (who of course declined the Chief’s offers) discovers that his own party leaders do not see anything wrong with overbidding their rival’s payment to voters for their votes. So, even though Roland’s party is successful, he quits in disgust, deciding: “I must salvage what was left of me from this adventure … [a]nd for effective purification, I must move … far away [to] … the wooded vastness of the countryside” (53). So he goes to stay with his widowed mother and younger siblings in the small village where their father had bought land and built a family home.

Needing an income, after a time he takes another teaching job in a nearby village school. Here he becomes good friends with an admirable colleague, the expatriate (British) history teacher, Mr Lewis. They have many intense discussions of Nigerian politics. In Lewis, Roland recognises an “objective and sincere”, even “sympathetic”, appraiser of Nigerian affairs. While accepting a degree of blame for the way British colonial authorities influenced the post-independence situation, Lewis tells Roland: “The sooner your people begin to build a nation instead of monuments to the god of greed the better" (79) and because he likes and has learnt to trust Lewis, Roland accepts the validity of the comment instead of being angered by it or seeing it as racist or condescending. He also succeeds in getting Biere (when the latter comes to visit) and Lewis to make friends and these three have many fascinating political discussions and debates during the immediately post-independence period. When Roland insists that "the man on the tree-top" (another of his sneering references to the British) "will do anything to see that the edifice [the skewed Nigerian state configuration] he has erected is not altered", Biere raises a challenge: "[W]hat have our people done about it?" (101).

The deteriorating state of the nation outlined in the best and most independently outspoken newspaper in the country is brutally confirmed when its editor is arrested and the newspaper closed down. One of Roland’s colleagues, a Nigerian of a different ethnicity from that of the local majority, suddenly and secretly leaves his home and employment, evidently because of fear of rising ethnic tensions. Roland feels sad and let down because he had considered the man a friend. Even worse news comes next, however, when Mr Lewis, too, announces that British nationals like himself are (also) coming increasingly under threat – and although he phrases this very tactfully, one is made to understand that remaining in Nigeria may be dangerous even for as locally committed and respected a person as Lewis.

There is little question of national unity as candidates gear up for the first post-independence elections, everything pointing to the intensification of ethnic solidarities and fiercely divisive attitudes. The subsequent military take-over in Nigeria is no solution; as Roland remarks, these leaders still sit with "[t]hree different countries which go by the name of States [ie provinces], and yet there is a single order for them" (135).

The next development is "a revolt against the army" and (as the radio report states) it was fuelled by a "protest against the recent decree on integration". While the first report announces that about four hundred people were killed, subsequent reports announce that these "killings had spread to other towns" and are, clearly, escalating (138).

Refugees start flooding in – all fleeing from persecution for their ethnicity in the State where they had been working. (The allusion, one assumes, is to the "ethnic cleansing" of especially Igbos, especially in the northern regions of Nigeria before the breakaway of the Eastern region (as Biafra) which triggered the civil war, since the rest of the country could not afford to lose the most oil-rich region.)

Further awful events follow. There is an army revolt and many more killings occur: "bodies of the dead littered the streets in hundreds"; following which "thousands of civilians" are "gunned to death" in what is described as "a new orgy", leading to a situation "at the other end" where "the natives have started lynching the stranger elements in retaliation" (these are all radio announcements) (149).

Many of the returning refugees are severely traumatised, some quite simply driven insane by the horrors of their losses (of loved ones and of all sense of security), while looking after the masses of refugees create huge social problems. As his uncle Ogidi tells Roland’s mother, in his oblique way commenting on the state of the nation, "The sky is terribly overcast, my sister" (153). A committee is formed to address the refugee situation in the overcrowded city, and both Biere and Roland join this.

As discussion proceeds at the crowded public meeting to discuss events, it is Biere who dares to add – to his expressions of outrage at the cruelties committed and sympathy for those who lost so much – the sobering, unpopular but evidently valid point that it was "the misdeeds of our brothers, among others, which have brought about all the trouble" (157), calling for honest soul-searching rather than mere recrimination. Not long afterwards the momentous decision is nevertheless taken that their State will withhold all financial contributions to the central administration of Nigeria. Predictably, this causes outrage and, to punish this regional intransigence, an embargo is placed on the Eastern region, soon causing increasing distress as foodstuffs run low and prices of basic commodities sky-rocket. Not long afterwards, many begin to get sick, starve and die in the beleaguered region. (In the actual Biafran war over a million people are surmised to have died – the majority purportedly from starvation.) Soldiers (most of them very young men or mere boys) become visible everywhere, and soon afterwards the news is broadcast that “the Centre was mustering a huge force for a quick and decisive action on the [Eastern] State” (180). The central authorities have sought to address the root cause of disunity (the unequal distribution of power among the three States) by dividing Nigeria into more States (eleven), but the underlying mistrust in the East will not be readily alleviated, and hostilities escalate. A sombre Biere informs Roland that attacks on the East have begun from four different points – what stems him even gloomier, however, is that the war will in effect provide cover for the greedy and exploitative people whose ruthlessly unprincipled conduct, irresponsibility and corruption have actually bred the conditions that led to the outburst of misdirected (ethnic) hostilities in their country. As Biere tellingly insists, it is time Roland admitted (as he does, now) that "Imperator is neither white nor black", but all those whose "chief attributes are avarice and greed; love of lucre and power" (186).

The next development in the novel is the transformation of the previous “Emergency Council” to the “Publicity Bureau” (nicknamed Plobe) of their State, with Biere as its interim chairman, while Roland is the person responsible for addressing the morale of the youth – both in and outside the army.

On one of his first assignments Roland moves close to the battle front, only to get caught up in an actual, devastating battle and to witness, for the first time at first hand, the deaths of many youthful soldiers and to see the panic fear and grief of desperately fleeing civilians, many of whom are killed or lose family members in the violent turmoil. Roland sobs at their plight and sorrow, subsequently visiting the wounded in a military hospital. He goes next to a refugee camp, again encountering many despairing and suffering people, though a few (especially children) fortunately remain fairly happy and healthy looking; but they are not a majority. Roland takes the camp administrator to task: it is known that many supplies are diverted and donations pocketed by unscrupulous members of the military administration, leaving many camp inmates severely underfed or starving. The man he speaks to defends himself, but the point has been established. Another example of severe maladministration by a member of the local military command leads to a punitive eruption:

The discontent among the soldiers in Captain Okenna’s camp had survived the bitter battle fought for several days, unlike many of the soldiers themselves. And nobody still alive could bear his ways any longer. Okenna had systematically eliminated the more outspoken of the malcontents by sending them on assignments on which they were sure to meet their death. And he had continued to surround himself with his own blood relations, like Pipia and Okoroba – people would collaborate with him in the practice of diverting supplies intended for the fighting boys. And then, just recently, at a time of the utmost danger, Okenna had ordered the company into the field of battle while he himself escaped with his relations to the far rear. He was nowhere to be seen when the fighting boys were falling to their death in scores; but he did return when it was known that the survivors had not only held the ground but also had pushed the attackers far back. His mission this time was to see for himself the amount of booty that had been captured. There were very many cartons of beer and rolls of cigarettes, and other things. Okenna ordered these to be conveyed to a given address in Oban. So pleaded the private who in his rage had sent a bullet into Commandant Okenna’s skull. (203)

As the Eastern forces are driven back, the capital falls to the invaders and Plobe (their committee) has to relocate, Roland and Biere along with their colleagues. Biere (the interim chair) is now replaced with Doctor Anibado, a person known to Roland as a shallow and ambitious opportunist. The two friends begin to feel that the winds (in the committee) are subtly shifting to blow against the two of them as Anibado quietly manoeuvres and manipulates matters. Both the friends nevertheless continue insisting that to demonise their State’s present political and military enemies (all actually still their compatriots) simplistically as the ones "slaughtering our kith and kin" not only serves very little purpose, but is a dangerous strategy in view of identifying the true sources of villainy that fomented the war (212).

After this debate at a committee meeting, Biere and Roland move further south towards Portcity (this is likely to be Unonye’s equivalent for Port Harcourt). As they arrive, Roland and Biere sense that the “whole town was on edge. It seemed as if fear had been injected into its bloodstream” (113). Things are no better on the morrow – Roland comments: “Portcity was today like a huge grave over which loomed a terrible danger” (114). This is the fear of what might come from outside, but what happens next generates a worse anxiety – from within the city itself:

"Go out to the stadium, everybody," the man with the loudspeaker called as the van passed. "Go and see some of the captured men."

"We go?" Biere asked.

"I go – that at least I know," I told him.

We were among the first to arrive, largely because of the nearness of the hotel to the stadium. We therefore had good viewing positions. And the captives, about fifty in number, were already on display, all of them young boys full of life, their hands tied behind their backs. They looked dishevelled and distraught, and had patches of blood on parts of their bodies. One of them, right in front, was weeping and screaming, calling upon his absent father to come to his rescue. As his voice descended to a sad cadence, he held out both his palms at me. (214-215)

The tied-up youngsters, conscripted fighters of the invading and advancing forces, plead pathetically but in vain for protection. Even though the police are on guard, public fury and hysterical vengefulness against these deliberately exhibited human "examples" of their persecutors run too high. The first local person to break through the police barricade is a club-wielding woman who dares the police to shoot her as she attacks the helpless young men, madly screaming: "They killed Willie, my only brother, over there." In a “frenzy of mad hate” the captured "soldiers" are beaten and torn to death by the crowd.

“A sensation of horror had gripped me, benumbing me to the point of insanity”, Roland records. Biere observes that he is convinced that "Anibado had a hand" in setting up the awful event (215). His suspicion is confirmed the next day. Biere also tells Roland that Anibado has been organising the other committee members to resist and sideline the two of them.

At the next Plobe meeting, Doctor Anibado insists openly on the "need" to "appeal to people’s sentiments, thereby generating the bitterest hate for the other side", adding to this: "We must leave moralising to the bishops" (217).

Appalled, both Roland and Biere argue passionately against the mere whipping up of ethnic hatred; insisting that their fight must be one for justice, not against their compatriots, for (in the words of Roland) "the enemy within gets more and more entrenched as we fight the one from outside". To this he adds: "If the boys [the youngsters on the battle lines] are going to continue to make sacrifices, we should be able to hold out for them some definite hope of a cleaner future" (219-20).

In an allusion to the title of the novel, Roland (as student of the classics) recalls the blood sacrifice of the maid Iphigeneia by her own father Agamemnon in order to get the winds to blow their sailing ships to Troy in the Ancient Greek legend. By invoking this antecedent, meant to "pacify the wind" (221), Roland is exposing the ancient, ruthless pattern of power hungry elders sacrificing the youth of their societies.

When chairman Anibado tells them the only relevant issue is winning the war and that Roland is letting them "[run] round and round in circles", Biere tartly insists that there is no avoiding all the "[h]orrible, soul-shattering experiences", listing evidence of local exploitation and of profiteering in the midst of and under the guise of war (222). Soon after, Biere writes a poem about the “Red stains on green leaves and patches on the ground”, observable “[where the battle has raged for days on end” (225). Roland learns that his nephew and protégé Isaac, not out of his teens, has also joined the defending army. When the news arrives that the invaders are on their way, huge masses of refugees start fleeing from Portcity. Biere and Roland go to observe and to offer what help they can.

While Roland is away for a few days visiting his family in their village, Biere is arrested – as Roland learns, “The offence Biere was accused of could have been summarized as impairing the public zeal, and the informant, the principal accuser, was none other than Doctor Akunna Anibado” (237). Soon the police come for Roland, too – although he is let go after signing (under duress and dire threats) an “undertaking” to refrain from making or spreading "utterances which are bound to weaken morale" (239). He, too, is now a marked man, but the main fear occupying his mind is the question of what the authorities have done to Biere and where they are keeping him, so that he can work for his release.

At considerable danger to himself, he sets out in the direction of the detention camp where Biere is rumoured to be held. On his way through the countryside, he meets up with his uncle, who enquires anxiously about the welfare of his son Isaac, the youngster (Roland’s protégé) who enlisted and of whom nothing has been heard since. But Roland, too, knows nothing of his nephew’s whereabouts.

Proceeding, Roland encounters a military contingent, and while he is with them they come under attack by a strafing aeroplane of the invaders. Among the dead he finds firstly his nephew Isaac and secondly his own feisty younger sister, Dorothy (or Dora), who had been working for the Red Cross! In the same setting, Roland witnesses how the brave young commander and a British missionary priest who had been ministering to the dying and wounded soldiers are shot to death. He, too, is seriously wounded in his arm. Heavily sedated, Roland dreams feverishly of encountering Doctor Anibado, who in the dream taunts Roland with a mocking echo of his own words, saying he has just completed his most recent book, titled The Wind Pacified. Even in the dream Roland persists in resisting such a representative of the predators whose cynicism and greed will forever prevent peace from returning to their country if left unchecked. After waking up, he decides that he, too, will write a book about the war and its true heroes, such as those who died before his eyes or in his presence – the young army officer (a former school pupil of his), his nephew Isaac and his sister Dorothy, as well as (significantly) the white priest.

The novel ends abruptly, but constructively, when Roland gets a note delivered to him in his hospital bed by a nurse. The note is from Biere, now a patient in the security ward of the very same hospital. The sympathetic doctor treating both of them (Roland for his wound; Biere for hypertension) had informed the latter of his friend’s presence in the hospital and engineered the secret transfer of the note under the eyes of the security personnel. Although we do not know how things will work out for Biere, we do know there is hope for his recovery and release now that his friend can work for it, and in view of the imminent end of hostilities and the resumption of centrally located national rule over their State.

If we know the equal likelihood of the persistence of power abuse and the ongoing corruption maintained by unscrupulous people, we do also know that both Roland and Biere will, in the words of one of Biere’s favourite citations, continue to obey the moral precept stating that “because right is right, to follow right/ Were wisdom in the scorn of consequence” (5). They will have many more battles to fight under the new dispensation, but will hopefully emerge from those, too, unbowed though wounded.

Munonye’s fine novel is a wise assessment and scrupulous representation of how much faith and courage are required of human beings in terrible times and how monsters often confront us in plausibly human form.