Chapter 1, section II: The Arrest of Uncle Gilbert, August 8, 1968
Inside the pit toilet where he had foolishly entered to urinate and defecate, the two recruiters cornered him. Realizing the situation he had walked into, he admitted to himself how unwisely he had acted, knowing full well that this was a time of war and he was the only youth of fighting age left in Eziama. All the others had been killed, or were presently away fighting for the Igbos and for Biafra.
Later on, he rationalized. Who would have blamed him for getting up at three o’clock in the morning to tiptoe outside to the pit toilet? Who would have known that out of nowhere the recruiters would come into his home, to conscript him, to force him to fight?
Four months after the war began he had stopped going to church. The churches and the markets, the churches especially, were usually places the recruiters loved to go. They would pluck men from the presence of God, only to send them to the darkness of the devil. Home was not safe either. Still, better he died in Eziama village than on the battlefield where his corpse would never be found, where no priest would be available to give the last sacrament.
‘Come out! You’re under arrest!’—Bang bang, bang—- It was the voice, and the sound, of one of the recruiters hammering on the zinc door of the pit toilet.
Gilbert held his thoughts momentarily and waited silently. ‘Why are they so angry?’ he asked himself when he could begin thinking again.
‘If men like you hid, who would the bullet kill?’ cried the angry recruiter.
Gilbert did not answer. He had been astride the round, dim hole of the pit toilet when they struck. He then, by sheer willpower, quickly cut off any further urine and defecation, zipped up his trousers, and walked backward to lean on the back wall of the pit latrine.
Beside his right leg were two cement blocks, one on top of the other. Over them, a family of small trainee spiders and suicidal black ants pretended to be chums. With the foreknowledge of how their collaboration would end, Gilbert sighed and cruelly sat on them as if they were worthless.
Then he made up his mind. Neither prayers nor heavy sighs would save him. There was a way he could outwit these recruiters, for though they might have a gun and some imaginary authority given to them by a faceless area commandant at Enugu, they were still playing in his territory.
A casual upward gaze got him thinking fast. Between the zinc rooftop and the back wall of the pit toilet was space, a small opening through which a little breeze blew, and a glimmer of light came from the aging moon. What if he, Gilbert, threw himself out into the bush behind the wall? Then he would have a head start before the two recruiters could jump over the fence and go after him. Knowing the terrain of the thick bush gave him a recognizable advantage, for which he had a short-lived celebration.
But then he remembered his head size and the overgrown hair. Once he started fussing his thick head through the crevice, the recruiters would not hesitate to burst open the zinc door, grab him by both legs as he dangled from the wall, and throw him down like a bag of cassava.
Gilbert sat back down on the two blocks, and with no aim in particular began to grope around, searching for an object of any kind. First, find an object, and then the use would reveal itself. Luck was on his side when he felt a blade. It didn’t matter that the knife had no handle. Weeks ago, he had heard the story of how Bartholomew, a youth of almost the same age as him, had been discharged from the Biafran army because he had severed his right fingers.
As he thought about the success Bartholomew had, Gilbert began to cut his hand, starting with the left pinky. He had gotten through the skin and had begun to draw the first drop of blood when the angry recruiter began to tear at the bottom of the zinc door with both hands. In panic Gilbert dropped the knife.
What next? He didn’t have the time to cut off even one finger. On the other hand, presenting himself as dumb was not as hard cutting fingers off. No army worth its blood and treasures wants a crazy man on the battlefield. Why he had never thought about the dumb play, the only ploy that came naturally, puzzled him. Without his active participation, the circumstances thus far, though humiliating, had been perfectly set in a mysterious way for him to play dumb.
If the recruiters would judge him without prejudice, without considering that by his delay he had made their job more difficult, they would free him on the conclusion that no sane person would hold up in a pit toilet for an hour or more.
Who but a madman would stomach the stink? Who but a madman would tolerate scores of toilet flies, some perching on his hair, others walking up his nostrils? Who but a madman would not raise a hand to whack them?
Terrified of death, Uncle Gilbert hesitantly approached the zinc door, unlatched it, and surrendered.