Excerpt from African Chronicles Volume II: Nigeria - Biafra
1968 Xmas card in support of Biafra
From Chapter 16
I will never forget our first impressions of Umuahia – or Oo-moo-a-HEE-a, as we incorrectly pronounced* the name on the road sign at the entrance to the dustiest, grimiest, most raucous town we had yet encountered in Eastern Nigeria. Trucks, buses, mini-vans, cars, motorbikes, bicycles, donkey carts, push carts – every means of transport imaginable – were vying for space on the narrow roadway and tight roundabouts with the sweltering masses that had arrived for market day. A young African man, totally naked and very muscular, with wild eyes and wild red locks of hair matted with dust, strode past our car barefoot on the hot tarmac, oblivious to the traffic and the crowds of people, who in turn paid him no heed. West African hi-life and American country music – Jim Reeves, Hank Williams, Marty Robbins, Brenda Lee – blared from radios and boom boxes in the market stalls along the road, but almost half of them were blasting out Millie Small’s My Boy Lollipop. Just past the market we came upon a slow-moving cloud of dust that seemed the epicenter of the grime and congestion that was afflicting the whole town. A great herd of cattle had been making its way through town ahead of us, while trucks, cars, motorbikes and hordes of pedestrians – women of all ages with baskets of dried fish, fruit or vegetables and basins of cooked rice wrapped in cloth on their heads, boys selling local newspapers and international magazines, girls on errands, men out to do business or to do nothing – they were all picking their way around and through the herd in both directions.
For Umuahians it was just another market day. Invading cattle herds were a weekly, if not a daily, phenomenon during the dry season. They came with the harmattan, and that was fine. This, we were told, was not the kind of northern invasion that southerners feared and, of course, they welcomed the beef. But the day would come, they predicted, when the cattle herds would be held back and hordes of men would come instead – with weapons.
It may have been a more special day for the cattle and their Fulani herdsmen as they neared the end of the arduous five hundred mile journey from the dry pasture lands of northern Nigeria to the markets of Aba, Port Harcourt and Calabar in south-eastern Nigeria. The weaker of the animals in the original herd would have been culled and sold to local butchers along the way in Nsukka, Enugu, Awgu and here in Umuahia. They were perhaps the fortunate ones: their ordeal was over. The remaining cattle had now grown skinnier than the skinny herdsmen, and their sharp buttocks, just skin over bone, were nearly as dangerous to a passer-by as their long horns. As we drove through the herd from back to front we were impressed with how smoothly the animals parted in front of us, not happily but with a grudging fluidity acquired, presumably, through hard experience.
*Correct pronunciation: oo-MWA-hee-a