The Chain

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By Pita Okute

At the height of the Biafra War, a refugee boy spent some time with a company of faithless, hopeless, battle weary rebel soldiers.In No Man’s Land, as everyone knows, life is rationed by the minute, the hour; on some rare times by the day. But tomorrow is a bridge too far: Forget it. Therefore, it made a perfectly striking statement then, to find among the lice and litter of their bacha, several editions of a peculiar message.Whoever receives this letter must make out twenty- four copies and distribute it to friends he wishes well… When this is done, before seven days, you will see a change in your life…

Man is a rational being. But he is also the only superstitious animal. Though he is sure the sun will rise again tomorrow; he cannot see beyond the corner of approaching dawn to tell the progress of the hours. He may only forecast, based on a set of probabilities, the outcome of each day. And though he may propose, he is not unaware of factors which could oppose him. But depending on his faith, he is quite willing to put his trust on other superior powers to dispose in his favour. Hence, the recourse to prayers, “chains”, amulets and whatever to quell the fever of anticipation and give direction to his confusion.

But he is in chains, a prisoner to his uncertainty.With that letter in hand, those rugged rebels could reach beyond the terror of the moment to a new relief. For one last moment, survival depended not only on staying out of the pathway of deadly bullets, but also on the gods of chance- whose alters could be reached by a letter!It must seem completely funny that a piece of paper could ward off the death dealing might of artillery fire.

But war commands a host of mad impulses and every wild gamble augments its morbid passage. Send no money for it has no price on it. Do not keep this letter. It must leave your hand in ninety- six hours after receiving it.

With painstaking effort, a few of the men of HQ Company, 67 Battalion 68 “Destroyer’s” Brigade, copied the message out (no typewriters around!) and sent to any twenty- four of their comrades and civilians in the little village nearby. For a while the story of the lucky letter provided enough diversion for nerves otherwise frayed by the tormenting spectacle of endless battles. Does fortune favour the brave? It is also the friend of faith, as the lasting power of this letter ably demonstrates.

Twenty- four years afterwards, it is still making the rounds, drawing within its chain of doubt and expectancy, an ever widening circle of friends, acquaintances, partners and relatives. Managers, clerks, labourers, editors, reporters, generals, corporals…The links have little class import… just the common denominations of persons caught in a tango with tomorrow.

The Nigerian may not have the most superstitious mind on this planet. But his belief in, and fear of the supernatural has little parallel: Witness the booming trade in spiritual consultancy, the festival of prophecies at the end of every year and the passion for tales of witchcraft. Yes, the boundaries of faith and belief are as endless as the waters of the Niger and Benue. Little surprising that our letter has survived through the fret and fright of war, the oil boom, the austerity and structural adjustment policies to become a permanent feature of the postal services- perhaps even a national symbol of resilience and faith.

Versions of it there are, one of which is said to have the “blessing” of a miracle worker in Elele, Rivers State. Yet another chain letter, with quite a sheen of elegance requires the recipient to make out five copies of the letter and send these out to his friends. Each friend will receive a copy also of the preceding letters in the chain with its list of names.

One of such letters got to an editor’s desk some time ago. It had come from his publisher, a sophisticated young man with not a little sense of humour and joie de vivre. “Well, I got this from a friend and I thought I should also send it to my friends and wish them good luck. So please don’t keep it. Send it and don’t break the chain.”

In three months after leaving the office of a notable financial expert, the chain had gathered eighty other names for a swirling dance with faith and fate. To believe or not was not the question. Even the achievement of sharing such wide reaching fetters with such men as J O Irukwu, T Y Danjuma, M I Wushishi, May Nzeribe, Alex and Oscar Ibru, Fred Okunola, Bode St. Daniel, Alex Eneli, Herbert Orji, and Dede Ijere could not dispel the editor’s unease.“I’m not superstitious. If this chain brings us luck, then so be it.”- J O Irukwu.“I know we all need the luck that comes our way; the continuity chain will add to it.”- Dr. Alex C Eneli.“I’ve received so many of this stuff in the past but they ended up in my paper bin. This however makes me giggle when I look at the list of respondents. For the fun of it, I’m keeping the chain going. Have your fun too. Keep the chain”-Bayo Ogunfowora.The editor did not comply.

A few of those other names in the chain would have done likewise. Maybe it takes some bitterness to spit in the face of time, to refuse to have fun as the guy says, with a cheap harmless gamble.Swinging in his dim memory was another chain: of young tired men straining over stubby pencils and rough paper. Yes, Philip Peugent got this and complied immediately, he was promoted from Sergeant to Major…

In less than seven days, orders would come from Brigade HQ: for the battalion to move from its main base deep in the belly of a rubber plantation to another location, thick in the fiery pits of what was known as the Port Harcourt Axis… to contend again with the first rule of combat; many are called and all may be killed!

How wise the ones who shot themselves to escape the grit of the front- and take their chances against the lack of drugs, the bombing raids and mean hearted military policemen! That’s the way to deal with luck, perhaps. Never count on it to come knocking. But grab your chance and run like mad!

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