In the Shadow of War

by Ben Okri

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Why does Omovo follow the soldiers tracking the veiled woman?

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Ben Okri’s short story about a young boy, about 11-years-old, curious about the nature of a mysterious woman who has been passing his house every afternoon with a black veil covering her head and face.  As will happen in the minds of children, the boy, Omovo, lets him imagination fill in the blanks regarding the woman’s identity and purpose – a task to which other children in the neighborhood contribute.  As Okri describes his young protagonist’s observations:

“The last time he saw her she had glided past with agitated flutters of her yellow smock. The children stopped what they were doing and stared at her. They had said that she had no shadow. They had said that her feet never touched the ground. As she went past, the children began to throw things at her. She didn’t flinch, didn’t quicken her pace, and didn’t look back.”

Omovo’s curiosity regarding the woman is shared by the three soldiers drinking palm wine on the street below his window.  The soldiers, Omovo notes, have been giving children money, and he is initially eager to similarly receive the soldiers’ largess.  Having approached the soldiers, however, Omovo is exposed to their real motivation in handing out money.  One of the soldiers, seeing Omovo, asks,

“Have you seen that woman who covers her face with a black cloth?” 


The man gave Omovo ten kobo and said: “She is a spy. She helps our enemies. If you see her, come and tell us at once, you hear?” 

The mysterious apparition that is the woman with the black veil and the soldiers interest in her leads Omovo to follow the group into the jungle, the soldiers to interrogate the woman, the young boy out of sheer curiosity.  As the paths of the soldiers and the woman diverge, however, Omovo follows the woman, only to discover the soldiers had taken an alternate route for the purpose of surrounding the woman and those to whom, it turns out, she is bringing food. 

Why did Omovo follow the soldiers and the veiled woman?  Okri’s story is about the barbarity and desperation inherent in the wars that are invisible to those in the modern industrialized world but are a daily factor in the lives of millions of economically destitute civilians throughout Africa.  Omovo is a young boy, and curious by nature.  He follows the soldiers and woman out of curiosity.  There is nothing mysterious about such motivations on the part of an eleven-year-old boy.  That he is subsequently introduced to the inhumanity inherent in these conflicts, however, is the part of his childhood that stands him apart from those of the more fortunate in other parts of the world.

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I think Omovo wants to protect the old woman. He denies having seen her when questioned by the soldiers. He refuses the money offered to him to spy on her. He seems to understand that telling the soldiers about her would put her in danger. Perhaps it is a moral decision for Omovo. One theme of the story deals with the morality of war and how war affects those who are exposed to it. The injustice of war is shown when the veiled woman is killed by the soldiers. We don't know whether she's a spy or if she's just helping the women and children who have been displaced by the war. Omovo sees her as a person helping others who suffer because of the war. For Omovo, killing the veiled woman is wrong.

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