In the Shadow of War

by Ben Okri

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“In the Shadow of War” is told from the perspective of a young boy, Omovo, who takes a short trip from the sleepy innocent boredom of his sunny village into the dark shadowy forest, where he experiences the terrors of war. In this story, as in much of Ben Okri’s fiction, the world of reality and fantasy merge seamlessly.

The story begins one hot afternoon in an unnamed Nigerian village. Omovo, a boy of about eleven, waits for his father to go to work. Only the radio, with its announcements of war and an impending eclipse of the Moon, intrudes on their peace. Before the father leaves, he warns Omovo to be careful because during an eclipse, the world turns dark and evil things can happen. He gives the boy his ten kobo allowance and tells him to turn off the radio. Children, he insists, should not listen to tales of war. After his father gets on the bus, Omovo turns the radio back on. He has been watching a mysterious woman veiled in black who passes his house every afternoon. He decides to wait for the woman, whom the village children believe to be a ghost, to appear.

Through the window, he watches three soldiers drinking outside at a nearby bar. When he sees that they are playing with, and giving money to, neighborhood children, he goes out to see them. The soldiers pay attention to him as well and offer him money to report on the whereabouts of the mysterious black-veiled woman. However, unlike the other children, Omovo refuses the money, the same amount as his allowance, and returns home to his window.

Soon, Omovo is lulled to sleep in the afternoon heat. The whole village becomes drowsy, and even the announcer on the radio yawns. When the boy wakes up, the woman has just passed by, and he surreptitiously follows her into the forest. Brandishing rifles, the three soldiers also follow her for a while and then circle around to catch her unawares.

Hidden in the forest, Omovo watches in wonder as the woman, who carries a red basket filled with food, enters a cave, where she encounters shadowlike people hiding from the horrors of war. The people, decrepit and dressed in rags, approach her with gratitude and deep respect, as if they might never see her again.

The soldiers appear and threaten this mysterious woman at gunpoint. They rip the black veil off and expose her face and head; she is bald and severely disfigured, and a slash extends the length of her face. In a matter of moments, the woman picks herself up, screams in defiance, and spits in a soldier’s face. He shoots her dead. Omovo screams, and when he attempts to flee, he trips and falls down, passing into unconsciousness. When he wakes up, the world is entirely black. He has forgotten the coming eclipse of the Moon and believes himself to be blind.

Shortly, he wakes up at home where he sees his father drinking in comradeship with the three soldiers. Omovo is delirious; everything remains blurry. Was what happened in the forest real? His concerned father tells the boy to be grateful to the soldiers, who were kind enough to bring him home from the forest, as he carries Omovo off to bed.

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