In the Shadow of War

by Ben Okri

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HeclipseSee Omovo

Omovo is the main character of “In the Shadow of War.” He is a young Urhobo boy who is about seven or eight years old. In the story, he acts primarily as an observer. He watches as his father gets ready and leaves for work, as well as for a woman in a veil who has been passing his house every day for the past week. He also watches as three soldiers, who have newly arrived in town, talk to the village children and give them money. Intrigued, Omovo invites an exchange with the soldiers by walking past them. After telling them that his name is Heclipse, he turns down the ten kobo that they offer him in exchange for information about the woman in the veil. He lies to the soldiers, telling them that he has not seen her. Omovo then returns to his home to watch for the woman in the veil again. After the woman passes, Omovo dashes off to the forest, where he watches the woman give a basket of goods to some women and children. When the woman then sets off again, Omovo continues to follow her. Ultimately, the soldiers also catch up with the woman and murder her. While this happens, Omovo hides in the shadow of a tree. Horrified by what has transpired, Omovo attempts to run out of the forest, but he falls and blacks out. He awakes to find himself at home, where just below his window, he sees his father drinking palm-wine with the soldiers. Omovo tries to tell his father what happened in the forest, but his father simply asks him to thank the soldiers for bringing him home and takes Omovo off to bed.

Although the narrator at one point mentions that Omovo does not understand the news of war that he hears on the radio, Omovo seems to have an instinctive humanitarian side that prompts him not to disclose information about the woman in the veil. When he tries to tell his father what the soldiers have done, Omovo reveals an allegiance to the woman in the veil rather than to the soldiers, who claim that she is a spy who is helping their enemies. As a young boy, Omovo may not understand the political implications of his loyalty; however, for readers, such fidelity points out how war makes human beings do terrible things to each other. It is inconsequential to Omovo whether the woman in the veil is a spy—or a witch, for that matter. For him, her murder is wrong because it is a crime against another human being. Having seen the woman give her basket of goods to starving children and obviously needy women, Omovo likely feels even more strongly that the soldiers’ actions are wrong. Omovo’s youthful perspective confirms Okri’s belief that, in war, morality and ethical behavior are not the norm.

Omovo’s Father
Omovo’s father appears only in the beginning and the end of the story. In the beginning, he is getting ready for work and teases his son about the coming lunar eclipse. He works in a professional capacity of some sort, yet he is not a man of substantial means, as indicated by the “shabby coat” he wears that no longer fits him. He believes that there is something inherently bad about war, and he does not want his son listening to news of it on the radio. In the end, Omovo finds his father drinking palm-wine with the soldiers, and when he tries to tell his father about the day’s events, his father smiles “apologetically”...

(This entire section contains 1098 words.)

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and takes Omovo off to bed. If one reads this story as a dream that Omovo has, the father’s presence can be read as a reflection of the boy’s earlier irritation with him. If, however, one reads the story as an actual series of events, the father’s presence with the soldiers demonstrates either his allegiance to the national war effort or his way of protecting his son, should the boy’s sympathy toward the veiled woman be revealed.

Radio Announcer
The radio announcer provides details about the war and broadcasts the news that an eclipse of the moon is expected. While reporting the news about the day’s fighting, the announcer yawns, indicating that, to a certain extent, he has become desensitized to the horrors of war.

Three Soldiers
The three soldiers are responsible for the death of the veiled woman. In the story, they remain nameless and are only recognizable by their physical traits and actions. One soldier speaks to Omovo from the bar and tries to bribe him with ten kobo to tell them if he sees the woman in the veil. Another soldier removes his shirt, and the third soldier is described as fat with large buttocks that split his pants. The soldiers believe that the woman is a spy who is helping the Biafrans. When the soldiers find the veiled woman in the forest, the bare-chested soldier pushes her down, and the fat soldier shoots her after she spits in his face. The soldiers are not portrayed as admirable, hardworking men. They spend their day in the village bar, drinking and playing draughts while they bribe the children to help them find the veiled woman. After napping at the bar, they pursue the veiled woman, who they see has sustained injuries to her face and head, and kill her.

The Veiled Woman
The veiled woman is a mysterious character who is figured as a spy, as a witch, and as a humanitarian. The soldiers believe that she is a spy for the Biafrans, and they ultimately kill her. The children in the village believe that she is a witch. They say that she has no shadow and that her feet never touch the ground. Readers may believe that the woman is simply a humanitarian who values human life regardless of political designations. The woman passes through Omovo’s village every day for a week on her way to a Biafran encampment where, on the day that she is killed, she gives a basket of goods to malnourished children and impoverished women. By aiding the non-national side of the war, the woman exposes herself to the danger of being caught by the Nigerian soldiers who are monitoring her efforts. The woman, whose face and head are disfigured, demonstrates a clear dislike for the soldiers who confront her in the forest; however, it remains uncertain whether she is a spy, or a benevolent soul, or a witch.




Critical Essays