First published in the West Africa magazine in 1983, “In the Shadow of War” was later included as the first story in the collection Stars of the New Curfew (1988). Based largely on Ben Okri’s experience of the Nigerian civil war and written from the perspective of a child, it relies a good deal on economy and intensity of expression for its narrative power. The story is written in a bare, realistic style that vividly captures the shades of a murky war. Okri’s method seems to be to allow the description to speak for itself while significant details pile up and suggest the hallucinatory visions the war causes.
The story opens with the arrival of three soldiers in a village close to the express road. The soldiers are observed in their activities by Omovo, the child protagonist, who is glued to the news reports on the radio, much to the annoyance of his father. Down below, the soldiers go on drinking wine and while away their time in playing draughts. The soldiers call to the children playing near them in order to find out more about a veiled woman who has been walking through the village. One of the soldiers tells Omovo that they suspect the woman may be a spy.
Omovo returns to his position beside the window to wait for the woman in the headscarf to appear. As reported, she does not have a shadow and her feet do not touch the ground. She is unfazed by the children’s attempts to disturb her. While waiting for the strange woman to appear, Omovo dozes off and wakes up late in the afternoon to realize that the veiled woman has just crossed the village, with the soldiers in pursuit. This time the woman is carrying a red basket on her head. Omovo sees her go into a cave full of women and children. On her way back she is intercepted by the soldiers and killed when she refuses to give them information. Omovo, the sole witness, runs home but faints on the way. He wakes up to find his father drinking with the soldiers, who have carried him back from the forest. Okri’s story has been described as an “antiquest” (Thorpe). In a society destroyed by ethnic warfare, the stance of the impartial witness is effectively embodied in the experience of the uninvolved, sensitive child.
Moh, Felicia Oka. Ben Okri: An Introduction to His Early Fiction. Enugu, Nigeria: Fourth Dimension Publishing, 2002. Okri, Ben. Stars of the New Curfew. London: Penguin, 1999. Thorpe, Michael. Review of Stars of the New Curfew. World Literature Today (Spring 1990): 349.