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My Biafran Story

My Biafran Story .org website is a collection of eye witness accounts of the Nigerian-Biafran civil war.

Care Giver and Surrogate Mother.

Care Giver and Surrogate Mother.

*Nneka talks about her mother, late Mrs. Esther Chizube Mgbojikwe, who died in April, 2016.*

“My mum said many of the children in the refugee camps were separated from their families so other families were encouraged to take them in. She said the exercise was documented properly so it would be easy to find their parents eventually. My mum took one of the children. Her name was Angelina and she must have been about ten or eleven years at the time. She told my mum that she was running from the scene of a bombing when she saw people climbing into trucks. She joined them and that is how she ended up in Orlu with other refugees. She lived with us for about fifteen years and became like a big sister to me. I cannot think of my childhood without Angelina.” – Nneka Chris-Asoluka.

She trained as a midwife in the United Kingdom and when she came back to Nigeria, she worked briefly with Shell B.P. She later went back to the UK to study Child Nutrition and Health Visiting. They were called Health Sisters at the time. When she returned, she didn’t work in hospitals but in rural health centers where the focus of her work was pregnant women, nursing mothers and children. She preferred Health Visiting because after she returned from her midwifery training, she saw that the practice in hospitals here was so different from what she’d been taught abroad.

We were living at Nsukka when the federal troops captured the town. My mother had just returned from Britain with my baby brother. I was only two years old and my father was still abroad at the time. She said they had been hearing gun fire from the previous day but nobody was sure what was happening. They were all terrified. At about 2.00 am, her colleague at the Ministry of health, knocked on our door and said, “We’re leaving and you better do the same. If you stay here, in the next one hour I don’t know what will become of Nsukka.” Frantic, my mum woke everybody up and with the help of our nanny and steward, started to pack. But how do you start packing up the whole house at such short notice? What do you take and what do you leave? She decided to take food, her certificates, some family photos, children’s clothes. The steward had to stay back so he’d lock up and meet us at Oba, our home town. Luckily, she had filled her tank with petrol the previous day because there had been announcements that people who had cars should make sure they had full tanks at any given time.

She put us in the car and set out for Oba. When she got on the road, she saw great multitudes of people all trying to escape – carrying their children and a few belongings. You can imagine her trying to meander through the crowds and not knowing who would try to harm her. At that time many people were looking for transportation so they could have hijacked her car, but nobody did. She thinks it was because of the two small children – my brother and I – who she had in the car. She said she kept praying under her breath until the road became less busy. Throughout the night and into the morning she kept driving, until she got to Oba.

People didn’t know what was happening at Nsukka, so when her mother saw her she screamed, “Chizube, o gini?” [“Chizube, what is it?”] She said. “Mama, it has happened o. Nsukka has fallen.” She said she knew that once Nsukka was taken, Enugu would be next. Do you know what my mum did next? She handed us over to our grandmother, had a bath, changed her clothes and, immediately, turned back to return to Enugu. My grandmother was pleading, “Please, don’t go back.” But mum was already gone.

I remember asking her why she did that and she said she knew there would be refugees from Nsukka and neighbouring towns and her services would be needed. While fleeing Nsukka, she had seen lots of children and pregnant women on the road. She knew they would need medical attention and she was eager to get to Enugu so they’d start planning. That was just her kind of person. She was very dedicated to her work. So, she drove back to Enugu where a meeting had already been convened. She was posted to Owerri and, after staying in Enugu for a few days, she returned to Oba, picked us up and we left for Owerri.

Life was normal when she got to Owerri but when the Nigerian army captured it, she was posted to Orlu where she was placed in charge of distributing relief materials. They had marked trucks filled with relief materials, all of them assigned to designated places with supervisors. The Biafrans used to commandeer people’s vehicles to distribute these supplies and her official car had been commandeered from its owner. He pleaded with them to retain him as the driver of the car so he’d take care of his car. They agreed and that’s how he became my mum’s driver. But she had to learn how to ride a bicycle because the commandeered car was breaking down frequently and when that happened she will just jump on her bicycle and take off. Her senior sister worried so much for her health and safety and was always shouting, “Chizube, take it easy.” But how could she take it easy and waste any minute when people were at the refugee camps needing supplies and medical attention. My mum was so fatigued without knowing it and one day she just collapsed while climbing down from the bicycle. She was admitted in the hospital but when she regained consciousness, she demanded to be discharged. The doctors refused but trust my mum, the next day, she devised a means and sneaked away back to work.

The work was quite enormous but she said the Biafran government was very organised and had a good crisis management strategy especially in the health sector. The refugee camps were well run because the organisations that brought in relief material were comfortable with the Biafran government knowing they had structures in place which were adequate for the ongoing humanitarian work. Another thing my mum always said was that the Catholic Church was wonderful. The humanitarian agencies frequently ensured that the officials in charge of distribution of the food, clothing and medicine had more than enough supplies for themselves so they would not be tempted to take the rations meant for the refugee camps.

My mum was not only overseeing supplies, she was also caring for children and their mothers who made up about 80 % of the population of the refugee camps. They had been displaced from their homes and were very vulnerable. Many of the children had become separated from their families so others were encouraged to take them in. The exercise was documented properly so it would be easy to find their parents eventually. My mum took one of the children. Her name was Angelina and she must have been about ten or eleven years at the time. She told my mum that she was running away from a bombing when she saw people climbing into trucks. She joined them and that’s how she ended up in Orlu with other refugees. She lived with us for about fifteen years and became like a big sister to me. I cannot think of my childhood without Angelina.

Some families were able to smuggle their children out. That was how two of my cousins went to London where they had relations. Through the help of my mum they left with one of the planes that brought relief materials into Biafra. My mum said it could take several weeks before people got the chance to be evacuated. They had to be very careful because if the Nigerian planes detected such evacuations, they will bomb the airstrip. So it took several weeks for my cousins to leave. The night they eventually left, my aunt didn’t sleep because she didn’t know the fate of her children. When they got to Gabon, they were put on a plane going to the United Kingdom. She later got word that they reached London safely.

Life was very precarious. My mum said that if she was on her way and a bombing took place, she’d run into the forest and wait for the all-clear signs, thereby reducing the amount of time she wanted to spend at any refugee camp. In addition to the air raids, Nigerian soldiers were abducting women and because she was very young, she always tried to make herself look unattractive by wearing long, loose clothes and tying a scarf over her head.

Immediately the war ended, she was posted to Abakaliki. After spending five years in Abakaliki she was posted to Aba where she spent two years, then to Ohafia, Nsukka, back to Abakiliki and to Nibo from where she retired.

She said it was a traumatic time but in spite of it I didn’t detect any bitterness in her. She said those were normal things that happen in a war. Her training as a nurse also helped her not to internalise the gory experiences. All she focused on was alleviating the suffering of the people so that one day she’d look back and say I did so much. Working round the clock might also have helped her take herself out of the whole thing.

I remember asking her how she felt being away from us so often and for long periods. She said she knew we were in good hands but she needed to be there for other children whose mothers were not there. She never felt we were in any harm because we were left in the care of her mother, our aunties and nannies. Also, we had enough food and medication and were attending classes in a make-shift school which my aunty had started, to ensure that children in the area could continue their learning.

After the war, my mum found Angelina’s parents. She was from Nsukka and I remember vividly the day her brother and uncle arrived Abakaliki to see her. Wow! You can imagine the shouting and crying that went on. My mum said many children got lost like that – younger children who couldn’t talk and nobody knew them or where they were from. They took Angelina back to Nsukka to see her parents. Then, they brought her back and handed her over to my mum, saying, “This girl is now your daughter. Whatever you want to do with her, go ahead.” Angelina’s immediate senior brother also lived with us. His name was Odoja. The relationship between the two families continued for many years after. Until my mother died, she kept praying to see Angelina again.

My creche is in my mother’s memory. She was looking forward to the times she’d spend with the children there. And then, she just died. All the same, we’re grateful for the life she lived and the sacrifices she made during the war. She was a dynamic woman.

Nneka Asoluka is a Lawyer and President of Soroptimist International of Nigeria, a global volunteer movement advocating for human rights and gender equality. She also runs Esther’s Child Minders, a Crèche and Day Care Center named after her late mother.

Immune to horror.
My Biafran Eyes, by Okey Ndibe

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