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LIVING IN SAINT-ANDRE REFUGEE CENTER, GABON - A FORMER CHILD REFUGEE'S ACCOUNT - PART TWO.

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SAINT-ANDRE - OUR PLACE OF REFUGE 

Once we arrived, the first thing they did was to process our registration and match it with file information from Biafra. They gave us new Gabonese numbers different from the ones we were given in Biafra. These numbers were inscribed on gold or silver necklaces and no two Biafran kids in Gabon bore the same number regardless of the center where they were placed in. My own number was 518. 

They took us to our dormitories - boys to the right of the dining hall, and girls to the left. Everything was well-laid out. The ones who were ill were wheeled to the sick bay. They showed us our beds before ushering us into the bathrooms to have our baths. They gave us new clothes, the kind of clothes we wore only at Christmas back in Nigeria. Afterwards, they took us to the dining hall for breakfast. Other Biafran children who had arrived weeks before us were already seated. They served us tea, bread and butter, one boiled egg and grilled delicious meat ball. Wow! It was like living in wonderland and we devoured the food like hungry lions. They must have realized we were still jet lagged because after breakfast they took us to our respective dormitories to continue our sleep. 

From the next day they tried to get us into a rhythm. After breakfast the healthy ones among us would sit in every available place in the compound and sing till about 10 a.m. They taught us some Biafran songs. That aroused a lot of nostalgia in me because I remembered the last thing my father told me - “You are going to a foreign land, who is going to treat you like your mum?” That statement kept echoing in my head and once we started singing I would start crying, “Mama, mama, mama.” There was a very young chaperon called Miss Uche, and she invented a song because of me, ‘o be akwa a ma nli osikapa. K’ome, o malu ife o g’eme k’ome – the cry baby will not eat rice. If he knows what to do let him do it.” After singing they gave us snacks. It was usually tea and biscuit, bread and butter, or this one that looked very much like our Nigerian pap. By 1.00 p.m. we went for lunch. The girls sat to the left and the boys to the right. After lunch we went for siesta. It was at Saint-Andre that I learnt the word siesta. It was supposed to last for one hour but they let us sleep for two hours.

After siesta we would assemble again and start singing or playing. By 6.00 p.m. we went for dinner. Sometimes they gave us macaroni and corned beef, or rice and soup made with beef or fish. It was very tasty food. There was this French man who brought a giant fish every morning for our lunch or dinner. Sometimes we had garri. The cook was Gabonese so the kind of soup he was making was not the kind we were used to in Biafra. But we gladly ate it with garri.

We were sleeping a lot. We slept from the time we finished dinner till 6.00 a.m the following day. It soon became routine so that in the morning we didn’t need to be woken up. We would take our bath and go to the dinning hall. We all had our seats allocated to us from the first day and we retained the positions till our last day in Gabon.

The upper level of St. Andre comprised of the Reverend Father's residence and the parish offices. The ground floor housed our dormitories, sick bay, dining hall, and a kitchen. There was a temporary mortuary in the basement of the building. A brand new football pitch was also constructed in front of the classroom blocks. There was a sick bay which could accommodate up to thirty kids.

When we arrived Saint-Andre there were no classrooms but when they felt we had regained our strength they decided to build some fabricated classrooms on the east side of the sick bay. We had the kindergarten, the Elementary 1, the Elementary 3 and 4, which were the biggest classes, and the Elementary 5. There were children from Cross River, Ogoni, Port Harcourt, and a few from across the Niger, that is Ka-Ibo. They set an exam to gauge our academic abilities and the age-appropriate class for each child. They tested us mostly in Igbo language, Reading, Math, Simple English, and Spelling. Initially, I was placed in Elementary 3 but over time I was moved to 4. By 1969/70 I was still in 4. Those in 4 and 5 were doing the same subjects, except in a few cases. We had the big boys and girls among us. I remember one Jerome Ilechukwu. He was the biggest among us, about fifteen or sixteen years, with a very deep baritone. We used to tease him a lot and say, “You should be in Biafra fighting.” We had Etim Osodion from Oron. We had Eunice Anekwe from Ogidi. Her younger brother Tagbo Anekwe was in Elementary 2 or 3. There was one Sylvester Nwanna from Imo state, who had his sister in Kindergarten. He was very intelligent so they moved him to Elementary 4. Those in Elementary 3 sat to one side of the class whole those in 4 and 5 sat on the other side. Even though I was a small guy I was the best in English Language and other subjects. These were qualities I never had in Biafra. When visitors came to see us I would be the person to read a book to them. At a point there was a French Reverend Sister who was coming from St. Marie to teach us French for two hours. We started catching up and before I came back to Nigeria I was speaking French fluently.

We were also doing what was called General Knowledge and some of the things we were being taught were the names of the official centers where Biafran children were quartered. It was drilled into us every day and night. It was important for them to drill the figures into our heads because at that point we constituted the largest Biafran community in Gabon, and they thought it was important that we know ourselves and how many we were. We even started having inter-center visits and playing inter-center soccer. So, apart from Saint-Andre with one hundred and sixty (160) children, there were three other major refugee centers in Libreville: St. Marie with five hundred and fifty [550] children, La La-la with four hundred and fifty (450) children, and the largest center, Onze kilometer, with two thousand, two hundred and twenty-six (2,226) children. I may have slightly missed a few numbers considering that the official number of kids in Gabon was three thousand, three hundred and ninety (3,390), even after kids previously sent to another city – France Ville - were returned and redistributed to the other centers in Libreville. With this number of Biafran children in Gabon, they were telling us that if the war stretched too far they could draft us to join the forces if we became old enough to do so. That was the story being spread about. To me it was far-fetched. That means the war would have lasted for close to fifteen years.

As soon as classes started things got more organized. We started taking our snacks in the classrooms. When it was time for recess we went out and came back. All classes ended by 1.00 p.m. and we lined up and marched to the refectory. After lunch we had siesta. We were no longer allowed to sleep as much as we used to do when we first arrived Libreville. We had other activities to fill up the time. By 2.00 p.m. we got up, brushed our teeth and went for evening classes, singing lessons, or catechism for the Catholics.

St. Andre had a resident priest and every Sunday we went to mass. It was said in French and that’s how we started learning French, even before it was incorporated into our school curriculum. An Anglican priest was coming every Sunday from Biafra. Father Godwin Ukwuaba, from Ovoko in Nsukka, came in from Rome, and lived in the residence upstairs. He was also the chaplain for St. Marie, Onze kilometre and La-lala. He was a very good man and eager to see us through. He started organizing catechism and taking us through the doctrines. It was under him that the first Holy Communion was organized in 1968. It was at that point I made up my mind to become a Catholic. My mind was impressionistic and I felt that anyone who could go to such an extent to provide not just for me...you need to see the number of children who were dying and taken to the mortuary for onward transmission to Biafra...it had such a big impact in my life. When I indicated my intentions to change to Catholicism, I wrote to my parents. My mum wrote back and said I could change on the condition I didn’t change my name from John. Armed with this letter I went to the priest and started attending the Catechism classes. It was when I came back to Nigeria in 1970 that I fully changed.

That wasn’t the first time I wrote to my parents. They had a way of sending letters to Biafra and I was able to provide an address. The first time I wrote to them, I heard my mother made a scene, telling everybody she had taken me for dead. It became a ritual and they would reply telling me who was alive and who was dead. This attempt to write letters on my own increased my curiosity to learn and improve. A few months before our departure from Gabon I stopped writing to them because the channel to send letters became closed.

We had a full complement of Biafran chaperons, teachers, Gabonese workers, nurses and doctors to attend to us. One Dr. Brady, an Irish medical doctor, was flown in from Ireland to be with us. She was with us for about one and half years before she left for Biafra. The general overseer of St. Andre was living upstairs with her children at a time. She supervised the teachers, dining hall managers, and other workers. Many of these workers were single. Some got married to Biafran men in Libreville. Some married Biafran folks in the United States and left. These ladies are part of the Biafran story. They had a sense of obligation and treated us like their own children. We started having male chaperons after the war in 1970. Some were Biafran soldiers who were fortunate to escape the war. They just came in to fill up the spaces our fathers could have filled. You could see they were hardened war fighters so they came in with the mind-set that we need to be men and not kids. They were really hard on us.

There were also some Irish sisters at the center. One of them was Sister Mary Aloysius, and she must have been in her 70’s. She had lived in Igbo land so she spoke a little Igbo. She was very warm, a holy soul, motherly. Her presence alone gave us a lot of comfort. She taught us sometimes and brought us religious books. Wherever she found out our parents were she procured salt and other stuff and sent to them. She was always encouraging me, telling me I would go places. If she’s dead now she’ll be in heaven. She was the closest person I had in those days, and when she left for Ireland I cried. I felt as though my second mother had been taken away from me. Her departure was so sudden but she wrote to us when she got to Ireland. 

On Wednesday evenings a French priest came to show us films. They were showing us war films.

We went to the beaches every Saturday wearing our swimming trunks. On the way we’d be singing our favorite war songs. We were used to streams and rivers and the first time I sighted the Atlantic Ocean I marveled. If we didn’t go to the beach we went to St. Marie for carpentry lessons.

With this routine we knew what to expect - day to day, week to week - for all the years we lived at Saint Andre.

--- Johnny Abada 

(Cover photo shows St. Marie Cathedral, one of the churches used to house refugees during the Nigeria-Biafra war.)

 

LIVING IN SAINT-ANDRE REFUGEE CENTER, GABON - A FO...
LIVING IN SAINT- ANDRE REFUGEE CENTER, GABON - A F...

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Sunday, 22 May 2022

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