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FROM VOLUNTEER TO RELIEF WORKER - STORIES FROM THE PEACE CORPS

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(THIS ACCOUNT WAS SENT IN VIA E-MAIL AND IS PUBLISHED HERE IN ITS ORIGINAL FORM.)

Dear Vivian,

After so many years what I have written about my time in Nigeria during the Biafran war seems very slight but I hope it may be of some use to you. I'm always happy to answer any questions you might have, to elaborate or clarify anything if I can. Good luck with your project and please let me know the result.  

In the spring of 1966 Peace Corps group XX, which trained at the University of California of Los Angeles for two months, arrived in Nigeria where volunteers were spread throughout the east and mid-west of the country. Initially I was assigned to teach English at a manual arts cum teacher training college in Asaba but when the school closed I was reposted to a newly opened Catholic manual arts training school in Onitsha across the River Niger where I taught sewing and cooking to young girls. The school was funded and built by Father Anthony Byrne of the Holy Ghost fathers, a dynamic kindly man with a keen sense of humour, who became well known for his courage and initiative in food and medical relief flights from Sao Tome to Biafra. The supervisor for the domestic science program at the school was the bubbling, highly competent Sister Felicitas (I've forgotten her order) who also worked at the Borromeo hospital in Onitsha that was staffed by lay doctors and nuns. I later heard she dragged a water tank several miles on her own to help those in need at the height of the war.  

I had been in Nigeria not quite a year and a half when the war broke out. Tensions mounted, and one day the bridge across the Niger was closed, cutting us off from the rest of the country. There were food shortages and rumours flying that war was imminent, and a curfew was enforced. One morning a man from Peace Corps headquarters in Enugu appeared to say that I had an hour to collect a suitcase of belongings before the evacuation of PC volunteers in our sector of the eastern region of the country would begin. Those of us in Onitsha and close by crossed the Niger by boat and were met by a convoy from the US embassy headed by the consul, a Mr. Kennedy, who took two of us home to dinner. Eating shrimp jambalaya by candlelight off gold bordered plates with the US embassy seal seemed another world from what we had left behind, making the prospect of war seem unreal.   

A year and a half later when I was living in the US I was contacted by a former PC volunteer recruiting people to return to Nigeria as relief workers. I went back to Lagos in January 1969 to work for Unicef, seconded to the International Committee of the Red Cross who were coordinating relief efforts. The Nigerian civil war had been in the headlines constantly during my absence from the country, with harrowing stories of the suffering in Biafra, where I had once been, so I jumped at the chance to help. My job was to report to the head of mission in Lagos on food relief to children in areas near the border of the war, and supplied through Calabar. At this juncture most of the major relief agencies worldwide were operating in my area, such as Oxfam, Save the Children, USAID, Protestant church groups and CARE. The Catholic priests and nuns already in the country before the war stayed at their posts, except for a few such as Father Byrne.

I was stationed about 2 miles from the front in a small village that was occupied by relief agencies that used the buildings for accommodation and ware housing for relief goods, most notably the German Red Cross who had sent doctors and nurses and staff already experienced in disaster relief, all of whom seemed far better suited to their jobs than many people I met. They had their own well stocked warehouses containing donations of clothing, bedding, and much else that came from many sources from what I saw, including surprising things like patchwork quilts from the USA (I still have one I used as my bed). The German Red Cross carefully controlled the distribution of these goods, partly perhaps because of the inevitable siphoning off of so much aid that was being sold in local markets instead of being given to those in need. However, I remember feeling frustrated that we couldn't get the GRC to release more goods for distribution, even by trusted workers. There may have been corruption among the foreign aid workers, though I never heard of it. All distribution of food, medicine, clothing, etc. was supervised ultimately by Nigerian nationals, as required by the Nigerian government, so they were ultimately responsible for ensuring aid reached the people. One of the most disillusioning discoveries was the rivalry between some of the aid organizations, many of whose workers regarded aid work as a job like any other. We were all extremely well paid with all sorts of allowances apart from our generous salary, and time off for R&R.   

I reported regularly to my superior in Lagos on the problems of food distribution, mainly to children, particularly powdered milk. The problem was to instruct the mothers how to prepare it properly, in the right proportions, using boiled water so as not to cause gastric problems. I remember seeing hungry people scurrying to eat milk spilled from a lorry, scooping it up with their hands. Milk and flour which made up the bulk of food distributed where I was, quickly spoiled in the extreme heat and humidity, resulting in a lot of waste. Grain was distributed, which posed a problem of grinding, and was shipped by helicopter from Calabar. I was often on the grain run, clinging to sacks branded with the USAID logo of two hands clasping with the motto: 'gift of the people of the United States'. One of the pilots had been in Vietnam, and another was reputed to be an ex-British mercenary. One evening for his amusement he allowed his pet mandril to jump on my shoulders and run his fingers through my hair, something I'll never forget.  

Much of the food aid that came to Nigeria during the war was not fit for consumption when it arrived, and often was inedible before it was shipped. This dumping, masquerading as 'aid', served as tax write-offs for companies or corporations apparently, but it kept coming. There was certainly malnutrition in the area where I worked, but no real starvation. We ourselves lived on American army K and C rations. Some workers drove their Land rovers on bush tracks into Biafran territory and possibly helped people if they could, though this was strictly forbidden by the Nigerian government, the explanation being that it would only prolong the war. I heard stories from workers who saw abandoned burnt out villages, with bodies rotting unburied. I once crossed the border into Biafra and remember the eerie silence of a village where the houses were peppered with bullet holes which was a shocking contrast to the peace and order I remembered when I used to travel in the bush near Onitsha, driving my Volkswagen van full of equipment, including an oven devised from a kerosene tin.  

I left Nigeria after four months and returned to Europe with my husband whom I'd met during this time. He was posted back to Lagos after the war had ended, and we stayed there for seven more years, during which time I saw the beginnings of a new Nigeria.  I had the chance to return to Onitsha once, driving cross country. I could hardly recognize the school compound where I had worked which was now a bombed out shell.  My thoughts went to Father Byrne, whose life's work had literally gone up in smoke.  

--- Laura Murison

 

 

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Sunday, 22 May 2022

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