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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.

A Music Colossus Dies

B_20200702-184210_1 Berkley Jones Ike

A post on Berkley Jones Ike’s Facebook wall was one of three stories that birthed the idea of My Biafran Story project. 

It was in June 2016, the 49th anniversary of the start of the Nigeria-Biafra war (1967-1970). Facebook was vibrating with talk about Biafra, and Ogo Ifey-Ibeme had shared photographs of her parents’ wedding in the thick of the war. Earlier on, Chibuihe Achimba had talked about how his parents met in a Biafra refugee camp.

A few weeks later, it was Berkely’s birthday and someone posted a tribute on his wall. I don’t remember the author but he was recounting Berkley’s role in a music group that toured Biafra during the war and later on, in Lagos. Part of the tribute said, in these exact words, ‘...As the war raged, the music played.’ 

I won’t ever forget this sentence. I was intrigued; I didn’t know people played gigs during wars. I wanted to find out more, but how do I go about it? A few days later, I summoned up courage and sent him a Facebook message asking if he’d like to tell me about his experiences playing music during a war. I included my phone number in the message. He called me immediately. I didn't expect that. We had been friends on Facebook for some time but had never communicated outside the platform. We spoke for a long time as he recounted his story. I reminded him I wasn’t recording and would like to schedule a proper interview. But he declined, saying he was not good at remembering details. However, he knew people who would be glad to speak to me about that time. He gave me a list of names and so, on January 4, 2017, one of those contacts, Chyke Maduforo, a member of the original Funkees group, became the first person to grant me a full interview for my Biafran story project. Read the story here: http://mybiafranstory.org/index.php/read-stories/the-entertainers/music-in-a-time-of-war-part-1.html 

On Sunday 28th June, 2020, Berkely posted a photo of his son whose birthday it was on that day. I reacted with the love button. Less than 24 hours later, Facebook started buzzing with news of his death. 

What a shock! 

I didn’t realize how great his legacy was until his death. I didn’t know how much of an impact he made in the music scene, including at the international level. I have since read the tributes on his timeline and some of the comments after them. I have watched Youtube videos of him. I have marvelled at his talent. I feel privileged to have known him. 

This is my public thanks and acknowledgement of the role he played in My Biafran Story project. My sincere condolences to his family.

 Rest in peace, sir.

 

 

 

 

 

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STORIES BY PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEERS

STORIES BY PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEERS Photo Credit - Internet

The story of Biafra will not be complete without the accounts of United States Peace Corps Volunteers in Nigeria.

The Peace Corps Program was created in 1962 by the United States government to provide social and economic development to developing countries of the world through the skills of its volunteers. These volunteers were expected to deploy their education and experience in their host communities, working in government, education, community health, agriculture, technology, and in other spheres, while also promoting understanding between the United States and their host communities.

Many of these volunteers lived in the eastern part of Nigeria when the war broke out in July 1967. Three years later, Biafra capitulated, and on 9 January 1970, General Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu fled to Ivory Coast after handing over power to Major-General Philip Effiong. On January 15, 1970, at Dodan Barracks, Lagos, Major-General Philip Effiong announced the end of the Nigeria-Biafra war in the presence of General Yakubu Gowon. He said, “I, Major-General Philip Effiong, Officer Administering the Government of the Republic of Biafra, now wish to make the following declaration: That we affirm that we are loyal Nigerian citizens and accept the authority of the Federal Military Government of Nigeria. That we accept the existing administrative and political structure of the Federation of Nigeria. That any future constitutional arrangement will be worked out by representatives of the people of Nigeria. That the Republic of Biafra ceases to exist.”

And so, Biafra ceased to be.

Many people remained in the former Biafra while others went back to their bases in other parts of the country. Some aid and religious organizations had been thrown out by the Nigerian government. Others, such as the Peace Corps, had recalled their workers. They had given volunteers a few hours to pack up their belongings, say good bye to their friends and colleagues, and report at a central base from where they were evacuated out of Nigeria. Some volunteers, like David Koren and Tom Hebert, would return to work on the Airlift from Sao-Tome. Fifty years after, some of these former volunteers  have shared their Biafran stories with me.

To commemorate the end of the war and honour the services of these men and women, their stories will be published here starting from January 11, 2020.

Documenting the stories of survivors is the core idea of this project and we hope that each story in the collection adds to our understanding of the Biafran experience from the perspective of those who lived it.

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My Photo Book

mybiafranstory.org Photo Credit - Vivian Ogbonna

My book finally arrives, courtesy of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

On October 4, during their ‘Ask An Archivist Day’ Facebook event, I had asked the ICRC about the Biafran children airlifted to Gabon, Ivory Coast, São Tomé, and even Europe, at different times during the war. I wanted to know about their journeys from Biafra, their lives in the host countries, and what became of them after they returned to Biafra. They referred me to the Chief Archivist who in turn suggested I visit the ICRC library in Geneva to get the information I wanted.

A few days later, I received a message saying I had won a book on account of my inquiries.

I didn’t go to Geneva, but since that day I have dug up a lot of information from the internet about the Biafran Airlift. I have found a couple of the airlifted ‘children’ and brave individuals who flew those dangerous missions that brought supplies into Biafra and, when necessary, evacuated vulnerable children to safety. Some of them have agreed to share their Biafran story with me.

The internet is truly an amazing place!

 

 

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Two Days In Athens

mybiafranstory.org Photo Credit - Vivian Ogbonna

In the beginning.

In March 2017 I had seen a post on Facebook announcing a conference called ‘Biafra’s Children, A Gathering of Survivors.’ I sent a message to the convener telling him about the project I started to document eye witness accounts of the Nigeria-Biafra war. All I wanted was visibility for the project through their website and any related publications. But a couple of emails and days later, I was invited to participate at the conference. It was a memorable two days in Athens.

 Wednesday; 28th June, 2017.

I am sitting alone at the departure lounge waiting to board my flight to Istanbul. My feelings are wavering between excitement and apprehension. The flight is scheduled for 11.40 pm but we eventually leave an hour later.

There are no dramas on board, except that the seat next to me has been taken over by a pregnant woman with a different seat number. The rightful owner of the seat is not very happy but the Air Hostess settles it quickly and we are assigned new seats.

It is morning, and a different world, when we arrive in Turkey. While looking for my boarding gate, I get acquainted with three Nigerians travelling to Belarus. Afterwards, I look for a place where I can rest and observe my surroundings.

I’m captivated by the way Turkish women dress. There are many groups of children around and I wonder where they are all headed to. There are many Muslims too, all clothed in white. I think they are going to perform the Hajj. It’s a long wait and I find myself seated opposite a group of French Muslims – some black, others Arab – travelling together. They speak little English and I speak little French, but we make conversation, clumsily, with a lot of hand gestures. The young man beside me says he wants to marry me. We both laugh. I think he’s just teasing. We all talk some more and I eventually take my leave to locate my gate. I am glad I left  because my flight is almost boarding. I have been looking at my phone which is still indicating Nigerian time.

**** 

Thursday; June 29, 2017.

Two hours later we are in Athens.

A stocky man with a prominent nose is holding up a piece of white paper with my name on it. I flash a smile and he smiles back.

Are you George, I ask.

I already know his name from the mail I was sent with a list of contact and support persons for the conference. He loads my suitcase in his car and as we drive away he apologises about the weather. There’s a heat wave in Athens and temperatures are above 35 degrees today. We talk about their economy and the refugee crisis. I feel as though I’ve been here before – the roads, the plants and hedges, the ‘Okada’ and its rider at the traffic junction are all familiar.

I ask him about the island of Corfu, a magical place I had read about in ‘My Family and Other Animals,’ by Gerald Durrell. He says his father is from Corfu and he can take me there if I want. I want to but I can’t. The conference schedule is tight.

I want to know about Skopios, Aristotle Onassis’s island. He lets out a laugh. You know Onassis? Yes, I say, I have read a lot about him – his stupendous wealth, his famous yatch named after his daughter, Cristina and especially, his marriage to Jackie Kennedy. George’s smile grows wider as I speak.

He points out landmarks and even parks on the highway for me to take photographs of the city – a sea of white buildings with brown roofs. He drops me off at President Hotel, still smiling and waving.

The Greeks are warm and friendly.

****

I try to nap but I can’t. So I go down to the lobby where I recognize some of the other participants. We get acquainted.

An event has been fixed for this evening. It’s a visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art to see Olu Oguibe’s Time Capsule of books and memorabilia from the Biafran war. He’s the convener of the Biafran Children’s Conference and one of the participating artists of documenta14.

I am tired and my ears are aching. But I’m glad I attended. There are jaw-dropping installations by other artists. It’s incredible what the human mind can conceive.

Afterwards we climb to the roof top. The sun is setting but we can see the city spread out before us. The Acropolis is in the distance and on the walls of a building somebody has written, ‘Welcome and Enjoy the ruins.’

Dinner turns out to be a spread of salads, bread, sardines, olive oil and other fare I barely recognize. There’s wine too. The Greeks love their salads and wines. Afterwards, the others want to go to a Nigerian restaurant. I even hear somebody mention Isi Ewu. It sounds interesting but all I want to do is nurse the ache in my left ear.

Faith and I take a taxi back to the hotel.

Sleep comes easily.

****

Friday; June 30, 2017.

Nigerians will say, ‘Traveling without sight-seeing, is that one traveling?’

I am determined to make the most of the two days, so after breakfast, I disappear. First, to documenta14 Press Office, to edit my presentation. And then to the tourist area around the Kidathineon and Adrianou. Tourists are milling about. The paved, narrow streets are lined on both sides by faded white buildings housing shops and cafes. There’s planting everywhere. Artefacts, clothes, books, jewellery, house hold items and much more are on sale. The ambience is traditional and modern all at once.

I hurry from shop to shop, taking in the sights, taking photos, asking questions. This particular shop keeper has a toothy smile. He’s tanned a dark brown and has an accent that sounds American. I am curious. He says the British think he’s American while the Americans thinks he’s British. We both laugh. English is my default language, perhaps that’s why you sound American to me, I say. He tells me he’s Greek, grew up in South Africa and lived in the US. He wraps my purchase while we chat some more.

The entire tour takes me about one hour. The conference starts in a couple of hours.

I head out to the taxi stand but first, something cold to drink. And a selfie.

The speakers at tonight’s event are Olu Oguibe, Okey Ndibe, EC Osondu, Faith Adiele, Phillip Effiong, Obi Okigbo.

 

 

****

Saturday; July 1, 2017.

Butterflies are fluttering in my stomach. I will them to stop.

We have planned to see some of Greece’s cultural and historical sights, and after breakfast we set off for the Acropolis, an ancient citadel that sits above the city of Athens. It’s one of Athens’ most popular tourist attractions and houses the ruins of ancient temples some of which were built in 473 BC. The most popular is the Pathernon which is dedicated to Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, war and crafts.

The ruins are engineering and architectural wonders.

Tourists are warned to thread carefully because the path leading to the ruins are worn smooth by human traffic. The sun is scorching but the place is teeming with tourists.

I am in awe the whole time.

The day flies by. The butterflies in my stomach are quiet. I think the tour of the acropolis has helped to dispel my anxiety.

 

This evening, I and Emeka Kupenski Okereke, Berlin-based visual artist, photographer and film maker will talk about the work we are doing to preserve the memories of Biafra, mine through stories and his, through images and films. Our session is called ‘Generations and Legacies; Retrieving Biafra’s Memories.’

We arrive at Parko Eleftherias. Group photos are taken. Sound checks and everything else in order.

“Who is going first?” I ask.

“You,” Emeka says.

“No, you,” I say.

We both laugh.

I take my place, reluctant to make eye contact with the audience lest I see the disappointment on their faces. I start to speak, telling them how it all started in 2016 – the Facebook posts that ignited my interest and my resolve to look for survivors, to document their experiences, to help break the silence about Biafra.

I talk about some of the stories in the collection, about the brave men and women who embody them, who bear the emotional and physical scars of war, whose lives demonstrate the resilience of the human spirit.

When I finish, I hear applause. There are questions from the audience and Emeka takes his turn.

It wasn’t as scary as I thought.

 

Afterwards, as we interact with the audience, two ladies walk past me on their way out. I thank them for coming and give each of them a hug. A few minutes later, I see them back in the hall and walking towards me. One of them says they have something to tell me. We find a seat.

She tells me their family had lived in Lagos but when the war started they fled. They say their father is still alive and would be delighted to talk to me. I am leaving the next day but I ask if I can come over in the morning. They won’t be in, she says, so we exchange phone and Skype numbers. I thank them for reaching out and promise to call.

Dinner was a big deal – lots of food and laughter. Afterwards, those who had early flights to catch left. The rest of us strolled back to the hotel which was close by. The lobby was empty of guests so we sat there, gisting, till about 3.00 am. We were all tired and sleepy, but ‘goodbye’ is a difficult word.

****

Sunday; July 2, 2017.

My head is foggy but I drag myself to the bathroom.

My flight is by 3.35 pm.

Most of the others have left, so it’s just me and Faith. She’s a teacher and memoirist and the first day we arrived I told her about my journey into writing.

Breakfast is the usual spread – varieties of breads, cakes, cheese, butters, eggs, bacons, fruits, cold and warm beverages. I’m happy to see Faith at the restaurant and we agree to meet at the swimming pool in an hour’s time.

The pool is located on the 21st floor and a few people are lounging around on deck chairs. Others are in the water. Coming from the tropics, I am used to high temperatures, but this is extreme. In spite of it, I wonder why anybody would want to sit or swim under such intense heat. Then I remember they may be coming from places where sun is a luxury.

Faith and I chat a bit and I take photographs. The height is dizzying but the view is great – buildings look clustered, streets are barely-discernible, awnings provide dashes of color to a landscape of mostly-white houses and brown roofs.

We say our good byes.

****

Back in my room, my suitcase is packed. I have a few more hours on my hands and I contemplate dashing out to explore the neighborhood. But I realize I am still sleepy. I fall into bed fully clothed. Sometime later I jump up in a panic. It’s almost 1.00 pm and George will be here by 1.30pm.

A quick look around the room confirms that everything is packed. My travel documents are in a purse slung across my body.

I’m in the lobby sending a mail when the entrance door swings open and George bounds in. He’s beaming as he approaches me. Is this all, he asks, grabbing my suitcase. I say yes and he heads out to the car. A few minutes later, we’re racing to the airport.

Did you enjoy your trip, he asks. I said I did but it was too brief. We talk some more and 30 minutes later we drive up to the lot in front of Turkish Airlines. He brings out my luggage and we shake hands. Please come back another time, he says, and bring your children with you. I tell him I will.

He enters his car and pulls away, still smiling and waving.

****

 

 

 

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The many difficulties of war – Part 2

mybiafranstory.org Photo Credit - Akachi Adimora Ezeigbo

aOn the 17th of January, 2017, Professor Akachi Adimora Ezeigbo agreed to meet with me and tell me her Biafran story.  On the 23rd of the same month, I traveled to Abakiliki in Ebonyi State to interview her. I felt a bit apprehensive as I had never met her before, but my worry proved to be needless because she was very warm and welcoming. For almost three hours we had a very enlightening discussion. And when we were done, she opened a bottle of wine, and we drank to life and health.

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The second part of this interview is presented here in a question-and-answer format.

Enjoy!!

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VO – How did life eventually return to normal for you and your family?

AAE – After the war, I went back to Queen’s school, Enugu. But Queen’s school was destroyed. There was no refectory. The dormitories had no beds, so we placed mats on the floor and slept. Those from more comfortable homes bought mattresses. There were no books and you needed to have money to register for your School Certificate or the Higher School Certificate examination. My father, who had been in government before the war, was retired compulsorily because of his war engagement. Many others were retired like that. My mum sold some of her jewelry and wrappers, sometimes to wives of Nigerian soldiers, in order to raise money for our upkeep. Many women did the same. Sometimes she sold fruits, for any money that came in was useful. Even to pay for my external examination was difficult. When my father eventually got some money – about twenty pounds – they picked his pocket at Onitsha Motor Park. Luckily, one of my teachers in secondary school, an Anglican missionary who had left Port Harcourt when the war started, sent ten pounds to me for the exams. She was very good to me because she saw the potential in me and had told my father I was university material. Else, I would have been married off after the war as many girls were. The thing is, when children have potential it’s good to nurture it. A lot of people came to marry me after the war and my father was criticized by his relations for sending his daughters back to school. But he persisted and in 1971, my sister and I got federal government scholarships purely on merit. This was in spite of the fact that we had just emerged from the devastation of a terrible war. I was even informed that my HSC result was one of the best in the country. It was amazing when the two scholarships came. That’s how we were able to go to university. My father couldn’t have coped.

My parents are late now. My sister eventually became the first professor of Mass Communication in Nigeria. Her name is Chinyere Okunna and she served in Peter Obi’s cabinet as his Chief of Staff, Commissioner for Budget and also for Information. She’s now the Dean of Social Sciences at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Akwa. One of my brothers worked in Shell and took an early retirement to live with his family in Canada. My youngest sister lives in US with her family. The one who was shell shocked is a business man. One just retired last year from the Federal Ministry of Education.

Yes, we survived the war as a family in spite of our losses – human and material.

VO – What did the deprivation, constant displacement and other traumas of war do to you?

AAE – What the war did to me was to make me a person whose heart was constantly palpitating, always worried and anxious about what will happen next.

VO – Have you been able to overcome those feelings?

AAE – Partially. It’s not as much as it was during the war and being a committed Christian has helped too. When I find myself in a painful situation, I pray and commit it to God. I have also become more mature with age and take things in my stride.

VO – What else did the war experience do to you?

AAE – It taught me that there is no situation that doesn’t have a way around it; that no problem is insoluble. You only have to think and decide what to do. Most importantly, death has been demystified. Dying doesn’t worry me anymore because I have experienced the death of many loved ones.

VO – Most survivors I’ve spoken to seem to have adjusted so well psychologically and emotionally, in spite of all the traumas they experienced. I do not sense any bitterness in most of them.  And it isn’t as though they went through therapy afterwards. What do you think accounts for this? Is it the much talked about Igbo spirit or a hardiness peculiar to Nigerians as a people?

ANSWER – Maybe it’s a Nigerian thing but most of all it’s the Igbo spirit. Igbos are very optimistic and nothing can keep them down. No matter how bad a situation is, they hope it will get better. Even the twenty pounds they gave to people after the war didn’t get to my family. My father went a number of times but the crowds were so much he decided not to depend on it. My mother never bothered. She had been a successful business woman and had a lot of money in the bank. This was the experience of many families. Yet people survived. They started struggling afresh and bounced back.

VO – What was your own personal journey to healing?

AAE – As a secondary school girl, I had written my first novel, “Tainted Custom”. Even at that time I didn’t know much about creative writing but I had a literary ambition. I still have the manuscript and even though it hasn’t been published, people conducting research about my work or phases in African writing usually ask to examine it. Also, after the war, I told myself I was going to write about that terrible experience. And my PHD thesis was the first thing I wrote about the war. It was based on the literature of the Nigerian civil war and published as a book in 1991. Its title is Fact and Fiction in the literature of the Nigerian Civil war and it explores the fictional accounts; the non-fictional accounts written by the generals; the speeches by Odumegwu Ojukwu and Yakubu Gowon; the books by Green, Forsythe, Uwechue, Mezu, etc, and, of course, other imaginative literatures on that war. While writing that thesis, I was weeping. I was remembering my own experience and all those children who died of Kwashiokor. Roses and Bullets is the latest book I have written on the war. I don’t have any pain any longer. It has become totally purged and I only look at it as a historical experience which I have learned some lessons from. I have another novel, Children of the Eagle, and a short story, The war’s untold story. So, writing was a purgation and very therapeutic.

VO – Do you think enough literature has come out of that crisis? And what do you think about the quality of what has been written?

AAE – If there’s any aspect of Nigerian history that has been properly documented in writing, especially literature, the Nigerian civil war is the one. There’s been so much in terms of books, novels, short stories, plays, poetry collections, memoirs and essays. Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Cyprian Ekwensi, Gabriel Okara, John Munonye, Elechi Amadi, Femi Osofisan, Chimamanda Adichie, Ben Okri, Mabel Segun and her daughter, Omowunmi Segun, Kole Omotosho and many others have all written works based on the war. More books are still coming out. People have been organising conferences and seminars about the war. Some are collecting eye witness accounts such as the one you’re working on now.

VO – Do you think this body of work truly represents the narratives of that war?

AAE – Yes, especially because people are writing from different perspectives – gender, historical, political, pro-Biafra, anti- Biafra, and so on.

VO – Are people reading these works? Do people even know they exist and if they do, are they easily accessible?

AAE – Nigerians are not reading enough. I am in the habit of asking people if they have read certain books I feel they ought to have read. So I mention a title and ask, “Have you read this book?” and the response will be, “No, I haven’t.” “How could you not have read this book?” I ask further. It’s disheartening. The reading culture in Nigeria is nothing to write home about.

VO – Let’s go back to the post-war years. In your opinion, how did the war affect the Igbo society, culturally and otherwise?

AAE – In the pre-war Igbo society, there was a lot of honesty, integrity and hard work. But the war swept away our culture, our values and morals. Many young men went into armed robbery. People had become extremely poor and Biafran money was useless. Even the twenty pounds they promised, how many got it? It was also at this time they declared the indigenisation policy where other ethnic groups bought shares in companies as foreigners withdrew. Most Igbos didn’t have money to make such investments and that is the root of the lack of industrialization we see in our society, for example. We also had more Igbo women becoming promiscuous. Some went away with soldiers just to survive. Only few families who were working and receiving salaries were able to send their children back to school.

VO – The Afia Attack was very important during the war because it ensured that supplies of scarce commodities found their way into Biafra which was blockaded by the Nigerian government. Many of the traders were women because many adult men were either fighting in the war or in hiding.  Some people have said that this helped to set the Igbo woman on the path of becoming more emancipated, assertive and business minded. Do you think this claim is correct? Again, in what ways do you think the Afia Attack affected the women who took part in it?

AAE – I don’t agree with that assertion because Igbo women have always been very vibrant traders. N’obodo anyi, onwere ihe a n’a kpo ‘o jebere afo lo nkwo.’ It describes women who go to trade in other towns and return home after several days. These would be mature women who didn’t have babies or young children at home. This was also one of the reasons men were polygamous so that when one woman is not there, another will be. My mother was an astute business woman in the 50’s and 60’s. Even in the early traditional agrarian societies, when a man was planting yam his wife would be planting cassava or melon seeds or vegetables. So Igbo women have never folded their hands in idleness.

However, what the Afia Attack might have done was to open women’s eyes to wider circles and types of businesses. But it was not the catalyst. And again, some people have said it affected morality because some of these women were said to have been sleeping with the soldiers they met on the way. Others were no longer willing to subject themselves to being wives, preferring to live independently and make their own money. This is the impression you get based on the literature that has come out of that war such as Buchi Emecheta’s Destination Biafra or Flora Nwapa’s Never Again. You’ll also see that in Cyprian Ekwensi’s Survive the Peace, where a woman called Juliet abandoned her husband and went into business.

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