Monday, October 19, 2009

Back Home Again in…Nigeria

You can go home again.

In 1969, I flew north from Kano to Cairo, after completing my Red Cross work during Nigeria’s civil war, on my 25th birthday.

A few weeks ago, I returned to Nigeria, carrying my Medicare card.

This time, I attended a conference in Abuja where I spoke about my war-time experiences, using my book, War Stories: A Memoir of Nigeria and Biafra, and my libretto for the opera, “Biafra.” I was pleased to have my presentation so well received, especially by those who had lived through the war, inside Biafra, fleeing from the shrinking front lines.

I had hitchhiked through the 1969 version of Abuja on my long, long journey from Lagos, then the capital, to Maiduguri in the far northeast. In the intervening 40 years, Abuja had changed from a very small city to the country’s capital, mushrooming, by some statistics, to 1.5 million inhabitants.

The Indianapolis Star published some of my observations about the return visit. In the article, I described the warmth and friendliness of Nigerians and how that had not changed – I hadn’t expected it to. I told a journalist in Abuja that I have always felt “comfortable” in one of my favorite countries. I was, once again, using the snapping-finger handshake, speaking a few words of Igbo, reminiscing about Nigeria of the 1960s, comforted by the familiarity of Nigerian stews, fried plantain, and Star beer, but now in the midst of cell phones, laptops, and CNN.

If you didn’t get my email with the links to the photos I shot in Abuja and to the Indianapolis Star piece (“I Just Got Back From…..Abuja”), let me know and I’ll send them to you.

I will not be able to say, truly, how I view changes in Nigeria until I get the opportunity to re-visit Port Harcourt and nearby Eleme where I taught secondary school as a Peace Corps Volunteer and return to Elele, north of P.H., where I was stationed with the Red Cross. That, I hope, will come soon, as I am eager to see the former Eastern Region (that became, and then ceased to be, the Republic of Biafra) and to meet the people – or their relatives – in those areas where I was either a teacher or a relief worker so long ago.

Some weeks after my return home, I participated in a conference at Marquette University in Milwaukee where the sole topic was the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War. I spoke about my experiences and the participants viewed the 20-minute DVD that presents the portion of the three-act opera “Biafra” that has, thus far, been scored by composer and conductor Nathan Blume. You can view it on YouTube (it’s in three parts, to fit on YouTube, but you can easily click from 1 to 2 to 3) or go to my website,, to see that performance and, if you like, hear my remarks about the war that I made just prior to the performance. Paula Dione Ingram is the lead singer, portraying Ruth Okonkwo, a nurse in a clinic inside Biafra. Paula’s costume includes my Red Cross badge, which I’ve saved since I worked with that organization in 1968-69.

And next? The Igbo Studies Association conference at Howard University in Washington, DC, in April 2010 where, once again, I hope to discuss the civil war from my perspective (including my memories of the events leading up to secession, the day of secession, and the onset of the war).

While these conferences bring up many difficult memories for anyone involved in the war, they have been enormously encouraging at the same time. The opera has been very well received. At Marquette, many who recalled the war, including former Biafran army officers and boy soldiers, Biafran Red Cross workers, and civilians,, told me they found the performance “powerful” and looked forward to seeing the complete performance. So do I! Once we raise the funds, we will be able to complete the scoring and offer “Biafra” to opera companies everywhere.

The opera will provide a vivid, anti-war performance piece that uses stories of real people I knew to illustrate the futility of war.