Nigeria too long ago

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Nigeria too Long Ago

Pat O’Reilly ((16) 65–67

We were so young. Perhaps too young and inexperienced to have that sensibility to understand our own experiences.

Plucked from my Bronx Irish family I was placed in the town of Bori, Ogoni, Eastern Nigeria; on a tarmac road that lead to Port Harcourt or the Calabar River. How do you absorb, learn, and understand a world so distant from St. Benedict’s parish in the Bronx? And why was I in an Ag Rd group? I know the Peace Corps said they could make BA generalists into anything, but this placement was not what I had expected!

Classroom discussions of Nigerian culture and history. Language classes in Igbo and pidgin. A day at a college farm in East Lansing to learn animal husbandry. There I was at Michigan State University with 70 other guys training to become an Agricultural and Rural Development Officer. Part of Nigeria XVI, the second Ag Rd group to go to Nigeria. It was 1965.

How do I, now 38 years later, measure that experience. Was it work mixed with Star beer, jolof rice, lasting friendships? Or learning how people with limited resources and skills looked for ways—looked to me to make their lives and their villages better. Or trying to explain why I had come from so far away to help them, and, no, I was not a priest like Fr. Gallaher. Was Nigeria a safe harbor while others, at home, were questioning our country’s role in the world? Like many RPCVs I have harbored a sense of guilt that my friends and co-workers in Bori gave me so much more then I could ever give to them. And still that debt goes unpaid.

The last months in Eastern Nigeria were shadowed by a looming civil war —road blocks with armed soldiers became common. Newspaper articles appeared daily, with Igbo spokesmen claiming their region’s wealth was being taken from them. But we were young. Americans. We had no fear of how a war could possibly affect us. Then the call came to pack and leave for Enugu immediately. War was imminent and we were no longer safe.

Our group had just about finished our two years. All our possessions, including gifts of thanks from friends and well-wishers had been sent ahead to Port Harcourt. (Not to be seen again.) So, we left; Ogoni to Enugu, passing multiple roadblocks with armed soldiers inspecting passengers and barking orders to drivers, and then on to Lagos. Most of my fellow volunteers headed off to Europe, while civil war began to ravage ‘our’ country. Was this the beginning of the spiral that resulted in massacres, famine, military dictatorships, increasing massive poverty and personal wealth? Of dashed hopes? It is hard to image the kind souls we knew being caught up in that constant chaos.

Pat and Margie in 1998
Pat and Margie in 1998

Which Nigeria do we carry with us today? If any. Has it shaped our consciousness? Would I have become involved in a series of careers related to community development and public health without these experiences? Experiences that seemed to say, “Anything is possible—but do not put all your hopes into expecting things will all change for the better. WAWA.

The Peace Corps may not have changed a country. It did change lives. It did affect me. As time becomes more precious. As I open the FON Newsletter, and turn to the back, and then am grateful if I do not see another name I remember from a time that is not lost. I know that after those two years, I was no longer that kid from the Bronx. I was different and better. I have more recently understood the mark these experiences had on me. Profound? Hard to say. My life has been too ordinary too simple, to justify using a term like profound. A marker. A time that allowed me to understand choice. A time that has enabled me to see myself reflected in the friendships of others and realize I could do more. An enduring mark on a kid from the Bronx. And there is still time to deal with that guilt.

Pat O’Reilly is married to Margie Haynes O’Reilly (10) 64–66, and now work’s for a Federal welfare program in the state of Massachusetts.

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