The Nuns Who Almost Got Massacred

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For me, life after leaving the Hamdala Hotel in Kaduna soon switched to teaching Algebra and English at Maru Teacher Training College, south of Sokoto and north of Gusau, on the single-track line of old asphalt between those two cities, referred to as the Highway, laid down many years ago by an Irish road crew, we were told. Pot-holed and at times just plain deep mud, it was our link to the 20th century beyond Maru. The town of Maru itself, a mile off the highway, didn't even have a passable road to it, and that is where the local Emir lived. His son was in my class. Later, I would visit the Emir, and walk through his harem, in another unforgettable moment of my time in Nigeria.

The thing about Maru College was that, first of all, there was no electricity---except for about two hours in the evening, from a very old diesel generator that often failed. The propane refrigerator and our stove always needed a new bottle of propane, and the nearest groceries and proprane were a long drive away down to Gusau, a trip I made often in the rickety VW microbus left to us by Peace Corps. Before my roommate hit a cow on the road, putting the microbus out of commission, and us at the mercy of others with cars, I made that trip frequently.

Surprisingly, I discovered some other Americans in the region besides my one roommate from Group 22. They were 4 nuns from Kansas, also in their early twenties, and they operated a maternity clinic on a side road off the highway between Maru and Gusau. I naturally fell into stopping by and saying hello, getting small items in town for them, and talking American. Whew! Let your hair down and just speak freely.

In fact, they took turns cutting each others' hair, and offered to add me to their rotation. So it happened that I was having my hair cut by a nun, in the office of a maternity clinic, on the First day of October, 1966. We had the radio on, and the news we heard was not good, to say the least. There were bloody riots all over the Northern region, and guns and machetes were being used by local mobs, especially against the Ibo people who had not already left the North---for what ultimately became the state known as Biafra for a while.

We knew that there was rioting down the road in Gusau. People were dieing. We knew that, as Americans, we might be targets, since we were not locals, WE heard that this rioting appeared to stem from taking back the region for the locals, from foreigners.....primarily Ibo people, but anyone who took a job, or economic power, from those who felt it was rightfully theirs.

Soon enough that evening, my friends, the Kansas nuns, pleaded with me not to leave. They were women serving Nigerian mothers and babies, and I was the only male on the premises. That made me, instantly, the protector, the Guard, the defense. Me, the guy recently from California college life, who never owned a gun, never dueled with a sword. I was in the Peace Corps by choice, as a man of Peace. Now I was being asked to stand between an armed mob and some defenseless women, very soon.

What could I say? I was not that coward who would slink away from these friends, these honorable young women from Kansas and their patients. Slowly, I realized that I had to stay. If a mob with guns came down the lane from the highway to the clinic, we agreed that I was the one to go out and confront the mob, to say go elsewhere, to say we had nothing but help for the locals to offer. They might kill me and march into the clinic anyway.

From studying history, I knew that mobs are not logical, usually they won't respond to reason or talk, especially when they've already tasted blood--- and they had, that day, October 1, 1966. I will never forget that feeling, for the first time in my life, that I might have to die, for my principles, for my friends, for peace----right here and now. It changed me, forever.

The next 24 hours passed, nail-biting, sleepless, listening to what news the radio put out, looking down the lane nervously at the highway. The mob never came our way. I made it back to Maru and my teaching position, a changed man. Chuck Kollerer

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