WID The World is Deep

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The World Is Deep - Peace Corps Years

David L. Koren, Nigeria 9 (1963-1966) March 2007

The first time I went to Africa the sun was rising over an endless stretch of palm trees as the Pan Am Boeing 707 banked steeply on approach to Lagos Nigeria, January 1st 1964.

The second time I went to Africa, two years later, the captain of the green and white painted Nigeria Airways/Pan Am 707 announced that we were denied permission to land at Lagos, because there had just been a military coup.

We circled for some time before we were cleared to land. Soldiers with guns watched us disembark. I was supposed to make a connecting flight to Enugu, capital of the Eastern Region, where I had been stationed for the last two years as an American Peace Corps Volunteer. I was just returning from home leave.

There were no connecting flights that day. Nobody knew what was happening. Arriving passengers were escorted to the Catering Rest House, where we were put up for the time being. While we were in the dining room all the lights went out. When the lights came on we had all stopped eating; nobody was speaking; we looked around the room at each other. Later I went to bed, in a small room, in a distant land, unable to adumbrate any sense of future.

The next day a flight was arranged to the Eastern Region. Nigeria Airways found a pilot who would fly a DC3 to Port Harcourt, but no one would risk going to Enugu. As for news of the coup, there were only rumors. One rumor had it that pilots landing in the regional capitals were being hauled off the planes and shot. Passengers were given the option of remaining in Lagos until things stabilized or risking the flight to Port Harcourt. I chose to get out of the capital and try to reach the village where I was stationed, near Umuahia, which was between Port Harcourt and Enugu.

When the plane was loaded and the doors closed, an official came running out of the terminal waving a handful of papers. The pilot, a beefy Englishman, yelled to him out of the cockpit window. “No! I’m not singing the bloody manifest! This plane is way overloaded, and I’m not taking responsibility for it!” A DC3 is a venerable old plane widely used in World War II in uncertain circumstances like this. We landed at Port Harcourt with no problems.

The airline arranged for a small bus to transport the passengers to Enugu. I got off in Umuahia and took a bush taxi – a Morris Minor - to my school, Ohuhu Community Grammar School in the village of Amaogwugwu.

The school was a proprietary school started by Dr. Michael I. Okpara, a prominent man from the village and also the Premier of the Eastern Region of Nigeria.

News began to unfold of what happened with the coup. A group of junior Army officers took over the government with the goal of ending corruption. In the process they killed a number of government officials, including the Nigerian Head of State, Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Belewa and also the Sultan of Sokoto, the religious leader of the Muslims of Northern Nigeria. The coup soon took shape along regional and religious lines. Many of the coup leaders were Igbos from the Eastern Region, while the ousted leaders were Housas from the North. General Ironsi, a Sandhurst educated soldier who had commanded the United Nations forces in the Congo, an Igbo, was installed as Head of the military government. Northerners were mostly Muslims and Southerners (Eastern and Western Regions) were predominantly Christians.

Peace Corps Volunteers got news from the local newspaper and from what we called time-n-newsweek. The international editions of Time and Newsweek were available in Umuahia, and we bought both of them from the news boys, onye akwukwo. PCVs would gather at someone’s house on the day the magazines came out and we would read them -devour them- cover to cover, including the ads, in complete silence.

After six months another coup ousted all the Igbos (Ironsi was shot, Gowon was installed) and led to the massacre of Igbo civilians in the North and a mass exodus of refugees back into the Eastern Region.

I saw this from my home in Amaogwugwu, an Igbo village. Although the school was established for the benefit of the community, students were accepted from all over Eastern Nigeria. Many were Effiks and some were from the Rivers areas near Port Harcourt and Calabar.

Trains arrived from the sabon garis of the North carrying refugees; on one there was a headless body. All of these people were absorbed into their villages of origin, even where generations had passed between those who had left and their descendants who returned. New huts were constructed and donations of food and clothing were requested. We all contributed. Although this was a great burden on the local population, it was effective in caring for the refugees. And therefore there were no refugee camps with deplorable conditions to catch the attention of the world media.

Toward the end of 1966, there was increasing talk of war. I discussed it with my students. I told them that war would be very bad. They were less concerned about it. (I read about Vietnam in time-n-newsweek; they did not). One student said, “We will fight them. If we win we will rule them. If they win they will rule us.”

Dr. Okpara hosted a send-off celebration for me and my fellow PCV, Ric Holt. Dr. Okpara conferred on us the honorary title of Bende Warrior Chieftain, along with the appropriate garments – a wrapper and jumper of fine cloth and a woven cap. Bende is a division of the Igbo people.

I stood up in my new clothes to give thanks.

“Bende kweno!”

“Ha!” (The response).

“Bende kweno!”

“Ha!”

“Enyi mba enyi!” [Footnote: I’m not sure how this translates. Enyi means elephant and mba means no, or a negation. The total phrase is an exhortation similar to Penn State fans yelling “Roar Lion Roar!”]

“Ha!”

“Enyi mba enyi!”

“Ha!”

Dr. Okpara and the other dignitaries and guests seemed amused.

In December I took my loads to Enugu for my flight home. Soldiers manned checkpoints on all the roads, looking for “contraband and spies.” At one checkpoint a lorry pulled out while a soldier was still inspecting the load. At the next checkpoint another soldier asked everyone if they had seen the “soja man.”

At this time the commercial planes were still flying between the Regions, and I left Nigeria with the memory of soldiers at airports.

WID Biafran Airlift

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