War is the Worst of Thieves

April 18, 2014 — 5 Comments

When I was in my last semester of graduate school two years ago, I took a course on “Rethinking Human Rights”, cause well, I had to. We were called on to write a paper of our choosing, and I decided I’d write about the Biafran War in Nigeria in the late 1960s, and how it was really the origin of the modern field of humanitarian intervention. An estimated 2 million people died in Nigeria’s bloody civil conflict, which pitted ethnic group against ethnic group, and displaced many, many more. My mother, who was 12 at the time, was one of those refugees from the war and resettled in Ghana.

I realized then I did not know much about the Biafran War. Even though my mother lived through it. Growing up, my mother would refer to that time as “the war”. Her tales to us about growing up were either “B.T.W” (Before The War) or “A.T.W” (After the War). My brother and sisters and I didn’t really press her on it to learn more. We just knew something kinda bad happened and a few people died, and then she ended up in Ghana and life went on, she went to a good school, met my dad, got married, had us, and we are awesome kids, so I always figured my mom did alright for herself in the end.

I called my mom to tell her I was writing a paper on Biafra. Just to inform her, really, nothing more than that. I told her that I had this class, and I wanted to write about Biafra, and was learning about the radio addresses of Colonel Ojukwu, the fiery leader of the Biafra secessionist movement. I told her about how I was finally learning about the massacres. How armed groups stormed trains and bludgeoned people and cut off limbs of mothers and children. How an entire region was deliberately starved, resulting in images of malnourished children with distended bellies being beamed around the world to the shock and horror of those in the West.

“I didn’t know it was that bad, Mommy.” – I said. I really didn’t know. I felt bad for not understanding. I felt guilty, in a way, that I was learning about this dark period of her life from the cushy vantage point of reading details of the events in books I checked out from my ivy league university.

“Yes, Karen…it was….you know…It was a genocide,” She said. She told me about listening to the radio addresses of Colonel Ojukwu. “Every night, she said, we’d crowd around the radio and listen to him. And he had such a powerful voice, he spoke so well….” I’d never heard her speak about this before.

“You know Karen, we had such a nice life before the war. Grandpa J. was part of the colonial finance ministry so he was respected. We were like what you might say, middle class.  We had just bought a new house and we were moving our things in, and then the war….” Her voice trailed off. Then she got angry.

“It just wasn’t fair Karen! We had a nice life. We had everything. And then everything, EVERYTHING was taken from us. We had to run and only take what we could carry and then we were in the jungles…some people had no food, eating lizards in the bushes!”

I just let her talk, just let her release. The Biafran war had taken, the war had robbed, the war had starved people out of their lives as they knew it. Like all wars tend to do, really. I didn’t know if what I was doing was good, letting her release, but I did anyway.

She talked about the air raids. The bombs that killed her classmates in school.

She talked about the dog she had growing up. The faithful dog that would follow her and her siblings to and from school every morning for years. And how on the day that they had to take everything they could carry by hand and flee, that she knew the dog would be eagerly waiting for them to return. They never returned to that house. The image of the dog waiting for a family that would never come back for him is one of the more painful images for her in her mind. (Its for that reason that my attempts to convince my parents to let me have a puppy never succeeded).

She talked about how the war interrupted her education. For a year or two, they could not go to school and had to start over when the family resettled in Ghana. “I loved books, I loved learning,” she said, but we couldn’t even go to school!”

We got off the phone, so I could finish my paper.

A few days later during another phone conversation, she told me, “You know Karen, after our conversation about Biafra, I just…I literally curled up into a ball and cried. I sobbed, like I haven’t sobbed in years.”  Here I was, listening to my mother relive painful, traumatic memories for perhaps the first time ever, all because I was writing some trivial paper for a class that I would probably get a B+ in.

I watched the movie adaptation for Chimamanda Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun a few weeks ago. For the first time, I watched a narrative of Biafra on the screen and saw what it was like to see how the war ripped apart lives. I thought of my mother throughout the whole film.

It left me to wonder, what about us who are a generation away from Biafra? How are we to speak to our grandparents, mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles who lived through such a monstrous conflict? And the personality quirks I would see in my mother growing up–were they really her or were they the scars from war? Quirks like–her clear love for animals, but her reluctance to get attached to them for fear of losing them, extreme guardedness around strangers, a sense of detachment from both Ghanaian culture and a sense of anger towards Nigeria, and her tendency to frame what I would consider normal challenges in life in terms of spiritual warfare, struggle, and victors and victims.

In a way, the Biafran War robbed me too, in disrupting my mother’s life. I’ve never been to Nigeria. The new house that my now deceased grandfather built has been sold, I think. I am disconnected from Nigeria because of my family’s displacement. At the same time, Ghana was never “home” for my mother. She learned the languages, learned to cook the foods, but Ghana were not her native home and the culture was not her culture. So in many ways, as someone who has really tried to study Africa and find out more about my roots, I feel like I’ve inherited her distance from those two worlds, and sometimes I feel a bit geographically displaced too.

War is the worst of thieves. It continues to rob for generations. But maybe talking about it can be a path to healing.




5 responses to War is the Worst of Thieves


    ????, interesting, but scary, Globally, 30/40/50/60 were four decades of Mass Extermination, it lingered on African soil another 30 years. Atleast 100 million lives wipedout because of men like him, Hitler,Stalin,Pol Pot,Mao,Chamberlin, the list goes on….Very Sad..


    In my review of African poetry, I seek out narratives such as this of poets who have directly inherited stories which to the rest of the world are just that – stories. Till today, there are Nigerians in Ghana who have settled here because of Biafra. It was a difficult war. Thanks for sharing this story.


    Lovely piece. Thanks for sharing Karen


    Wow. Where do I begin?

    This was a great piece and I can only imagine that your paper was just as awesome.
    My mother was also a young tween/teenager during “The War” as she also refers to it.

    I would hear her talk about it every now and then as I got older and she felt more comfortable talking to me about such a painful and serious experience.

    I think it was wonderful of you to let her release 🙂 That is probably why she cried her eyes out after the conversation. Not that I have any direct experience with war (fortunately), but traumatic experiences like that often don’t even afford one the luxury to be able to sit down and cry. People under such dire circumstances are often forced to just keep it moving in order to survive. And in Africa, we don’t have enough post traumatic stress care. We are often even a tad dismissive of it and aren’t provided with enough nurturing environments to truly heal.

    My mother lost a good number of family members. She even had to disguise herself as a pregnant woman so as not to be raped a couple of times. She would walk for miles just to get buckets of water for her family as she was the oldest daughter. She went through so much. Like many others.

    My dad told me that even years after the war when they were newly wed, my mother would sometimes wake up screaming still suffering from the trauma. Or she would not be able to bring herself to talk to Hausas. She would literally freeze up like if her soul would momentarily leave her body. She has since gotten a bit better thanks to her resilience, unfounded strength and the pure LOVE we all have for her – but geez!

    And it sucks! Because SOOOO many Nigerian youth don’t even know about the war. It just is never talked about. Like it happened and oh well! This is one reason why ethnocentricism between ethnic groups in Nigeria still exists. Ahhhh

    I hear you on the quirks that could have come about due to the war.
    The dog story really touched me. I hope your mother can bring herself to have a pet one day. It would be so therapeutic for her. I found that my Mum really attained some deep spiritual healing through interacting with cats. And yet she thought she “hated” them.

    Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful and heartfelt piece. I would like to share it with me mother, but I am actually afraid that I would just be reopening a tender spot for her. Does one ever truly heal from war? I hate war. I absolutely hate it. It just hurts. Everyone and rips our world apart.

    It’s people like our mothers who make me tell myself when things get “hard” that I have no real reason to complain or frown because my mother is still smiling and still going strong.God bless. I love what I have seen from your vibe so far. I’ll definitely be checking for you 🙂

    PS Sorry for the uber long comment :p


      Thank you for reading!

      I agree, so many of our parents just stopped talking about it. Millions were killed and even more displaced. I can’t even imagine the trauma my mother and other survivors suffered. I think in general, we are pretty desensitized to the ravages of war all over the world.

      It took me a while to finally share this with my mother because I was afraid it would open up old wounds. But actually, she was glad to read it. I think its comforting to our parents to know that we take the time to put a voice to their feelings, and their experiences.

      Thats awful that your mom lost family members, jeez. I just wonder, I mean does one go to therapy now for the PTSD? Would talking to an American therapist even help? I wonder if it would be helpful if there were survivors groups for them to join to just be able to talk. Or does constantly revisiting the past just prevent moving on? I don’t know!

      As to your point about pets, I had a kitten up until recently (He passed away unexpectedly last month) and I think it was therapeutic for my mother to play with him. And she swore she hated cats! I think it would be good for her to have an animal around.

      Again thank you so much, and yes, I would be curious to hear if you do share the piece, what your mother says! Feel free to email me!

      (I love long comments)


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