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.