Tell Your Own Story
The Flight by Sylvia WohlfarthSubmit Your Memories
It was the summer of 1966, and the beasts of war, starvation and suffering were raising their heads and slouching towards us. Back home from my first year at boarding school in Cork, I was spending my summer holidays in Nigeria.
My father, a tall, imposing man was the Nigerian Airway’s Medical Officer. He and my Irish mother had met when he was studying in Cork in the early fifties. He was one of the first black students at UCC. Against all odds, they had fallen in love, married, moved back to Nigeria and settled in Lagos where I was born.
The atmosphere in Nigeria had changed. Everything seemed different to when I was home last and although only ten, I was old enough to sense the air of oppressiveness. There was unrest in the army. On the radio were reports of Igbos being killed, at first up in the North but increasingly nearer to us in the South.
“Hundreds of Igbo soldiers and officers murdered at Ikeja barracks”, I’d secretly overheard my father whispering to my mother. The army barracks were nearby. Following an attempted coup, a curfew was announced, strange words for young ears. My increasingly worried parents were constantly on the phone. I knew something awful was going to happen. My father was Igbo.
The next day, my parents sat me down and explained that Igbos, like my father, were being treated badly because of their good education and jobs. Other ethnic groups, especially from the North, felt disadvantaged and were angry. We would have to leave our home and move into the centre of Lagos to safety. I understood. It was time to leave.
A friend of my father had offered him a flat in Lagos and a job in his clinic. We would leave the next day.
My parents left us with the housemaid to arrange the move. About an hour later the telephone rang. I was sitting in the living-room reading, my two younger brothers were playing in their room, oblivious of the danger surrounding us, and the twins asleep in their beds.
I picked up the heavy black receiver thinking it was my parents. I’ll never forget the eerie male voice enquiring about the whereabouts of my father and who I was.
“The oldest daughter, and my father’s out.”
“But should be back soon” I quickly added.
“What a shame.” he seemed to lick his lips. “Never mind, we’ll get him later, but now we’ll come to kill you all first.”
And with a sinister chuckle, he hung up.
I was paralyzed. Freeze or run? What to do, where to go, who to trust? I decided to run. Terrified, but with an inherent drive for survival, I called my brothers and got the twins out of bed. I told them we were going to do something exciting and rushed them out of the house. We ran across the back garden and crawled under the wired fence to the house next door, with me pushing and pulling the twins as fast as I could. The house was deserted, I knew, our neighbours had already left.
We ran into the servants’ quarters, a simple one-storied building at the end of the garden. My brothers and sister, as young as they were, must have sensed the urgency in my voice and unquestionably followed all my instructions.
The room was dark and hot. How was I going to keep them quiet, the twins were only three? I told them we were going to play a trick on our parents. We’d have to keep very quiet until they got back and find us gone. They’d go looking for us and we’d rush back and give them a big surprise. Thrilled with the idea they somehow managed to keep still, suppressing their giggles for the following tortuous minutes.
My heart never stopped thumping, and almost stopped beating every time I heard a car in the distance. As frightened as I was, I still couldn’t imagine anybody ever wanting to kill little children.
About twenty minutes later, we heard the crunching sound of a car driving slowly up our gravel driveway and stopping. Doors slammed followed by an ominous silence. I waited for the sound of soldiers ransacking our house and searching for us. A moment of ultimate terror. Keeping my head, I put my fingers to my lips warning the children now to be even quieter. Thankfully, we heard the anxious voices of my parents calling us. We rushed back home thrilled at the prank we had played. My joy though was different. Grabbing only essentials, we left our house as fast as we could, and I never saw it again.
Life in the city, high up in an apartment building was boring. I missed my girlfriends and our colourful garden with its huge trees.
The nights, humidly hot were interrupted by the ineffectual whirring of the fan and the strange loud noises of the city. No longer the comfort of the crickets or cooling air conditioner, instead, the far-off sounds of rhythmic drumming, the incessant hooting of cars and the early call to prayers on the loudspeakers.
From our haven, I would sometimes look down and spy on the activities of the people living in a maze of tiny corrugated roofed huts below us. A life of poverty and daily survival. I watched mothers straddled around little fires, roasting groundnuts and corn. Their barefoot children laughing and playing chase. Or being heartlessly bathed and scrubbed in the evenings, in the cleansing ritual of cold water and soap. I wondered if they were hungry and whether they went to the doctor when they were ill?
I saw naked men and women washing themselves in small side enclosures with buckets of water, soap and pads of straw. All this and more became my Rite de Passage that Summer of 1966.
A few weeks later it was time to go back to Ireland. Too dangerous for my father to take me to the airport, it was decided my mother, accompanied by an Irish priest friend, would take me. Independent of religious beliefs, Irish priests were regarded with great respect, and for us, a blanket of safety. It was thanks to the Irish missionaries that my grandfather became an educated Catholic and gave up his traditional rights to kingship and polygamy.
The journey to the airport was harrowing and the road strangely deserted. We went through many roadblocks manned by surly-faced soldiers brandishing ethnic scars and huge machine guns. Sometimes we were waved through with a show of deference to the white faces in the front seats. Other times, we were stopped and soldiers would peer searchingly into the car and check the boot, bathing in the power our dread gave them. Curled up in the back seat I was hardly noticed. Weren’t they killing Igbos? Wasn’t I half-Igbo? My mother’s reassuring words did little to comfort me. But then, wasn’t I a child, and safe?
At the airport, I felt again the fear of the day of the phone call. The atmosphere was humidly harsh, and, worsened by the scorching heat, tempers were short. Hordes of brown khakied soldiers were checking to hear if anybody was speaking Igbo and if caught, would unmercifully punish them. A female vendor was seized, dragged from her stall and beaten with horsewhips. She was screaming.
Why couldn’t we help her? I looked at my mother, her face was pale and drawn, a sense of foreboding had crossed it. It was then a sudden realization came over me, these soldiers had no pity and would certainly kill children. I started trembling. My mother hurried me over to where the priest was explaining to a soldier, blocking the terminal entrance, that it was only me, the child, who was leaving. Amusing himself at the plight of the woman being mercilessly lashed, the soldier let us through ignoring my passport with my Igbo name.
My mother accompanied me into the departure lounge and handed me over to the supervision of an air-hostess.
Suddenly, in a burst of emotion, my normally composed mother began to cry and hugged me not wanting to let me go. It was as if she’d foreseen our family’s fate. I re-assured her, I liked boarding school and was looking forward to seeing my friends. Her tears embarrassed me, there was no need to cry. I’d made it and soon I’d be on the plane and out of the menacing heat. The thought of finally being on board gave me a feeling of security. I was leaving unfamiliar terrain where friendliness had given way to fear and distrust. I walked onto the plane, glancing around one more time to see my mother waving from the terminal.
Back in Ireland, I spent the following three summer holidays lying in the field behind my grandmother’s house gazing up into the sky, watching the planes from nearby Cork Airport hovering over the house. I often wondered whether my family would return from the Biafran war in one of those planes or, if one would ever take me back home again?
(c) Sylvia Wohlfarth
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