An Ephemeral Awareness — Death and the Coming of War

by Bud Abbott

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Boulevardier Bud Abbott, far right

When we arrived in Lagos, Nigeria, in January, 1966, one of the most unusual thing that we saw were tanks in the streets and soldiers behind sand bags around government buildings.  In the following days we learned that some government officials, senior military leaders and the Sultan of Sokoto had been killed during a coup d’état. It seemed strange that in a coup d’état, a religious leader would be targeted.  But we Peace Corps Volunteers, new and old, really thought very little about the coup.  Everything was new, including the form of government.  Coups were regular news in South America during those years.   After all, we were PCVs and we had a job to do, and this killing was between the military and government officials and really had nothing to do with us. West Africa was known as the white man’s graveyard. But killings and death soon surrounded us all; white and African. This is my account of just some of the pain, suffering and deaths that most touched me during the prelude to the Nigerian Civil War.

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A PCV DIES

The first person to die that I knew was a Japanese-American Peace Corps volunteer woman I had only briefly met.   She died in a wreck of one of the kamikaze Peugeot taxis that runs between major cities in West Africa.

 

ETHNIC POGROMS

News of pogroms of Igbo in the northern states of Nigeria was carried in the newspapers.  Over the next few months I noted that they were big Mercedes-Benz trucks filled with people and household possessions arriving at the taxi yards.  I recall many people standing up in the back of these trucks that normally carry items of commerce. I remember seeing a man with a dust covered white bandage around his head. I was told that these were people who fled from the north, that homes were burned and many people were being killed.

 

Igbo soldier, 1968, ndiigbo.tumblr.com

Igbo soldier, 1968

 

SOLDIERS BUSINESS

And about six months into my service I had a medical check up with the Peace Corps doctor in Benin City. He found a cyst on my left testicle. He recommended that I immediately go to the hospital in Ibadan, and have it removed because he couldn’t be sure if it was just a cyst or testicular cancer.  I made the trip to Ibadan the next week and stayed at the Peace Corps Guest House built on a hill, with a deeply rutted dirt road as the only access. The guesthouse was just across a wide canyon from a Federal Government military garrison.  In the evening before the operation I went down to the corner food stall at the foot of the hill, to buy a beer and snack food. I had arrived too late to be served dinner at the guest house.  Just as I arrived at the stall, the owner was briskly shuttering the stall doors.  He refused to sell me anything.  As I pleaded with him, a convoy of heavy military vehicles came slowly, rumbling down the road.  Some of the trucks were troop trucks filled with soldiers with rifles by their side.  I asked the stall owner what was going on.  He answered, “This is was soldier business.” I went back up to the guesthouse and got into my bunk bed.  Later in the evening the shooting started at the Garrison across the canyon. The gunshots explosions went on for several hours and then the screaming started.  It seemed that they were the screams of women.  The next morning we found out from the guesthouse staff that the truck were full of northern soldiers. They come down to Ibaden and attacked the Garrison because that is where some of the evil officers involved in the coup were staying with their families.   The soldiers killed all the Ibo soldiers, raped the women, cut open the bellies of the pregnant women, took their unborn children out and smash them against the walls.

 

HOSPITAL STAFF DIE

I got a taxi to the hospital early the next morning and checked in.  I was soon brought into the operating room.  The American trained doctor told me that they did not have adequate anesthetics because of military action going on, but they were going to go ahead with the operation.  I gave my approval.   Immediately I was surrounded by four very large Nigerian men,  with one man pressing down on each shoulder and one large man holding each leg. I was given a washcloth to bite down on.  I bit down hard when I felt the scalpel slice into my left testicle, and tears filled my eyes when it felt like the surgeon was scraping the tissue.  I remember opening my mouth to tell the surgeon that I could not stand much more of the pain.    He said he was done and showed me a small brownish, grey ball the size of a small marble.  The surgeon left abruptly and I was placed on a small, hard bed in an empty room.  There was nothing in the room and no one around.  I was soon in excruciating pain, and thirsty.  I called for assistance many times, no one came.  After about an hour I started having violent stomach cramps.   I called out again and again and eventually I rolled out of the bed onto the floor.  I walked on my hands and knees out until hallway, calling out as loud as I could, which was actually not very loud at all since I was cramping so badly.   Finally, as I crawled into an interconnecting corridor, a man and a women came, lifted me up, walked me out of the hospital down to a place on the road at the side of the hospital and flagged down a taxi.   The taxi took me to the road leading up to the Guest House and said he could not go up the steep, slippery, deeply rutted guest house driveway. By this time my testicles had swollen up to the size of a small grapefruit.  It was extremely difficult and painful to walk.  Every step pressed against my swollen stratum. I would make one step, gasp, pause, and then make another step. I got up the hill eventually, fell into my bunk bed and slept exhausted.  The next day I learned that some northern solders had gone to the hospital to finish off some wounded Igbo solders and that they were going room-to-room killing Igbo patients, doctors, nurses and technicians.  I was reconciled to never knowing if I had cancer or not.  I recovered soon enough and went back to my teaching job at Federal Government College Warri.  Months later I learned that the solders had not killed my surgeon or the lab technician and that it was a benign cyst.

 

Igbo snake head

Igbo carved snake head

 

 

 

 

 

SHORTY

I had became quite fascinated by all the snakes in the area.  A grounds keeper named Shorty, who had a powerful body and big smile, became a partner in my snake campaign.  He would bring me dead poisonous snakes and upon request live non-poisonous snakes he encountered when he was cutting grass.  He seemed to encounter snakes almost daily, when I started giving him small money for each snake.  I was particularly interested in teaching the students that the dangers from snakes was the mouth not the tail.  The belief that the snake killed by stinging people was firmly held by every Nigerian I met.  Even after showing them that I could touch the tail of a snake and showed them the teeth and fangs on some big snakes they were not convinced.   Then the snakes stopped coming and I asked about Shorty. I was told he had been killed in the town.  He was Igbo.  The Ijaw in that area hated the Igbo.

 

Igbo architecture

Igbo architecture

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SULI

I had a personal night watch at that time.  Suli was a 6 foot-plus tall Housa man from the north with deep small pox scars all over his face.  He had a small wooden bow, a small quiver of iron tipped arrows and a sword pounded out of sheet mental and a long knife in his belt.  He was proud and elegant in his poverty.  I paid him a very small sum to be a night watch since small thefts were occurring at our homes during the day.  He watched over the houses of my neighbors and myself to drive away thief-men.  I did not know where he was at night since it was really very dangerous to be around our houses.   I never cleared his employment with the principal, and he came and went irregularly.  There were always a lot of insects hitting the windows when we had the lights on at night, and the bugs would drop to the ground dead or stunned.   And there were always numerous large toads around the house feasting upon the stunned insects.  Of course the toads were preyed upon by several species of snakes.   We all had a long, thick “snake stick” by our door so that when ever we walked out at night, we could push away any snakes we encountered.  One day, James, my cook, said that he saw Suli’s body in the street.  He had been killed by the local people who had been driven out of the north.

 

Biafran school children, 1969

School children, 1969

 

THE SCHOOL INSPECTOR

A very nice, well educated Afro-American woman who worked as a school inspector whose name I regrettably forget used to stay at my house in Warri from time to time.  I lived in a brand new, white cinderblock, two-bedroom house with nice furniture.  James, my cook and housekeeper lived in the servant’s room.  I had met her and her husband through other volunteers. Her husband was a tall, very happy, charming, upbeat guy who worked for the Benin Police Department. They met while she was a teacher in the Congo and he was part of an international peace keeping operation.  We partied with the teacher and her husband. They were a lot of fun.  I remember one evening when we were all dressed up in our best agbadas, sweating, drinking and dancing high life in a big circle for hours.

 

Igbo Ju-Ju Mask

Igbo Juju Mask

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She was a school inspector and had to visit schools in the area around Warri from time to time.  Her per diem was abysmally low and forced her to stay in cheap local hotels.  These types of hotels were typically more brothels than hotels and she understandably loathed staying in them.  She asked me if she could stay with me some nights, her husband agreed and my girlfriend agreed and we had an excellent mutually supportive platonic relationship.  The following is pieced together from some brief statements by her and what I heard from others:  She had become fed up with her husband staying out late and carousing with other women and gave him an ultimatum.  He came home late, drunk, smelling of other women and she had her suitcase packed and ready to go.  She walked out to the car and started to drive away.  He jumped on the hood, slipped off as she was slowly driving and she ran over him and killed him immediately.  She was in placed in jail and the publicity swirled about the American who killed a policeman.  The trail was quick.  It came to the judge’s attention that another woman, a village women, jilted by the same policeman had gone to a famous and powerful Juju and placed a lethal curse on the policeman.  That was enough for the judge.  The village women and Juju were responsible and not the American teacher.   The teacher was removed from the courtroom, taken to the airport and put on a plane the same day.  I am sure there is much more to the story, but that is what I remember and it was logged as just another amazing event a time when amazing and unexpected events took place almost daily.

 

I loved taking my canoe out into the mangrove channels on weekends and some days after school.  It was always amazing what we saw.  Sometimes we would park the canoe, follow trails and discover small villages tucked away in bends of the river.  Bands of monkey would leap over the channels and it was just pretty trippy to paddle out to the main Warri River and see all sizes of boats from canoes smaller than ours, to ocean going freighters plying the river.  One day we saw a well-used trail but what was unusual was that some palm fronds had been woven and interlaced to form a woven arch over the trail.  We landed the canoe and walked under the arch and along the little trail.  We came to a clearing where some tree branches had been formed into a small platform like a church altar.  On the ground under some leaves and branches were some bones.  I cleared away the leaves and fallen twigs, and had a rush as I realized that they were human bones.  Two sets of human bones lying side by side.  They were human but there were no skulls.  You can imagine how fast we backed away from the place, and dashed back to the canoe.  I am sure that we had come across a human sacrifice site that had been used within the last month based on the condition of the palm fronds.  The stories about human sacrifice were common in Warri.  Reports of headless bodies being found were common in the local newspaper.  Albinos seemed to be the main target.  I was told by one of the locals that there was also a class of people that were dedicated for human sacrifice.  I was also told about a secret society that required human sacrifice.  I just took these stories in without judgment, sort of an, “Oh, really” attitude, until I saw those neatly lined up bones with no skull.

 

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Igbo village

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Ugbongway village where I lived at that time, the headmen of the village sat on benches and a massive log near the entrance of the village in the afternoon and talked.  I would stop and greet the men and chat with them a bit practicing my feeble excuse for Yoruba/Ishikiri much to their amusement.  Small short legged goats and chickens roamed freely in the village and it was not uncommon to see the goats and chickens near where the men sat picking up food scraps.  A large rooster came pecking at the ground near one of the men and he kicked at it.  The roster jabbed the ankle of the man with one his long spurs.  A couple of weeks later one of the village people said that a man was sick and I should go see him.  My friend was lying rigidly on a woven mat on a wood plank bed.  His arms were tightly flexed near his side, and the small of his back was off the mat.  He was in the final stage of a soon to be fatal tetanus infection.  A table knife was wedged in his mouth so that his family could pour small amounts of water into his mouth.  He could not talk but did move his eyes.  I am sure he was in excruciating pain.  He died that night.   The village had a huge wake for him and I sat up with them drumming and practicing wild animal dances and drinking kai-kai.  It was a first class wake.  I do not recall crying but I did get pretty drunk.

 

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Igbo carvings

 

There were two new Nigerian teachers who came to Federal Government College a few months after I arrived.   They were both educated in England and I enjoyed their company immensely.  They were both Ijaw from Calabar.  We joked around in the teacher’s preparation room between classes.  They lived in nice houses across the street from me.  In the morning we would stand in the street and gnaw on chewing sticks, talking for half an hour or so.  I think that my teeth and gums were better for that daily regime than at any other time in my life.  One day, without warning they disappeared.  My cook, James, an Ijaw, later told me they left to fight with the Biafran rebels because the Federal Government had invaded the area where they came from near Calabar.  A few days after informing me where they had gone, he told me they were both killed defending an island in the Delta near Calabar.   I was really shocked by that news.  But I was a teacher.  I had a projects at the village.  I had a good chicken project at the school and there were some competitions being arranged between Higher Schools in Warri.  James asked for final pay and told me he had to leave and go back to his village near Calabar.  I gave him some money and said goodbye.  I never heard from him again.

 

The war finally came to Federal Government College.  I could ignore it no longer when two Biafran soldiers with automatic rifles came to my house in the morning and told me to come with them.  They took me to the school principal’s office and a well-spoken Biafran army officer calmly told me I would have to leave since they were making the school their base of operations.  With little more than my passport and a brief case sized suitcase I was walked to the road by the solders.  They were very polite.   I somehow made it to the timber factory town of Sapele that night and met up with a small group of other PCVs who were being forced to leave the country.  We were directed to get on a large, open deck, metal barge.  A big tugboat pulled the barge down river most of the night and stopped around midnight.  The group of volunteers had no mosquito nets and a small amount of insect repellent. One women shared her insect repellent with me but it seemed to only attract the mosquitoes.  We were feasted on the rest of the night.

 

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Soldiers and tugboat

 

In the morning the tug started back down the river and just as we were near the port area we saw a piper cub fly over and drop a bomb towards a small Federal Government gun ship. The gunship fired some cannon at it and missed.  The plane then flew over our tug boat and tried to drop a bomb on a large Federal Government troop ship moving up river.  Both bombs missed.  The tug proceeded to Lagos and we were met by Peace Corps officials and sent to a college dormitory.  Some Peace Corps officials interviewed us and I was offered the opportunity to transfer to East Africa.  I declined.  I was exhausted.  I was sick.  I had boils all over my body.  I had had a bad case of hepatitis, nearly killed by malaria, tape worms, round worms, black fungus of the ear, and several bad cases of diarrhea.  I had lost a lot of weight. I was done with the Peace Corps.  I ended up flying to France and studying French in preparation for attending graduate school.  In Juan Le Pain, France, I ate well, rested and swam in the Mediterranean and got well over several months.

 

Throughout the 18 months of my service in Nigeria, and the swirl of deaths all around me, I never saw a dead body of anyone I knew, and never attended a funeral with the exception of the village wake.  

For me that wake was just another party.

 

I was in some way psychologically inured to the tragedies all around me.  These deaths were just part of the background noise in the cacophony of my daily life as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a land on the cusp of war.   I was essentially, emotionally untouched until I left Nigeria.  Then I had time to reflect and wondered at the whole panorama of my service, and then dwell on parts of my amazing experiences.   The ephemeral nature of information on the deaths of others against the backdrop of daily survival trials never touched me. I was in the midst of the PCV experience.   I never cried for any of them, ever.  I thought about them a lot over the years and was amazed that I was so oblivious and yet survived it all.  I think that I suffered some PTSD in the years after and got well by indulging in my life long spiritual quests, alternating with periods of indulgence in drugs, sex, fishing and music. Now in the twilight of my time on earth, I can retell parts of the stories of those that died during that troubled time, and wish their souls well…thank them for teaching me to better appreciate my life and have an opportunity to share our collective stories.

 

Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and Queen Elizabeth, Nigerian Independence Day

Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and Queen Elizabeth, Nigerian Independence Day

 

Igbo carved head

Igbo carved head

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