In The Rubble

by Bob Criso (Nigeria & Somalia 1966–68)

I became a Nigerian news junkie after I left the country hastily on July 31, 1967. Having lost all communication with anyone there, I searched for any newspapers and magazines with the tiniest article related to the war. I followed the early Biafran victories and the later losses closely. When Enugu fell, I worried about what might be happening in my village, Ishiagu, about fifty miles south. Whenever I saw pictures of dead soldiers, I thought about students like Celestine and Sylvester who had joined the army. When I saw pictures of kwashiorkor babies, I thought about my fellow teacher Otu’s daughter, Ngozi, who I had cradled in my arms. The only good news came when the damn war finally ended. But what happened to Ishiagu?

Sometime in the early seventies I got a small brown-paper package in the mail with a letter attached, postmarked London. When I saw a return address from C. Whitney, I flashed back to 1967. Fr. Ciaran Whitney, a tall, thin Irish priest with salt and pepper hair and a winning smile, came to my school in Ishiagu for a few months to help the principal. I liked him from the start, admiring his low-key modesty and dedication. He spoke to the students and the locals with the same sensitivity and respect with which he spoke to me or the principal.

In the letter he said he passed through Ishiagu after the war on some kind of church business and thought I might want to know what happened there. It took him a while to track me down but he persevered until he got my address. The news was grim. My house was looted after I left. The school was turned into Biafran army barracks. When the Federal troops were advancing toward the village, all the young women fled into the bush for fear of being raped. All the young men did the same for fear of being killed. Many of the students did not survive the war. “Ishiagu,” he said, “became a village of the very old and the very young.”

While he was in Ishiagu, an old man approached him and asked about me. Fr. Whitney told him he knew me and could find a way to contact me. The villager asked him to pass on the article wrapped in the brown paper. When I opened the package, I was astonished to find my college ring. The old man found it in a pile of rubble outside my house and saw Robert Peter Criso written on the inside of the ring. It was great to have it back, of course, but the real gift was knowing that the old man and the priest remembered me and took the trouble to return the ring. I never found out the name of the man. I wrote to Fr. Whitney thanking him for his efforts and then tried to find him when I was in London a year and a half later.

“He was only here for a short time,” a priest at the rectory told me. “He tends to move around a lot. He’s somewhere in Africa.”

After returning from the Peace Corps, Bob initially worked as teacher in New York City then later as a psychologist at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and Princeton University. In 1997 he took a year off and boarded a freighter going around the world and started writing about the Peace Corps, Parkinson’s disease and his family. He currently lives in New York City. (bobcriso@gmail.com)