Published author John Sherman (Nigeria/Biafra 1966–67; Malawi 1967–68; staff: PC/Washington 1970–71, 1975–77; PC/Ghana 1971–73) has a multi-faceted publishing company in Indiana that offers editorial services, and assists others publish and market their books. He also does pro bono work for charitable organizations, and keeps close attention on Africa, particularly Nigeria where he once was a PCV. Recently he returned to his first Peace Corps country and was kind enough to send me this “going home” account for our site.
IT’S ALWAYS A CHALLENGE to write about Nigeria.
So much to say. Lamenting. Complaining. Defending. Speaking with sadness, rage, and excitement, often in the same conversation, hell, in the same sentence, about that wild, crazy, wonderful country.
Nigeria and I have been in this dysfunctional, on-again/off-again relationship ever since I was a college senior. At times, I’ve tried to push it away, but failed, leaving it an integral part of my life, beginning when I received an invitation in April 1966 to be an English teacher in a country I could barely find on the map. Upon getting my assignment, I dashed to the library. I had some vague notion of it having been recently in the news. I discovered, after flipping through a stack of Time magazines, that there had been a coup d’etat three months earlier. And, three months after that invitation from Sarge, in the middle of Peace Corps training in Atlanta, the second coup occurred. We were allowed to go anyway, and were dropped into the very area of the country, the Eastern Region, whose citizens would, a month after our arrival, be the objects of a multi-city massacre in the Northern Region. That horrifying event (known thereafter as The Pogrom) began the road to secession. That led to civil war. That led to our evacuation.
We were distraught at being evacuated, hundreds of us chain-smoking and sharing stories on the bare floor in the cargo hold of a ship that took us from the war zone of the secessionist Republic of Biafra to the Nigerian capital, Lagos (“enemy territory,” we called it), and on to new assignments. Our students, fellow tutors, friends, neighbors, market women, and lorry drivers were all left behind to face the growing chaos and, later, the horror felt worldwide: the malnutrition and death that, for people of a certain age around the globe, immediately come to mind when they hear “Biafra.” I took this war personally. That, coupled with the never-ending series of increasingly disturbing images in every magazine and newspaper I picked up (I could not help but stare, not wanting to recognize anyone, but unable not to look, just in case), led to my return, a year later, to work with the Red Cross near the front lines.
I was originally just going to make this an essay about returning this past August to Abuja, now Nigeria’s capital, for the first time in 40 years, a mouth-dropping admission to an audience that included those not yet four decades old, but I’ve been too busy with Nigeria to write about it. I am, what I have dubbed, “between conferences,” having presented at one on women in Africa and the African Diaspora in Abuja, then, the next month, at another in Milwaukee on the Biafra-Nigeria Civil War. Now, I’m finalizing details to speak at the Igbo Studies Association meeting in April, with its theme, “Nigeria at 50,” in another of my old stomping grounds, Washington, D.C. Nigeria is once again consuming me.
My e-mails now bring greetings from Nigeria, not only those wretched scams that make it through the spam filters, but real greetings from professors and scholars I met in Abuja and in Milwaukee, some of whom I will see again in Washington, already old friends, sharing the commonality of our involvement with Nigeria, especially the war and its aftermath.
In Abuja, on the last night of the Women in Africa conference, I danced the High-Life, half-drunk, but without waving the ubiquitous Peace Corps-era cigarette, as I twirled my hands, shook my 2009 hips, larger than my 1966–67 ones, but still able, as more than one fellow dancer said, to “make the moves.” The music, long, seemingly never-ending tunes from a live band, and the need to wipe my face from becoming overheated, both in temperament and temperature, took me back to Saturday nights at the Lido in Port Harcourt, a favorite of us PCVs. My gleeful, enthusiastic dancing, fueled by such memories, brought congratulatory handshakes, laughter, and applause, and teasing that I’d be all over YouTube the next day.
Back in Nigeria! It had indeed been 40 years, other than a very short visit to Lagos and Port Harcourt soon after Biafra surrendered, when we lived in Accra. But those few days, so close to our Peace Corps and my Red Cross days seemed an extension of those years. After we drove back to Ghana, I was left with a decades-long dry spell of doubting that I would ever return.
But, when I did get to Abuja, the familiarity of Star beer, groundnuts, stews, pounded yam, finger-snapping handshakes, greetings in Igbo, the expected smiles and laughter across four decades remained undiminished, along with the don’t-let-them-see-you-smile when observing the “tccch” of someone who was annoyed, amazed, aghast, or dissing someone behind their back or to their face.
I said I was home, not back to my familiar part of the country, both for Peace Corps and the Red Cross, but this time to a vibrant, large metro area, the new capital, surrounded by Igbos and other Nigerians who were curious about this old man who had been in the middle of their civil war and who had written an opera — an opera! — about it. I was someone who could speak about his impressions of The Pogrom, the screaming headlines, the screaming soldiers and civilians at the roadblocks, the screaming policemen who arrested me for trying to take a picture of a bank — a bank! — in the pre-secession jitters, and the expected advent of secession. (On that very morning, the only time it happened, my large map of Nigeria fell off the wall — my recitation of that caused fingers to snap and people to look at me, then at one another, sharing the creepy feeling I had that morning before taping it back up, not to fall again before I was evacuated). I felt they believed me about being home, that I was not merely being polite, saying what I thought they wanted to hear, but expressing my deep feelings for that country that I never could shake off, never want to shake off.
Upon my return from Abuja, I could not adequately explain how Nigeria had changed to those at home who asked me, mostly because I didn’t necessarily know, only spending my time, ironically, in the very place that had, dramatically, changed the most. I did speak of cell phones, Internet kiosks, plastic bags (instead of wrapping items in pages of newspapers that now contain criticism of the head of state, but in my day, wherever I lived in Africa, only had praise for the Dictator of the Moment).
In the 1960s alone, my relationship with Nigeria was very complicated, best explained in the phrase I used on a promotional card for my memoir, “He was supposed to spend two quiet years in the Peace Corps. Instead, he experienced — and wrote about — secession and civil war.”
After a frustrating, distracted year in Malawi, I called the PC office in Blantyre and said, “I’m quitting,” and I went back to the other side of the continent, a whole different world, braving incorrect airline schedules, overbooked flights, avoiding countries that had no diplomatic relations with the U.S., finally to end up again in Lagos. I had no idea that, within a week, I would be working at that airport (where I had landed as a PCV two years before), loading planes with food and supplies, biding my time until I could be transferred to the war zone. When we filled the planes, they had red crosses painted on the tails. When they were filled with guns and soldiers, the crosses were painted over. One morning, I saw the fork-lift driver bang the plane’s large side door, slightly dislodging it and getting yelled at, before it was slammed shut. I remembered that when we heard about the door swinging open days later as the plane was on its descent into Port Harcourt and the heavily armed soldiers on board ran to the other side of the plane, causing it to smash into the runway. When I flew into the same airport, not long after, I saw the charred remains pushed into the tall weeds on the side. I said nothing. But I knew.
“Why do the Peace Corps Volunteers love us Igbos so?” asked a participant at the conference in Milwaukee. My wife (Lois McGowan Sherman, Nigeria/Biafra 1966–67, Togo 1967–68) and I struggled to answer, although it seemed so obvious. Igbos get in your face, won’t let you go, adopt you and tell you so, become a part of your life. The bond I felt with them was what drew me back, fleeing Malawi, my departure from my PC country on my own terms this time so I could return to work with the Red Cross. The fighting had already reduced Biafra’s borders so much that I ended up working in the area where I had lived, but, by then, it was again Nigerian soil, though the floating front lines could change that status, literally, overnight. We kept a bag packed, just in case.
I almost began this essay with “Oh, why did he have to be a Nigerian?” The Underwear Bomber who made us wring our hands, shake our heads, and go “tcch!” called “that stupid kid” by one Nigerian friend here in Indianapolis. It’s bad enough that those of us who form a phalanx of freelance, unpaid public relations flaks for Nigeria, have to suffer the news stories of politically motivated Christian-Muslim violence, Internet pleas for bank account passwords, rampant corruption that seems impossible to control that affects and punishes the very poor and very powerless. It is reminiscent of the civil war I was in the middle of that hurt those most innocent, least able to escape, most vulnerable — the children — while the men bombed and shot each other and the women dug tiny, shallow graves in the forest. Biafra, filled with pride and promise at the beginning, so soon to become death, rubble, and maimed-for-life adults and what I once dubbed “a Buchenwald of infants.”
The futility! That is what still hurts. All for naught. It is why I want us out of Iraq and Afghanistan now. When we go, we will leave behind us death, destruction, mayhem, and civil war. And martyrs seething for revenge. The list is the same, whether we leave the day you read this or two, three, or ten years from now. The same list, only the longer we stay, the bigger the numbers of dead and maimed little girls and boys.
It took me 32 years to publish my memoir of the war I know the best. I kept putting it aside, throwing it with ferocity into a desk drawer at one point, causing me to write a poem, entitled, “On Throwing Away My First Book.” I had intended to have it be a 1970 release, the same year Biafra surrendered. Instead, I moved from Washington to Accra to Kinshasa to Washington to Santa Fe to Indianapolis. Marriage, kids, and jobs. A self-inflicted rage at how I was going to tell my story caused me to retrieve the manuscript, finally, rewrite it at least a dozen times, changing the style of it nearly every time, until I felt I was ready. Now, it’s been adopted as a textbook both in the U.S. and in Nigeria and soon it’ll be on the books-for-sale table at the third of three Nigeria-related conferences in eight months.
I sent an email to Lois from Abuja, saying, “This morning, at 7 a.m., a woman came to my room to . . . buy a copy of my book.” I had taken only a handful to show and found them to be in much demand (and my visitor, knowing I was almost out, beat it to my room to grab one of the few remaining copies), both by those who remembered the war all too well and those who were too young, but who wanted an objective read on the subject, having been raised on the propaganda of one side or the other.
Four years after the book was published, I wrote the libretto for the opera, “Biafra.” In Milwaukee, the opera was shown to an audience composed of former Biafran army officers, boy soldiers, Red Cross workers, and refugees. Afterwards one woman told me she almost had to leave, it affected her so, and I felt grateful for the artistic compliment, but also relieved, as I didn’t know how a room composed mostly of Igbos would respond to the story, especially since it contained a denouncement of Col. Ojukwu, the head of Biafra, by the lead singer portraying a Red Cross nurse. And, I was a bit surprised to learn, I was not the only one at the conference who had strong, negative feelings about Ojukwu. In fact, he had few defenders.
Those viewing it agreed that the opera, when completed, will serve two purposes: inform or remind audiences about a real war, with characters and incidents from my memories and theirs, and demonstrate, in the more graphic scenes, war’s infamous violence against civilians. The universality of noncombatants’ suffering, whether it be victims begging for mercy at the end of a gun barrel in West Africa or children blown apart in their beds by American drones in one of our own current wars.
When I was with the Red Cross, I visited my school and touched the spray of machine-gunned holes across the yellow stucco of my house. In the school buildings, all the beds, desks, and books were gone. I found a rolled-up photo, its frame and glass stolen, that I can see from this computer, as I write this. This photo remained, showing the faculty and students, weeks before the war began. I am in the picture, as is one of my former students who is now getting ready to retire from the Nigerian Foreign Service. We speak on the phone, we e-mail, we plan to see one another when I return to Port Harcourt. I have not asked him how many of his fellow students died in the war. Perhaps he has no idea. I am in contact only with a handful, but if any had lived in Abuja, they had already retired and returned home, so my visit did not bring the hoped-for reunions.
That may happen as early as this year, if I’m able to return to Nigeria, especially the former Eastern Region, to lecture at a number of universities about my life in Nigeria before and during the war. I am eager to discuss how one takes such searing life experiences and turns them into artistic expressions, told with emotion, yet clarity, by a 66-year-old man relating experiences begun when he was 22.
After I had hitchhiked from Lagos to Maiduguri, about one thousand miles, dreaming a vastly unrealized dream of one thousand bottles of clean, cold water, I was mentally fatigued and physically exhausted. Sitting at the side of the empty pool at the catering guest house, I slowly, with some hesitation, gave up on my plans to continue to hitchhike and otherwise go the cheap route home, up the coast of Africa, to Europe, to the Middle East, and through Asia. I was afraid I would regret it. I agonized, wondering if I would berate myself, once home, that I had not continued to travel and travel and travel. But, there have been no regrets that I chose to fly out of Nigeria that week, on my 25th birthday, making my way home to my parents’ Indiana farm, but I never thought it would take me 40 years to return — with a Medicare card in my wallet.
In between age 25 and age 65, during one of my two stints working at PC/Washington, I flew high over countries where Peace Corps Volunteers sat, writing home by kerosene lamp or flickering electricity, before the Internet ripped away the isolation that kept most of us from corresponding with our families for years other than by aerogrammes.
As I peered down into the darkness from the window seat of a Pan Am 747, far above the kerosene lamps, I hoped for them the two quiet years in the Peace Corps we were denied.