by Herbert Howe

Nigeria 20 (1966-1967)



4:00.  Eki [the school’s nightwatch] ran over to tell us—but we still can’t believe it.  We—three young expatriate teachers—are waiting for the BBC news.  And now, in a carefully modulated and emotionless voice, the announcer slowly reads the news: “In Nigeria, an undetermined number of Biafran troops this morning entered, and now control, the country’s Midwest region.  Fighting has been reported in Benin, Warri, and Kwale…”   Kwale?  That’s less than twenty miles away.  What’s going to happen?


4:45 PM.  Have just returned from the headmaster’s house.  No news except that traffic is allowed on the roads.  He agreed with us that a federal counterattack will soon come our way.


5:00 Nothing new on the BBC.


5:50 PM.  The headmaster is over here.  We’re drinking beer and talking about the invasion.


6:00PM.  Nothing new on the BBC or VOA.  We’re all wondering whether we’ll be trapped on two sides by the federal counterattack.  Someone in Warri last week said that the federal government has Russian jet fighter-bombers.  Biafra must have sent in at least two thousand troops to hold the Midwest.  We don’t know what is going to happen: we don’t know what to do.


7:00 PM  VOA has reported the American Embassy’s request that “all American citizens in midwestern Nigeria should evacuate immediately to Lagos.”  Our headmaster, an Irish priest, looks at each of us.  We’ve been the only expatriates in the area for over a year.  We were close.  And now he’s saying that “Whether you three like it or not, I’m driving you into Warri tomorrow—if the soldiers allow it.  We’ll leave around eight, so start packing soon.”  We know it’s useless to object once he has made  up his mind, so shortly afterwards we rise and walk to our rooms.


8 PM.  I can’t believe this—it couldn’t have happened…I have a suitcase and a small steamer truck and into each I must place what I value most.  But how can I decide.  Most everything I’ve used in my year and a half is here, in my room.  And now, without much warning, I must decide what I will keep and what I will leave behind.  So little space for the tools, books, clothing, tennis rackets and photos.  This is completely absurd.

8:15 PM.  What about this racket?  I first became friends with the staff, especially Enwokeji and Molokwu, by playing tennis with them in the late afternoons, and then adjourning to one of our houses for tea or a beer.  We played most days, even had tennis tournaments amongst ourselves. Yet the racket’s too bulky, a gut is broken, and the racket didn’t cost much.  I’ll leave it here.


9:00 PM.  No radio news, only the announcement of the invasion, early fighting, and the American invasion.


9:30 PM.  I have over three hundred books; obviously, can’t take all of them.  Wonder where I’m going.  I’ll have to sort through them all.  I keep my literature and carpentry books.  I taught these subjects for much of my year and a half.  Maybe I’ll be teaching them next semester…


11:15 PM.  The trunk is full but a lot of stuff is on the floor, thanks to the invasion


12:30 AM.  Just back from the headmaster: we’ll be driving to Oleh to pick up John and Emily [fellow PCVs] and then into Warri where we’ll try to get a boat to Lagos.


7:00 AM.  It’s a terrible morning.  I’m sitting out on our small veranda.  Our cook and steward are crying.  They say they don’t want to see us go but, hell, they’re afraid of death just as we are.  The breakfast—greasy yam cakes and HP sauce—is horrible.  It’s drizzling and a cold wind is blowing.  There was nothing new on VOA.  What’s to happen: will we run into fighting before reaching Warri?


8AM.  We pack all our loads onto the pickup and are leaving. Don’t have time to get to Oleh for John and Emily.  Seeing our house, the buildings and the staff for the last time…Warri in about two hours.


10:30 AM.  On the tug, Don Tide, at the John Holt docks in Warri.  It’s still cold and is drizzling slightly.  Biafran troops are carrying light machine guns, automatic rifles and grenades.  Most are busy digging fortifications thirty feet from us.  Over in a Holt warehouse is a Czech cannon. Everyone’s expecting an invasion from the river.


11AM.  The news has come, everyone knows it: the troops are working like crazy, trying to finish in time.  Minutes ago, the manager of Holt’s ran over and announced to the Biafran commander and the evacuees:  “I just received word that federal soldiers are moving in force up the river.  I’m ordering this boat out now.  It’ll be the last one out.”  The last one: but there’s still John and Emily and…


11:05 AM. We’re leaving.