In the beginning.
In March 2017 I had seen a post on Facebook announcing a conference called ‘Biafra’s Children, A Gathering of Survivors.’ I sent a message to the convener telling him about the project I started to document eye witness accounts of the Nigeria-Biafra war. All I wanted was visibility for the project through their website and any related publications. But a couple of emails and days later, I was invited to participate at the conference. It was a memorable two days in Athens.
Wednesday 28th June, 2017.
I am sitting alone at the departure lounge waiting to board my flight to Istanbul, my feelings wavering between excitement and apprehension. The flight is scheduled for 11.40 pm but we eventually leave an hour later.
There are no dramas on board, except that the seat next to me has been taken over by a pregnant woman with a different seat number. The rightful owner of the seat is not very happy but the Air Hostess settles it quickly and we are assigned new seats.
It is morning, and a different world, when we arrive in Turkey. While looking for my boarding gate, I get acquainted with three Nigerians travelling to Belarus. Afterwards, I look for a place where I can rest and observe the world.
I’m captivated by the way Turkish women dress. I notice there are many groups of children and I wonder where they are all headed to. There are many Muslims too, all clothed in white. I think they are going to perform the Hajj. It’s a long wait and I find myself seated opposite a group of French Muslims – some black, others Arab – travelling together. They speak little English and I speak little French, but we make conversation, clumsily, with a lot of hand gestures. The young man beside me says he wants to marry me. We both laugh. I think he’s just teasing. We all talk some more and I eventually take my leave to locate my gate. I am glad I took my leave because my flight is almost boarding. I have been looking at my phone which is still indicating Nigerian time.
Thursday, June 29, 2017.
Two hours later we are in Athens.
A stocky man with a prominent nose is holding up a piece of white paper with my name on it. I flash a smile and he smiles back.
Are you George, I ask.
I already know his name from the mail I was sent with a list of contact and support persons for the conference. He loads my suitcase in his car and as we drive away he apologises about the weather. There’s a heat wave in Athens and temperatures are above 35 degrees today. We talk about their economy and the refugee crisis. I feel as though I’ve been here before – the roads, the plants and hedges, the ‘Okada’ and its rider at the traffic junction are all familiar.
I ask him about the island of Corfu, a magical place I had read about in ‘My Family and Other Animals,’ by Gerald Durrell. He says his father is from Corfu and he can take me there if I want. I want to but I can’t. The conference schedule is tight.
I ask him about Skopios, Aristotle Onassis’s island. He lets out a laugh. You know Onassis? Yes, I say, I have read a lot about him – his stupendous wealth, his famous yatch named after his daughter, Cristina and especially, his marriage to Jackie Kennedy. George’s smile grows wider as I speak.
He points out landmarks and even parks on the highway for me to take photographs of the city – a sea of white buildings with brown roofs. He drops me off at President Hotel, still smiling and waving.
The Greeks are warm and friendly.
I try to nap but I can’t. So I go down to the lobby where I recognize some of the other participants. We get acquainted.
An event has been fixed for this evening. It’s a visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art to see Olu Oguibe’s Time Capsule of books and memorabilia from the Nigeria -Biafra war. He’s the convener of the Biafran Children’s Conference and one of the artists participating in documenta14.
I am tired and my ears are aching. But I’m glad I attended. There are jaw-dropping installations by other artists. It’s incredible what the human mind can conceive.
Afterwards we climb to the roof top. The sun is setting but we can see the city spread out before us. The Acropolis is in the distance and on the walls of a building somebody has written, ‘Welcome and Enjoy the ruins.’
Dinner turns out to be a spread of salads, bread, sardines, olive oil and other fare I barely recognize. There’s wine too. The Greeks love their wine. Afterwards, others want to go to a Nigerian restaurant. I even hear somebody mention Isi Ewu. It sounds interesting but all I want to do is nurse the ache in my left ear.
Faith and I take a taxi back to the hotel.
Sleep comes easily.
Friday, June 30, 2017.
Nigerians will say, ‘Traveling without sight-seeing, is that one traveling?’
I am determined to make the most of the two days, so after breakfast, I disappear. First, to documenta14 Press Office, to edit my presentation. And then to the tourist area around the Kidathineon and Adrianou. Tourists are milling about. The paved, narrow streets are lined on both sides by faded white buildings housing shops and cafes. There’s planting everywhere. Artefacts, clothes, books, jewellery, house hold items and much more are on sale. The ambience is traditional and modern all at once.
I hurry from shop to shop, taking in the sights, taking photos, asking questions. This particular shop keeper has a toothy smile. He’s tanned a dark brown and has an accent that sounds American. I am curious. He says the British think he’s American while the Americans thinks he’s British. We both laugh. English is my default language, perhaps that’s why you sound American to me, I say. He tells me he’s Greek, grew up in South Africa and lived in the US. He wraps my purchase while we chat some more.
The entire tour takes me about one hour. The conference starts in a couple of hours.
I head out to the taxi stand but first, something cold to drink. And a selfie.
Tonight’s speakers are Olu Oguibe, Okey Ndibe, EC Osondu, Philip Effiong, Faith Adiele and Obi Okigbo.
Saturday, July 1, 2017.
Butterflies are fluttering in my stomach. I will them to stop.
We have planned to see some of Greece’s cultural and historical sights, and after breakfast we set off for the Acropolis, an ancient citadel that sits above the city of Athens. It’s one of Athens’ most popular tourist attractions and houses the ruins of ancient temples some of which were built in 473 BC. The most popular is the Pathernon which is dedicated to Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, war and crafts.
The ruins are engineering and architectural wonders.
Tourists are warned to thread carefully because the path leading to the ruins are worn smooth by human traffic. The sun is scorching but the place is teeming with tourists.
I am in awe the whole time.
The day flies by. The butterflies in my stomach are quiet. I think the tour of the acropolis has helped to dispel my anxiety.
This evening, I and Emeka Kupenski Okereke, Berlin-based visual artist, photographer and film maker will talk about the work we are doing to preserve the memories of Biafra, mine through stories and his, through images and films. Our session is called ‘Generations and Legacies; Retrieving Biafra’s Memories.’
We arrive at Parko Eleftherias. Group photos are taken. Sound checks and everything else in order.
“Who is going first?” I ask.
“You,” Emeka says.
“No, you,” I say.
We both laugh.
I take my place, reluctant to make eye contact with the audience lest I see the disappointment on their faces. I start to speak, telling them how it all started in 2016 – the Facebook posts that ignited my interest and my resolve to look for survivors, to document their experiences, to help break the silence about Biafra.
I talk about some of the stories in the collection, about the brave men and women who embody them, who bear the emotional and physical scars of war, whose lives demonstrate the resilience of the human spirit.
When I finish, I hear applause. There are questions from the audience and Emeka takes his turn.
It wasn’t as scary as I thought.
Afterwards, as we interact with the audience, two ladies walk past me on their way out. I thank them for coming and give each of them a hug. A few minutes later, I see them back in the hall and walking towards me. One of them says they have something to tell me. We find a seat.
She tells me their family had lived in Lagos but when the war started they fled. They say their father is still alive and would be delighted to talk to me. I am leaving the next day but I ask if I can come over in the morning. They won’t be in, she says, so we exchange phone and Skype numbers. I thank them for reaching out and promise to call.
Dinner was a big deal – so much food and laughter. Afterwards, those who had early flights to catch left. The rest of us strolled back to the hotel which was close by. The lobby was empty of guests so we sat there, gisting, till about 3.00 am. We were all tired and sleepy, but ‘goodbye’ is a difficult word.
Sunday; July 2, 2017.
My head is foggy but I drag myself to the bathroom.
My flight is by 3.35 pm.
Most of the others have left, so it’s just me and Faith. She’s a teacher and memoirist and the first day we arrived I told her about my journey into writing.
Breakfast is the usual spread – varieties of breads, cakes, cheese, butters, eggs, bacons, fruits, cold and warm beverages. I’m happy to see Faith at the restaurant and we agree to meet at the swimming pool in an hour’s time.
The pool is located on the 21st floor and a few people are lounging around on deck chairs. Others are in the water. Coming from the tropics, I am used to high temperatures, but this is extreme. In spite of it, I wonder why anybody would want to sit or swim under such intense heat. Then I remember they may be coming from places where sun is a luxury.
Faith and I chat a bit and I take photographs. The height is dizzying but the view is great – buildings look clustered, streets are barely-discernible, awnings provide dashes of color to a landscape of mostly-white houses and brown roofs.
We say our good byes.
Back in my room, my suitcase is packed. I have a few more hours on my hands and I contemplate dashing out to explore the neighborhood. But I realize I am still sleepy. I fall into bed fully clothed. Sometime later I jump up in a panic. It’s almost 1.00 pm and George will be here by 1.30pm.
A quick look around the room confirms that everything is packed. My travel documents are in a purse slung across my body.
I’m in the lobby sending a mail when the entrance door swings open and George bounds in. He’s beaming as he approaches me. Is this all, he asks, grabbing my suitcase. I say yes and he heads out to the car. A few minutes later, we’re racing to the airport.
Did you enjoy your trip, he asks. I said I did but it was too brief. We talk some more and 30 minutes later we drive up to the lot in front of Turkish Airlines. He brings out my luggage and we shake hands. Please come back another time, he says, and bring your children with you. I tell him I will.
He enters his car and pulls away, still smiling and waving.