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An association of Nigeria Peace Corps alumni and other friends of Nigeria who support the interests of the Nigerian people.

Unsung Heroes

February 10, 2017 2:44 PM | Willard J (Jim) Clark Jr (Administrator)

Unsung Heroes

by Chuck Ahlgren (04) 62-64

     In the fall of 1962 the Peace Corps assigned me to Bishop Shanahan College (BSC), Orlu, in the heart of Eastern Nigeria. BSC was one of several boy’s high schools in the East run by Catholic missionaries (e.g. C.I.C., Christ the King ) which enjoyed excellent academic reputations.  BSC was run by an order of teaching Brothers from Scotland, the Marists. Their religious names were Ignatius, Lewis, and Raphael.  They were bright young men with degrees from Edinburgh University---excellent teachers.  They were also keenly concerned with the welfare of their teenage students; I witnessed no racism or bigotry like that experienced and written about by Julian Martin in his nearby school (Imagonna, reviewed in the Summer, 2013 Newsletter).  

     I enjoyed the Brothers and the boys at BSC immensely. Most memorable were my 6th Form English classes, preparing the boys for their A level exams. We had many a lively classroom discussion on possible essay topics.  One that stands out is the discussion of the term ‘ethnocentrism’, a word that was to become much more significant in the boys’ lives. I also enjoyed coaching the school’s track team and going to track meets with the boys on the back of a lorry. I tried to impart to the boys some of the track techniques taught by Rafer Johnson during Peace Corps training at UCLA:  the boys largely ignored my advice, but won anyway. Particularly memorable were cricket matches with the school’s South Asian staff members, and evening strolls on paths and roads through the villages around the school.

     It was with mixed feelings, therefore, when the Peace Corps informed me I was to be transferred to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, for my second year. BSC needed a science teacher, not another English teacher, and I was replaced by Bob Coleman.   

      After finishing my Peace Corps tour in 1964 I spent three years in graduate school. I lost contact with the Brothers when the Biafran war broke out. My inquiry to the Marist headquarters in Rome was unanswered.

     With the advent of the internet, I was able to locate an address for the Marists in Glasgow. In 2009, I wrote to inquire about my three old colleagues, and received a letter back from Brother Lewis. He informed me that Bishop Shanahan closed during the war because all the older boys went off to join the Biafran army.  Lewis said that he, along with Ignatius, worked with Caritas International to distribute to starving people the food that came in nightly on the nearby Uli airstrip.  He told me that earlier in the war Brother Raphael had been taken by Federal Troops to be shot, but was saved. Raphael was not allowed to return to work in Biafra, but spent the war distributing food in the federally occupied sections of the East. Lewis and Ignatius were imprisoned at the end of the war in Port Harcourt. Thanks to the intercession of the Papal Legate in Lagos, they were released from jail and expelled as persona non grata.

     Lewis had told me only a little of his experiences during the war. Later I obtained pages from his diary about the end of the Biafran War. He talks about how the Federal Third Marine Division captured the nearby garri-growing area, so that, without food, the Biafran army collapsed and surrendered. Here is one of his entries from one of the days just after this, and a few days before Lewis was imprisoned, January 14, 1970:

     No word of what happened to Brothers Ignatius or Norbert, so----I head for B.S.C. There are about 50 babies laid out in a line, each lying on a piece of white cloth, and they are in a dreadful condition. All are skeletons, most are crying, and many are in the last stages of diarrhea, with the bright red of their insides hanging like tails out of their anuses. Norbert, alone, is going from one to another trying to powder and clean them.

“Who are these babies?”

“I found them abandoned by the Red Cross in a sickbay up the road.”

“Where are your nurses?”

“They’ve run into the bush to avoid the Feds.”

     We discussed the problem and decided it would be best to get the children down to Okporo Hospital (a pediatric hospital and  the only hospital of any kind in the areas still functioning.) I head back to the Mission and on the way call in on Chief Patrick (the Igwe, Patrick Acholonu, the paramount chief of the area) to ask him to send over some older women to help Norbert. We spend the day ferrying babies to Okparo. On the way we find some Biafran soldiers lying dead on the road. We stop and force some locals to bury them.

     In 2013 I again wrote to Brother Lewis in Glasgow. I was saddened to learn that he had died in 2012.  But I got a letter back from Brother Raphael with some news that Brother Lewis had neglected to tell me:   Raphael and Ignatius had both left the Marists after the war, counseled to do so after suffering what they describe as minor nervous breakdowns. It is not surprising that they should have done so, with all the suffering they observed and living under constant shelling and risk of death. Today we would recognize that they were suffering from PTSD. 

     Raphael and Ignatius upon leaving the Order took back their names before entering religious life, Harry Gillan and Jim Malia, respectively.  Both are retired educators. Harry is living in Dundee, looking after a wife with Alzheimer’s. Jim is living on the Isle of Wight. Moreover, Harry told me, Jim had written a book, “Biafra, the Memory of the Music”. 

     I had seen the title listed in Amazon, but the name Jim Malia meant nothing to me. I thought the book might have something to do with the group Jello Biafra. But, as soon as I knew that the book was Brother Ignatius’s, “Igs”, I sent off for it.  In addition to bringing back beautiful memories of ‘the music’ I experienced in Orlu with the Brothers, I found the book to complement wonderfully David Koren’s and John Sherman’s accounts of their roles in the relief effort. Most importantly, the book highlighted the heroic role that missionary Brothers and Priests like the BSC Marists and the legendary Des McGlade played in this first post-WWII holocaust, the Biafran War.  

     Unlike Mother Theresa these men are unsung and are unlikely ever to be canonized. But they did their church proud.

     The Memory of the Music, by Jim Malia is available from Amazon. His book also has a brief history of the times leading up to the secession of Biafra, told from the point of view of someone living in the then Eastern Region, with much fascinating personal detail.


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