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  • 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.


  • February 10, 2017 2:40 PM | Willard J (Jim) Clark Jr (Administrator)

    In the Sky Far Away; A Memoir of the Biafran Airlift

    David L. Koren (09) 63-66

    First Peace Corps Writers Edition, June 19, 2016

     (Buyers should look for ISBN-13:978-1-935925-62-0 to make sure they are getting the First Peace Corps Writers Edition, June 2016, not the earlier volume.)

    346 pages, $18.85 (paperback)

    Reviewed by Roger Landrum (02) 61-63

         The Biafran war for independence from Nigeria ended 47 years ago (1970), yet the horrors that occurred before and during the civil war linger. So does the idea of Biafra: an independent African state created by Africans, not by a European colonial power drawing the boundaries, a modern state with an efficient and productive democratic government. They seem to have a life of their own. One of the reasons for this was a dramatic humanitarian air lift operated from the remote island of Sao Tome to shuttle food and medical supplies into Biafra for a civilian population being deliberately starved into submission. The air lift was organized by a hodgepodge of  church and humanitarian organizations, contracted planes and pilots, and volunteers. Some of the latter were former Peace Corps Volunteers who had served in Eastern Nigeria before the war.  The air lift operated under the direst of conditions: cast off planes flying at night to a darkened air strip constructed on an old road at Uli, Biafra, under constant attack from the Nigerian air force. There the cargoes of food and medical supplies were unloaded and distributed to the starving civilian population including millions of children, squeezed into an ever shrinking Biafra. Some of the emaciated Biafran children, near death, were shuttled out on the empty planes to Sao Tome for supervised recovery. 

         Among the colorful cast of characters operating the air lift were five UNICEF volunteers, young Americans, one of whom was David Koren, who had taught secondary school as a Peace Corps Volunteer for three years in Eastern Nigeria. Koren had not  yet settled into a career back home when the war began, and he answered a UNICEF call for volunteers, which led him to Sao Tome, the air lift operations, and into Biafra and the morass of the civil war. He did it out of a commitment to the Ibo people he had lived and worked among for three years. Then, for many years afterwards, Koren's experience lay buried as he moved on with a life in America. When Koren read Chimamanda  Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), a novel of the Biafran War, his air lift memories came pouring back. He wrote a brief reminiscence in March 2007 for the Friends of Nigeria newsletter, The World is Deep. After a number of people contacted him for more information about the air lift, he dug out a box of memorabilia and found a cache of audio cassettes from the period. One thing led to another and Koren wrote a full account of the Biafran airlift, In the Sky Far Away, first published in 2012. This review is of a 3rd edition that adds Koren's recent discovery of some of the people his work with the air lift saved from starvation and their grown children, now living in America, and his emotional meetings with them.

         Far Away in the Sky is a remarkable book. The central story of the air lift is inherently dramatic, but it is Koren's richly detailed recollections about the air lift and its motley cast of characters, both on the remote island of Sao Tome and at the Uli airstrip inside a Biafra, that gives this book exceptional power. The book encompasses more than the air lift narrative. It creates a deeply informed portrait of the Ibo people, famed for their industriousness and pursuit of education. It illuminates the wider war and why the Biafrans sought an independent homeland to secure their safety and political interests. It describes Koren's earlier Peace Corps experience in Eastern Nigeria. And the book is laced with reflections about racism, colonialism, and the power of deep cultural identity.

         I know something about all this. I was a Peace Corps teacher in the first wave of Nigeria volunteers, at Nsukka in Eastern Nigeria, living among the Ibo. Afterwards I directed Peace Corps training programs for Nigeria and was visiting some of the PCVs I trained inside Nigeria immediately after the first pogroms against Ibos in the Northern Region where I heard chilling accounts directly from Hausa northerners who, wracked with remorse, told me about murdering their Ibo neighbors in a frenzy of revenge after the first military coup led mostly by young Ibo officers. I went into Eastern Nigeria on that trip, as succession sentiments grew more intense among the Ibos, to see if my friends were safe, where I was briefly detained by Eastern police officers paranoid about regional security. The volunteers I had trained were soon evacuated from all of Nigeria as war loomed. I too answered a UNICEF ad for a  photographer to document child starvation in Biafra and flew from Amsterdam to Sao Tome on one of the Gray Ghost relief planes, stuffed in a chilly cargo area with a Netherlands film crew seeking to document the air lift. I got stuck on Sao Tome for a couple weeks seeking clearance to enter Biafra, denied because Biafran authorities resented United Nations unwillingness to recognize Biafran independence. I was able to photograph evacuated Biafran children with acute starvation effects, and had a long conversation with Chinua Achebe about Biafra. He was in transit out of Biafra as an informal ambassador to the West. I was on leave from a job and could not wait around for an uncertain clearance but I can verify the veracity of  the Sao Tome parts of Koren's account . Like many others I was left with questions about the war. Were the claims about starvation exaggerated? Were the Ibo people actually threatened with genocide and was succession from Nigeria justified? With extensive first hand facts and clear-headed observations this book provides answers.             

         Koren's narrative falls into discrete parts. The first section describe his two years as a Peace Corps teacher in Eastern Nigeria, with an extension year because he found the experience so fulfilling. As an account of Peace Corps service in Nigeria, or anywhere, it is as perceptive as you are likely to find, though not as extended as Peter Hessler's brilliant memoir, River Town, about his Peace Corps experience in China. Koren's writing about his Peace Corps years is background for his central narrative reporting on his UNICEF volunteer assignment to the Biafran air lift, initially as a warehouse organizer of incoming, expanding relief supplies while awaiting Biafran clearance to enter the secessionist state on relief flights to help unload the planes. It was a lengthy and frustrating delay because the United Nations connection annoyed the Biafran authorities (the UN refused to recognize Biafra's independence). Finally someone figured out a change in job title to "airlift ground engineers" which won Biafran clearance for the UNICEF volunteers to enter the breakaway state.  

         That is the more harrowing part of the story as conditions grew more and more dangerous from Nigerian bombing of the Uli airstrip and the inherent dangers of night landings in old planes. Pilots died from crashes, ground crews from bomb shrapnel. The airlift was functional but it was not a smooth operation with central command. Koren writes, "The Biafran Airlift was not a massive government effort, but a raggedy group of missionaries and civilians flying rickety old planes." He is completely candid about the tangles between the Biafran authorities and the air lift operations, and among the loose coalition of relief organizations and operators jockeying for position. Koren wove his way through various roles and tasks--he learned the skills of a plane mechanic to be more useful--until he was no longer needed when better planes and crews took over the air lift. One more dramatic turn enveloped Koren before he left. On his final trip into Biafra he was arrested as a possible spy, detained for several harrowing days, then released with orders not to return.  

         Following the account of his non-commercial flight home, via Brazil, the narrative jumps to some unexpected experiences after In the Sky Far Away was first published in 2012. Publication led to meeting some of those saved from starvation by the air lift now living in the US, and their grown children, most of whom knew little about what their parents had suffered. "When we were children", one said, "we heard your planes going over at night. We never knew who you were, but we got the food. Every person in this room is alive today because of what you did." They honored Koren with an Ibo honorific title, Nwannedinamba, Brother from a far away land.  Koren estimates there are a million people of Ibo descent now living in the US, a second Ibo diaspora. The first Ibo diaspora was across Nigeria before the pogroms. One of Koren's two sons has an Ibo first name, Emeka, and served in the Peace Corps in Guinea. Somehow Koren's intense, erratic Nigeria adventures came full circle later in life.The Ibo say, Uwa di egwu, the World is deep. "Those who still argue that Biafra should have surrendered early," he concludes, " do not understand the culture of a people who do not submit easily. . . . I told the story of a brave and intelligent people, a story that may have otherwise slipped away into the gloom of history." 

         Reviewer Roger Landrum is founder and first CEO of Youth Service America, which in collaboration with Ford Foundation developed the national youth service movement that led to AmeriCorps and the Corporation for Community and National Service. Landrum initiated the seminal Peace Corps 25th Anniversary celebration attended by 5,000 RPCVs which launched the National Peace Corps Association with paid staff and served as NPCA board president. He co-authored with Harris Wofford Youth and the Needs of the Nation (1979), a blueprint for expanded national service programming. 

  • February 10, 2017 2:37 PM | Willard J (Jim) Clark Jr (Administrator)

    News from Home

    by Stephen Vincent ((15) 65-67

         Whenever I travel America’s cities and wherever I need a cab, for decades now, the African diaspora is waiting.  In  Boston, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Atlanta  people from Nigeria, Ghana, Jamaica, Ethiopia are behind the wheel. 

         I look forward to the Nigerians, particularly those from the East. It is as if I am still waiting to hear news from what was once an intimate, but temporary, home. Ibo, Ijaw, Effik, Cross River, Rivers, Ogoja. I used to know and travel among the people of those tribes. They were my students and faculty colleagues when I taught at the University of Nigeria at Nssuka. That was before the devastating Civil War of secession in which mainly Ibos fought to create the new State of Biafra. After deadly pogroms in the primarily Islamic north, faith in a unified Nigeria was broken. My students and colleagues were either strongly for the state or against. Secession brought war. The new state was starved, bombed and badly defeated. 

    Then there was big oil and big corruption. From the petroleum-rich Rivers region – this was in the mid-60’s, Ken Tsara-Wiwa was then my close friend, private political cohort, playwright and fellow teacher. On campus, already on war footing, he could not publicly say he was against secession,.  Instead he had to say he was for a federation of states. He fled for Lagos and became famous for writing a  series of Nigerian television dramas. Simultaneously, Shell and the other big oil companies went after the Rivers oil while destroying the ecology and only giving a fraction of the enormous profits back to the locals. Ken went to war against both the companies and the federal politicians who got very rich taking bribes from those same companies. He and his supporters were targeted. He and 12 others were hung – killed for the greed of others.  

         Today I am in a cab with a Nigerian from the Rivers. He looks 10 years younger than me. When I mention Ken Tsara-Wiwa, he becomes reticent as if I am coming close to a wound. I needed to be checked out. Then he asks me,“Do you know what he thought about the war, the Biafra stuff?” 

         I know what I need to say. “He was against it. He wanted a federation of states and the Rivers to become one of them. He did not want to have Ibo rulers. But then the federal government ended up killing him.”

         “I know. I was his assistant.”

         I am shocked. It’s as if a big piece of ice has been broken. We have both been close to a man we loved and lost. 

         The wound is still close. We change the subject to others.  Behind the wheel, there is something broken in his spirit. “I had to leave Nigeria.”

         Outside the cab I say, “I am so happy to have talked to you.” I realize I am sweating. News from home. Fifty years since I was in Nigeria. 

    No matter how long ago, a healed wound or not, I realize what a relief it is  to have shared this intimacy of recognition. 

  • February 10, 2017 2:33 PM | Willard J (Jim) Clark Jr (Administrator)

    The Peace Corps Blew It

    by Bob Criso (21) 66-67

         I had just graduated from college in January, 1966 when I picked up the New York Times and read about the the bloody military coup in Nigeria. The Prime Minister and a number of other top government officials were killed. Nigeria’s budding democracy ended two weeks before I’d be leaving for Peace Corps training. Mmmm. “Do you know what you’re getting into?” my Uncle Ralph asked.

         Four months later I was settled into a teaching assignment in Ishiagu, Eastern Nigeria and pretty content. Nice house, great students, companionable colleagues and a village culture that fascinated me. I rolled up the sleeves of my new dashiki and plunged right in — lots of palm wine, kola nuts and cultural-exchange-talk in mud homes, my Igbo vocabulary expanding in the process. When I was invited to a local wedding, I felt like I had been granted honorary citizenship. It wasn’t long before the BBC reported a counter-coup and a new military leader, General Yakubu Gowon. No one in Ishiagu trusted him. 

         Sometime around June,1966 I started hearing talk about Igbos being killed in Northern Nigeria. It was described as “payback” for the first coup which many believed was plotted by Igbo army officers. Then some Hausa were killed in Eastern cities. Then reports of Igbos frequently being massacred in the North. Ibrahim, the one Hausa student at my school and a popular fellow with his peers, disappeared in the middle of the night. “He would have been killed,” the principal said. 

         Refugees from the North returned to Ishiagu with horrific stories of pregnant women being cut open and houses being burned to the ground while children screamed inside them. Then, there was the story about the train. The Hausa reportedly sent a train filled with cut-up Igbo body-parts back to the East “as a warning.” Listening to the BBC, Radio Enugu and talking with the locals, it was often hard distinguish fact from fiction. Then I saw a woman, returning to Ishiagu from the train station, carrying a human head.

         In January of 1967, it was the other teachers who first told me about a meeting of Nigerian regional leaders in Ghana to discuss a possible confederation of states as a solution to the country’s divisions. In Ishiagu, the talk was about secession as the only solution. Changes started to affect daily life in the village. The meat that had come from the Hausa herdsmen in the North got scarcer at the market until it stopped completely. Mail from outside the East was no longer being delivered. The chickens that I was raising  behind my house were stolen in the night.

         By April of 1967 I was getting nervous about the situation and went to Enugu to find out what was happening. Ruth Olsen, the Eastern Regional Director, gave me the keys to a blue van and told me I was a designated pickup driver in case of an emergency evacuation. “Stay in Ishiagu,” she said emphatically, “and we will contact you if there’s an emergency. You will be responsible for picking up six people in your area.”

         At the end of May 1967, Eastern Nigeria seceded and declared itself the Republic of Biafra. There was a new flag, a new national anthem and a new army. Fighting started along the Northern border. All able-bodied men in the village and many of my students were prepared to join the army. “It’s kill or be killed,” one of my students said. A darkness came over Ishiagu. I saw the fear in the students faces. People in the village became suspicious of white people. There were reports of mercenaries working for the Hausa, posing as Peace Corps Volunteers and priests, spying and collecting information in preparation for an invasion. War fever, fueled by the paranoia stirred up by the refugees, had infected the village.

         I was teaching class one morning in July, 1967 when Biafran soldiers pulled up to the school in a jeep and ordered the school closed. They said it would be turned into military barracks. Getting more anxious by the hour, I decided to drive to Afikpo, a nearby town, where I had two Peace Corps friends, Lois and Jim. Maybe they knew more. When I reached the first paved road, I was shocked. All signs identifying anything or anywhere had been taken down. Every few miles there were road blocks with chopped down trees and confrontational, ragtag militias waving clubs and machetes. “Where are you going?” “What is your purpose?” “Empty your Pockets!” “What is that map in your van?”

         I felt like I was already caught in the middle of a war. The good reputation of the Peace Corps, my improved Igbo and pure luck got me through those roadblocks. I picked up Lois and Jim but didn’t go further to pick up Alan, another volunteer deep in the bush —the roads and the crowds were too dangerous. Lois, Jim and I made it back to my house but we were soon confronted by a bloodthirsty mob. (Years later, Jim would write a play about what happened there.) With the help of local friends, we made it out of what was clearly a life-threatening situation. With local help again, Lois and Jim took a train to Enugu the next day. Thinking there were other volunteers that needed to be picked up, I stayed and waited for the Peace Corps to contact me.They never did. I eventually made it to the coast with the help of a Biafran army escort and left the country on the boat that was waiting for the last evacuees.

         It took about twenty five years before I started writing about what happened. It’s been fifty years now and I still think about it. There were several times when I thought I wouldn’t make it. During the mob confrontation at my house, I imagined the headlines of The Staten Island Advance: “Peace Corps Volunteer killed in Nigeria.” 

         Mine wasn’t the only horror story. I spoke to another volunteer who was thrown into jail for days during those last weeks as a suspected spy. He thought he would never be heard from again. Len, an African-American volunteer from my training group who looked like a Hausa, recently told me he was repeatedly harassed and confronted until he finally made it out of the country over the Onitsha bridge. I also spoke to another volunteer who had been teaching at the University in Nsukka, close to the Northern border. Caught up in the circumstances of the time, he ended up sorting living from dead bodies on the back of trucks coming back from the North.

         Let’s face it, the Peace Corps blew it. It’s difficult for me to say that about an organization that has always been rather sacrosanct for many of us but we should have been pulled out much sooner. What future could the the Peace Corps possibly have had in Biafra as the country drifted deeper into the full-scale madness of war? 

         Uncle Ralph was right. I didn’t really know what I was getting into. But what about the people who were running the program? Where was the organizational breakdown from Enugu to Lagos to Washington? Has there ever been an administrative autopsy? How many other stories are out there that have not been written about?

  • February 10, 2017 2:28 PM | Willard J (Jim) Clark Jr (Administrator)

    Letters From Sokoto 

    by Gerald Sodomka (21) 66-68

         In early 2016 I was asked to give a lecture at the local community college about my Peace Corps experience. I prepared a PowerPoint presentation of my many slides and the material I had saved from my two years in Nigeria. I decided to read through all my letters home that my mother had saved. I had only read about three quarters of them previously.  

         At the lecture I decided to read directly the section from June 5, 1966. I didn’t think I could express it any better than I did 50 years ago. Afterward I continued to pull parts out of my letters concerning the political situation. My first three letters home were the longest letters I wrote and the least self-censored. I have drastically condensed the letters from May 15 and May 25, 1966 only to set the scene. The rest are complete paragraphs with absolutely no editing.  There are three non-political interludes that I think will interest other volunteers. Anything in brackets is an addition to help clarify what I originally wrote. Parentheses are original in my letters. I was tempted to edit what I had written, but that would be hindsight. Instead the reader gets exactly what I wrote at the time it happened.      

    Kaduna, Sunday, May 15, 1966

         The flight to Lagos was long and tiring. By the time we arrived in Lagos and got through customs, we were all very tired (Wednesday, May 4, 1966).  We stayed in an air-conditioned hotel near the airport.  (Those going to schools in the south left the next day.) Those of us going to the Northern Region then got our surprise.  Our schools don’t start until the end of May, so we are going to take our time getting there. Instead of flying there, we are going up by bus which will take three days. We spent the next three days in Lagos at the PC Hostel there.

         We left Lagos on Sunday morning for our trip to the North. There were seventeen PC people, one driver, an assistant driver, a mechanic, and a security guard, the last four Nigerians. It was supposedly a 31-passenger bus, but we were very crowded, what with all of our luggage and a big pile of pillows and linen we were carrying to the new hostel in the North.  In the next three days we literally bounced our way over 600 miles to Kaduna. We spent one night in Ilorin and one night in Bida.

         Finally arrived in Kaduna, capital of the Northern Region. It’s a modern city compared to other cities in the North and has a beautiful Olympic-size swimming pool at the Hamdala Hotel -- got to use it three times. Stayed in Kaduna for a total of five days. I’m finishing this letter from Sokoto, this is where I’m going to be stationed -- way up in the northwest corner of Nigeria, only about 60 miles from the border of Niger. I’m to be teaching at the Government Craft School. Right now I’m staying with two other volunteers until the arrangements for my housing are completed by the ministry. [This turned out to last almost a year until a house became vacant on the Craft School compound.)] The rainy season has not started this far north yet, and it’s the hottest part of the year.

    Wednesday, May 25, 1966

         Sokoto (long ohs) -- or as the British say “Sockwatoo.”  The town itself is mostly mud built, except for the two mosques, the Sultan’s Palace, government buildings, and the European sector, which are concrete or wood.  I’ve finally gotten settled into a house and have my suitcases unpacked for the first time in three weeks.  I’m living with two other volunteers -- John Egan working in social welfare and Tom Black working in agriculture.  (There was a third volunteer, Tom Crane, who terminated the same week I arrived.)  The house is on the Federal College compound, about four miles from my school.  There was no place for me to live on my own school compound.   

    Sunday, June 5, 1966

         Things were normal enough Saturday night a week ago. Two volunteers, Paul Trotta and Tom McGrew, both who teach at the Arabic School, gave a pizza party.  Paul made the pizza -- cheese, mushroom, and sausage – and it tasted just great.  And to think I’ve only been here one month (in Nigeria). The night ended with things normal and quiet in the town. By midmorning the next day there was rioting and looting going on in several parts of the town. How it started, no one seems to know. I think it was primarily a reaction of the Hausas against the Ibo-dominated coup of last January. Most of the rioting in Sokoto took place in the “Sabon Gari” (“new town”), the section where all the Ibo immigrants from the South live. It involved Hausas against the Ibos, looting their homes and shops, destroying their property and driving them out of their homes, and even out of the North if possible.  

         By Sunday afternoon the whole Sabon Gari was a mess – every window broken, stuff scattered all over the street, looters carrying off property, and Ibo women and children carrying a few possessions and hurrying to safety. By late afternoon there were hundreds of Ibo families congregated in front of the police headquarters, either waiting for transportation out of town, or simply there because they had nowhere else to go. There were people killed, both Ibo and Hausa, but no one seems to know how many for sure. Since the Ibos are mainly Christian, and the Hausas areMuslims, all the churches in town were damaged and looted also.  So you see the disturbances had not only an undertone of tribal war, but an undertone of religious war also.

         On Monday there was a big demonstration in town by Hausas, mainly students. By 7 o’clock in the morning most of our students at the Craft School had left the compound to go into town, even though they weren’t supposed to.  The principals of the other schools had a hard time trying to keep the students in class. Jenee Gossard, a girl PCV at the Teacher Training College (TTC), got hit by a student when he tried to leave the class and she ordered him back in his seat. Well, the inevitable happened when the groups started to march to the government offices. The police ordered them to stop, they refused, shots were fired, and several students were on the ground dead and more were wounded. I know for sure that one student from my school was killed immediately, and that one other died two days later in the hospital. They were both in my classes. A third student from my school is still in the hospital. How many others were killed or wounded? I don’t know. I hear conflicting stories.

         Things really didn’t improve much as the week progressed. There was more looting and killing each day. I think yesterday was the first quiet day. Maybe the situation has settled down, at least for a while. Unfortunately what happened in Sokoto was not an isolated event. Riots broke out all over the North – in Kano, Zaria, Jos, Kaduna, Gusau, and many smaller towns. Reports have it that the whole Sabon Gari of Kano was burned down, that much of Gusau was destroyed, and that the bridge over the river Benue at Makurdi was blown up. I think they’re all probably true.  

         Though everything is relatively quiet right now, most of the Nigerians on the staff at my school seem to think there will be more trouble, maybe even a counter coup more favorable to the North. One really radical Hausa on the staff talks in terms of a secession of the North or an outright civil war. But he’s an extremist.  At least I hope he is.

         Don’t start a lot of unnecessary worrying.  At this point Europeans are not involved and are in no danger of getting involved. I feel perfectly safe. Some of the English started to panic, but they’re only alarmists. There is one old boy who was all set to lead a convoy of evacuation up to the Niger border.  But he tried to do the same thing after the coup. About the only real effect on Europeans right now is that some supplies are hard to get or have already run out. Right now it is impossible to get gasoline in town because all stations are out. There won’t be any until some supply trucks get through. It’s hard to tell when that will be.

    August 19, 1966

         Well, I suppose you know that Nigeria has had another change of government. I probably don’t know any more than you do.  All I know is what I’ve heard over the radio on BBC and Voice of America and what I’ve read in Time magazine. All that happened in Sokoto was that the local radio station stopped giving news and the newspapers stopped coming for about a week.  Everything was pretty normal. I guess the airports in Kano and Lagos were closed, which means, of course, no mail coming in or leaving. They must be open now because I just got the latest issue of Time several days ago. This comes by air through Kano. Anyway, it looks like the North is back in charge of things again. I don’t know whether to cheer or to cry.  One thing is sure – the unitary form of government is out. It’s back to a loose federal structure again. It seems to be the only thing that can keep all the minority groups together under one nation.

    October 19, 1966 

         What can I say about the trouble in Nigeria?  I’m sure you’ve read the reports in the paper. The massacre at the Kano Airport was really bad. The reports I’ve heard say that the number of killed has reached into the thousands.  Kaduna, Zaria, and Jos have been particularly bad. There were a few killings in Sokoto, but other than that, it has been very quiet here.

    October27, 1966

         Did you hear that the “Zakin duniya”* of the Peace Corps has made a tour of Nigeria?  Jack Hood Vaughn himself made the scene in Sokoto. He and two other PC/Washington officials flew into Sokoto for a day. His main purpose in being here was to assess the political crisis and at the same time find out why there has been so much complaining about the closing of the hostels and about the cutting of our living allowance.  In fact, over 40% of the volunteers in Nigeria were committed to a general strike if the demands for a high level conference were not met.  So I guess he really came to “calm the rabble.”  We had the general meeting with Vaughn at our house (We have the biggest living room).  It happened to be a very warm day (95º+), and during the meeting the bugs were embarrassingly abundant. I can still see that three-inch praying mantis crawling up Jack Vaughn’s leg. I wasn’t too terribly impressed by him. He’s very quiet and soft-spoken.  In fact, he looked a bit “done-in.”

    *Hausa:  zaki = lion; duniya = world; i.e. Great Leader

         (Vaughn had made a sarcastic comment about our posh living condition.  This bothered me.  He didn’t know that we had had no running water for more than a month.  We were living with buckets of water pulled from a well for cooking and drinking.  Nothing for showering or flushing the toilet.  Vaughn spent the night and because of a very bad stomach had to frequently use the toilet. There was no water to flush it. We explained in the morning.  He looked sheepish and said he hadn’t realized the conditions we were living under. The house was brand new at the Federal College compound. It had been assigned to us by the Peace Corps.)

    January 6, 1967

         We left Lome [the capital of Togo] on Wednesday morning. There are seven of us traveling back to Lagos, so we all went together in a Peugeot station wagon taxi.  It’s just a short ride to the Dahomey border, Togo being only about 35 miles wide.  From the border it is then about 60 miles on to Cotonou, the capital of Dahomey. 

         We were planning to only stay one day here, but have since changed that to three.  We all have 48-hour visas only, so we’re hoping we don’t have any trouble at the border when we try to leave.  The big news when we got here, and the reason why we’re staying extra days, is that Liz Taylor and Richard Burton are flying in tonight (Friday).  Graham Greene’s The Comedians is being filmed here, and the stars are coming in.  So we decided to stick around a while to see them.  There are several sets being built near the beach, and we talked to a man from Haiti (where the story takes place) who is a special consultant for the film.  We are going out to the airport after dinner to see if we can see them (Liz and Dick, that is). [We did see them.]  We are definitely leaving for Lagos tomorrow.  After a few days there, it’s back to Sokoto.

    Monday, April 24, 1967

         I left Lagos on Tuesday morning for the Mid-west Region.  It’s only about a four-hour drive by fast Peugeot station wagon taxis over good, paved roads.

         The next day I took another taxi to Onitsha in the Eastern Region.  The East is the home of the Ibos, who were massacred in the North last year.  Since then the East has been slowly cutting itself away from the rest of Nigeria.  Crossing the Niger River, which forms the boundary between the Eastern Region and the Mid-Western Region, is like crossing into another country.  Very thorough searches of luggage were made, and I was asked innumerable questions about where I was going and what I was doing.

    July 20, 1967

         The war with Biafra hasn’t really affected Sokoto – we’re too far away from the scene of the action.  Of course, the war is all the newspapers talk about, and it’s the main topic of conversation in the staff room.  It’s difficult to know what to believe, what with the conflicting claims and obvious exaggerations.  My little radio only get two stations -- Radio Kaduna and Radio Enugu (Biafra) – so at least I get both sides, although neither is particularly reliable.  I can’t get BBC or Voice of America.  The only thing I know for sure is that all expatriates are being pulled out of the East, and I guess that includes Peace Corps too.  They may have already been pulled out of border areas.

    August 26, 1967

         The Kano airport is supposedly closed for “training operations,” but it’s pretty well admitted that huge arm shipments are being flown in, including Russian MiG jets which are being assembled there.  Several of the volunteers from Sokoto who were due to go home are having trouble leaving the country because all airline flights have been cancelled.

         The news here is that Russian arms and technicians are flooding into Lagos – how true this is I really don’t know.  Because that USA has declared itself neutral, the federal government has taken this as support for “Biafra,” and there is a lot of anti-Americanism in the papers and on the radio.  In fact, a USAID smallpox vaccination team working in Sokoto province has been accused of being spies for the Ibos.  All pretty ridiculous, but it still gives me an uncomfortable feeling.

    September 1, 1967

         Kano airport is still closed. I’ve heard that fifteen more MiG jets are still to come in and be assembled.  I’ve also heard that Russians are openly seen in Kano dressed in tunics with red stars.  It would be kind of exciting if some came up to Sokoto. The Nigerian Air Force has started training at the Sokoto Airport with two small single-engine planes.  They started flying over the town yesterday, making dives and low passes. I heard some of the people in town really panicked, thinking it was Johnny “Kamikaze” Brown and the famous Biafran B-26 making a bombing run over Sokoto. From the news it appears that the Federal Troops are regaining the offensive, at least slowly.  Things are normal in Sokoto.   

    September 16, 1967

         There was a new group of volunteers due to arrive in Nigeria last week. After being held up for two weeks in Amsterdam at the request of Yakubu Gowon, the Supreme Commander of the Federal Government, Peace Corps was asked to hold them another two weeks. Peace Corps refused and sent them packing back to the States. The fall training program was also cancelled, which means there will be no new volunteers for Nigeria for at least six months.  The remaining British volunteers (GVSO’s) were pulled out of the country this week.  There were three in Sokoto.  The incoming Canadian volunteers (CVSO’s) were diverted to Ghana.  This leaves ten PCV’s and three CVSO’s in Sokoto.

         The latest news in the papers is that the US government is supporting the rebel regime in Biafra by sending American Negro mercenaries.  This was reported by Tass.  Since a good part of American Negroes are Eastern Nigerian in origin, it was a piece of very clever propaganda by the Soviets.  The anti-Americanism has stopped in the papers, but only, I’ve heard, at the request of Gowon.  I’ve also heard that the Federal Ministries in Lagos are still seething with anti-US sentiments.  

         Peace Corps is now lame duck in Nigeria.  It may be the beginning of the end.  All is quiet in Sokoto.  

    October16, 1967

         The war has been lost for the rebel Biafrans.  With the fall of Benin City and the Mid-West Region, and last week, the capture of Enugu, the capital of Biafra, it’s only a matter of time before the rebellion collapses.  Who knows, by the time you get this letter, the war may be all over.  It’s hard to tell from Sokoto that there is still a war going on.  Except for the roadblock about a mile down the road from school that is still up and the collection this week at school for the “Troop Comfort Fund,” everything is very normal.  There is a steady supply of petrol coming in, and lorries are running regularly.

    November 2, 1967

         You know something? Of the thirteen teachers at our school, I’ve been at the school longer than all but two of them!!  Yes, it’s true. There’s been that much turnover. It hardly makes for continuity, does it?  By the time I leave, I may be “senior” on the staff.

    January 3, 1968

         It looks more and more like Peace Corps is being phased out in Nigeria.  Peace Corps/Lagos won’t admit it, but it seems the Federal Military Government just doesn’t want Peace Corps anymore.

    March 6, 1968

         I made my plane reservation to leave Nigeria – the 28th of March from Kano.

    Saturday, March 23, 1968

         I’m leaving Sokoto on Monday morning.  I’ve got a ride to Kaduna, where I have to pick up my money and ticket.  I’m going to Kano from there.  I should be in Europe by the evening of the 28th.

         Well, that’s all from Sokoto.  I’ll write from Europe.



  • November 08, 2016 1:43 PM | Willard J (Jim) Clark Jr (Administrator)


    by Nicola Dino (Ecuador 1993-1997)

         Hello to the Friends of Nigeria from Portland, Oregon. I am so happy to be able to let you know about our project of building a permanent museum of the Peace Corps Experience. 

          Above: Nicola Dino

         For more than a decade, the Committee for a Museum of the Peace Corps Experience (CMPCE), a group of dedicated returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs), has worked toward the goal of building a brick and mortar structure to house documents, 3-D items and oral histories of RPCVs.  There is no such all-inclusive museum that we know of.  We are a totally volunteer committee and no one receives any remuneration.  The Portland Museum Committee members are: Martin Kaplan (Somali Republic 1962- 1964), Bill Saphir (Thailand 1967-1970), Ron Myers (Malaysia 1972-1974) and Nicola Dino (Ecuador 1993-1997).

          Our mission is to inspire connection with the world by sharing the Peace Corps Experience. We intend to help preserve and celebrate the stories of returning Peace Corps volunteers, remember PCVs who have died during service and fulfill the Peace Corps’ third goal of bringing the many cultures home to Americans and broadening geographic education and cultural understanding. We believe the establishment of a museum dedicated to sharing your stories of your Peace Corps experiences through the artifacts and pictures brought back provide a glimpse of the work that has been done and a window into the future of diplomacy and understanding on the international stage as we have and continue to do.  Visitors to the Museum of the Peace Corps Experience will be encouraged to think about the global reach of the Peace Corps over half a century and be inspired to consider the profound potential for positive change that exists in each individual.

         Over the past 15 years, CMPCE has held numerous shows and exhibits of RPCV memorabilia in Northwest Oregon and Southwest Washington.  In 2011 we were the moving force behind a major exhibit at the Oregon History Museum commemorating the 50th anniversary of Peace Corps. We have continually partnered with schools and civic organizations having had nearly ten temporary exhibits.  Recently our informational wall panels, which were created for the 50th Exhibit, were exhibited in Ohio at the Dayton International Peace Museum and at Wilmington College.  We welcome you to visit our website: www.museumofthepeacecorpsexperience.org there you will find more interesting facts and pictures from past exhibits as well as updates for meetings and planning.

          We understand that in order to grow we have to publicize our group and develop partnerships with other RPCV organizations and individuals around the country who are like-minded and want to share his/her own legacy.  In September, prior to the Peace Corps Connect Conference in Washington, DC, we held the first national meeting of CMPCE at the George Washington University Library.  There were nine RPCVs in attendance and since then a number of others have asked to participate.  We are discussing what are the best ideas and options to start with. This is such an exciting time in the history of the museum committee.  To this end we encourage those of you would like to be part of what we consider the fourth goal:  preserving the legacy of Peace Corps to participate in making this a reality.

         During the Peace Corps Connect Conference, we had a table set up to meet and greet as many attendees as possible to talk about the museum project.  The response to our project was/is overwhelmingly positive.  We know the time is right to get this project moving. Many of you are willing and ready to donate your items as well and until we get a place to store items, we have to say, “Not yet”! When that time comes, we can tell you what information we would like to have about the item(s) and where to send them along with your story about the item(s).

          Thank you to all who stopped by our table at the exhibit to talk and share ideas. I appreciated all the comments, questions and concerns about our project.   We, the committee continue to welcome your input and ideas. One idea for example, is to start with having a virtual museum that can be accessed from right where you are!

         We can do this together as we continue looking forward. There are ways to participate and be a significant part of this effort.  Among the particular skills needed are:  museum professionals and cataloguers; archivists; artistic people; financial wizards; fundraisers; grant writers; special project organizers;  database specialists; exhibit specialists or any other ability that could be useful in a museum setting.  Again, we welcome your ideas and inquiries about any aspect of our efforts.

         Financial assistance in the form of donations are also welcome and can be made at our web site using PayPal, or by check payable to CMPCE and mailed to us at: CMPCE, P. O. Box 2427, Oregon City, OR 97045. The National Peace Corps Association also has a Community Fund Project, where donations can be made for the Affiliate Group Members. 

         The most important point is that we can have our legacy live on through our stories and artifacts.  There is no better time than now to remember the people, the work, the hope and the heart that has been and is Peace Corps. 

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Friends of Nigeria is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization. 
Email:  fonigeria@gmail.com President phone: 978-562-3613

Mailing address: Friends of Nigeria, c/o Warren Keller, PO Box 8032, Berkeley, CA 94707

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