Sunday, September 23, 2012

Berowne's 136

(For Three-Word Wednesday and ABC Wednesday: "K" is for "Kettle of Fish")
Flying to Biafra
Some years back I received an interesting assignment: I was hired to make a motion picture on Nigeria. It was a chance to do something of real value in my film work.
Making the film, which by the way was titled “Nigeria: Its Art and Its People,” wasn’t all that difficult. What was difficult was making Biafra part of the story.
You may not remember Biafra; it was a state in southern Nigeria, and like our southern states back in the 1860s it was secessionist. In other words, Biafra broke off from the rest of Nigeria and formed a new republic, which led to the Biafran War.
There have been so many wars over the past decades that people tend to forget this one, but the Biafran War was a major conflict: after two and a half years of fighting, during which a million civilians died from fighting and from famine, the new republic gave up in 1970 and rejoined Nigeria.
That’s when I showed up to make my movie.
Everything went fairly smoothly in the production; I shot the Nigerian art, the Nigerian people and lots of beautiful scenic stuff. But one day I got a call to meet with a top general; he said the government wanted Biafra to be in the film.
He said there was a marvelous Biafran dance troupe that I must go down and film. This would show that the country was now completely united once again.
I had no idea how this would work out; the war had just ended a few months earlier. In a way I felt better when I learned that what he had requested was sort of impossible.
There were no roads left to Biafra; no train tracks, no air travel, nothing. That old phrase, You can’t get there from here, was highly appropriate. I pointed this out to the general. Didn’t bother him a bit. Rent a plane, he said; get down there! We want that dance troupe in the film!
Well, that was a different kettle of fish; plane-renting had not been in my original budget. But I found a retired KLM pilot with a small plane who made a living from safari groups and such, so for an agreed-upon sum I enticed him to take me to Biafra.
What a trip that was! We flew at 400 feet all the way down; all of Africa was spread out before me – the jungle, the villages, the rivers, the whole deal. Quite beautiful.
We arrived at the Biafran airport – and there was nothing there. It was a large airport with an impressive control tower, but not a person was in sight. My pilot said he had never tried to land at an airport where there wasn’t anybody, but he’d give it a try.
So we landed and waited. There had been some sort of garbled message that folks would be there to pick me up in a van. There was no van. We waited some more.
My pilot had just made the suggestion that we pack it in and go back, when we heard a car’s horn in the near distance. A van arrived. The driver took me to an elementary school, where they were waiting for me.

The sight of the children was appalling. The kids, and everyone else I saw in Biafra, had suffered years of famine and they looked it. I wished I had thought to bring something with me, some kind of food, instead of just a camera.
When I explained to the teacher that I wanted to film the local dance troupe, she was puzzled. There was no such troupe. She believed that someone from up north, when visiting Biafra, had seen how, once she played a disc on her turntable in the classroom, the kids got up and gyrated about, as I guess all kids do when they hear music, and the visitor evidently thought there was some kind of dance troupe.
I didn’t know what to do. I shot the children, in their pitiful condition, dancing about to the music and figured I could maybe make the footage look something like a troupe later in the editing. But I had a terrible feeling about this whole operation.

Those folks had been cut off from everything, all waiting desperately for help from outside – for food, supplies - to arrive, and then I showed up, bringing nothing but an inane request for a dance troupe.

I had never been ashamed of my work as a film-maker, but I have to admit I felt some shame then. I was a person who could get back on the plane and fly north to a life of ease, able to savor a fine evening meal and many more such meals, while the results of the famine were to remain for a long time with all the children, with all the people, of Biafra.

(Also submitted to Sunday Scribblings)

46 comments:

Tifiny ishare Moon said...

interesting experience shared.

christopher said...

Ouch! There are so many places on the planet where having access to the internet means little, where chairs of any sort are rare, and beds are little more than pallets. In Bangladesh and India people sleep out on the streets as a normal condition, or build hovels where they find space, even when working. You see these things and go on because there is nothing else to do.

But of course, I don't have to tell you this, do I.

Laurel's Quill said...

I do remember the furor about Biafra years ago. it was our first real eye opening view of famine

Tess Kincaid said...

You have so many fascinating experiences, Mr. B...thank you for sharing...

joanne said...

I remember sick jokes about Biafran children at the time....But I never knew so much as after reading your post....fascinating and deep stuff

oldegg said...

What a heart rending post. Even though you took nothing tangible with you hopefully you gave them a little hope that things would change.

Roger Owen Green said...

I remember Biafra; I found it terribly depressing when I read about it.

Berowne said...

Joanne: "Fascinating and deep stuff."
Great comment. Thanks, Joanne.

Berowne said...

Tess K: "Thank you for sharing."
And thank you too, Tess, for your never-failing weekly prompt.

R. Burnett Baker said...

I remember a famous photo of a child in Biafra from that time. Your story was interesting, but more to the point, painful to read: Perhaps painful to read as it is to remember.....

Irish Gumbo said...

Such roundabout ways in which we learn hard truths. I knew of Biafra through my youthful fascination with punk music, and the Dead Kennedys' lead singer, who called himself Jello Biafra. Being also a nerdy sort, I researched the name and learned about the Biafra you experienced. In such non-linear threads do we discover worlds beyond our shoulders. Sometimes, with heartwrenching effects. A kaleidoscopic and thoughtful take on this prompt. Good work.

Doctor FTSE said...

I remember the Biafran War. I remember the UK politician Roy Jenkins "explaining the war away" on the telly. I remember the folk in the background holding up placards with numbers and the last one saying "dead in Biafra, Mr. Jenkins" and the numbers on the other placards steadily increasing throughout his apologia

izzy said...

I remember the horror of these children, when I was young-Oh my and you saw it first hand-

Little Nell said...

I remember this war and famine very well and sadly hearing those sick jokes too, but to experience their despair at first hand must have been quite something else. Thak you for the reminder - it really should never be forgotten.

Berowne said...

What a pleasure to hear from Little N, izzy, Doc FTSE, Irish G, and R Burnett B. - my sincere thanks.

Helena said...

Quite an experience for you. I can recall it from my childhood and those awful jokes. It's shocking to think that parts of the world are still in similar state.

Lyn said...

I remember the Biafra starvation and a pitiful picture of one of the children with flies nestling near his mouth, no will to brush them away...or maybe another locale, another place of hunger..
Distribution of plenty? A bad idea? Thank you..

Wayne Pitchko said...

another great read Mr B.....thanks for sharing your story

Kathe W. said...

how awful to arrive and not be able to do anything- that would stay with me for along time-what were those people thinking sending you there

Raven said...

I remember Biafra well with horror. This was a good story. Thank you for you visit.

Berowne said...

Wayne P.: "Another great read, Mr B....."
My thanks, Wayne.

jabblog said...

I can only imagine how you must have felt - but the children expected nothing and did not judge.

EG CameraGirl said...

The war in Biafra was indeed a sad time. What a fascinating tale!

Berowne said...

A fine comment, EG; thanks.

Kutamun said...

Heartbreaking tale, Berowne, you must have seemed like some insane God to them. Cheers.

Laurie Kolp said...

Heart-wrenching!

Rinkly Rimes said...

That account just about sums-up the whole wretched lop-sided world situation! And that bottom photo is one of the most telling I've ever seen. I presume you took it. Thank you.

Belva Rae Staples said...

Thanks for sharing this story! I'm sure you would've done more given the chance, but bringing the conditions to light is commendable!

Tumblewords: said...

Ah, a painful memory. One wonders about humanity, or lack. Thanks for sharing your story!

Hildred and Charles said...

A very sad story -how careless we are with our mindfulness of other people's plights...

Linda said...

And what has changed for the children of Biafra since the 1970's? Very little, that is the real tragedy. Thank you for sharing this, Berowne. The comment you left for Kutamun, "Yes; "modern stasis". There seems to be a lot of that around. :-)" rings so true here.

Chris said...

"I was a person who could get back on the plane and fly north to a life of ease, able to savor a fine evening meal and many more such meals, while the results of the famine were to remain for a long time with all the children, with all the people, of Biafra." Well said. We feel the same after reading sad stories from Africa, and the next moment we enjoy our pleasures here.

Ali Crehan said...

Thank you for sharing this story.

Sheilagh Lee said...

how awful that anyone on this planet should go hungry.I do remember this I'm sure that when people saw your film they would have seen the famine.Maybe it helped.

Tigerbrite said...

Thank you for sharing this story. I remember Biafra and the famine.

Lynette Killam said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this,heartrending as it is. Having been to East Africa myself, I've caught a glimpse of the enormous need that hangs like a cloud over the continent.

It is perhaps a sign of my age that I still remember my mother making me eat when I didn't want to because Biafran children were starving to death...as if any of us understood the real scope of that reference.

hyperCRYPTICal said...

My mum and dad used to foster children and for a period of two weeks they cared for three Biafran children while their mother (a doc) gave birth to her fourth child. (Father was a doc too so couldn't care for his children - what with shifts and all).

We kept in touch with them and a good few months later they returned to Nigeria - just prior to the outbreak of war - and we never heard from them again.

I still wonder about them to this very day, wonder if they managed to survive.

Anna

Berowne said...

Fascinating story, hyper. Thanks so much.

mypenandme said...

Thanks for sharing this story.

Little Nell said...

Knowing how you like your Shakespeare, you may be interested in my latest post, 'These Bones' about Richard III.

http://hangingonmyword.blogspot.com.es/2012/09/these-bones.html

I'd be interested to hear your views.

rallentanda said...

My, you have had an interesting journey.Thanks for sharing it with us.

Berowne said...

rallentanda: "My, you have had an interesting journey."
Yes; mostly downhill. (Jes' kiddin')

Berowne said...

Little Nell: "I'd be interested to hear your views."
I take the liberty of copying here my response to Little Nell's post on Richard III.
"A beautifully-wrought poem; always good to hear from RIII, even if only from the grave. As Joni Mitchell might say, 'They buried Richard and put up a parking lot!'
"The winter of my discontent has to do with how attacks on Dick the Three - or Hank the Cinq, among other Shakespearean dignitaries - often don't seem to distinguish between the person, the guy himself, the actual historical figure, and Will S's fictional creation. They were usually very different people...
Keep up, as Anaximander used to say, the good work. It's a pleasure to be able to read such intelligent, literate posts."

J Cosmo Newbery said...

I had completely forgotten about Biafra. Such is the transitory nature of news stories, i guess. Always something new pushing their way to the front page.

Bee's Blog said...

I have lived in many places including the Far East, Middle East and West Africa and I have had some amazing experiences - some good and some so bad that I thought I'd never recover. And the bad ones were in Nigeria where I saw things that I wish I never had. I can understand how the horror of Biafra would stay with you. I know how the military operated then. I can understand, having lived through a coup in Nigeria during which I was held at gunpoint in my own home, by 22 armed soldiers and secret police how that nation would leave an indelible mark on you. Thank you for sharing this experience which took me back to a country which as I finally flew out of, I swore I'd
never go back to. And I haven't. I went to the Ivory Coast afterwards which was a completely different ball game but Nigeria? Never again.

RMP said...

wow. heartfelt, touching and eye-opening. I can't imagine what that experience must have been like, but you have definitely brought it to life.

 
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