“The Nigerian Air Force launched a bombing raid today targeting the Oji River Power Station. Ten square miles around the station has been razed and the operation is being hailed as a great success.”
This report was transmitted on the BBC World News from Lagos, five hundred miles west of Oji River. As locals, we knew it was propaganda and a form of fake news.
“How come a young Scot is married to a Nigerian and living in Oji River?” I hear you ask.
Well, as a bright teenager, the advice to my working class parents from ‘those who know best’ was that I should train as a teacher, and so, innocent and seventeen years old, I set off to Glasgow University. Here I meet Sennen, a handsome, intelligent, beguiling Nigerian engineering student. I am captivated by his stories of a recently independent country with such different cultural traditions, swathes of tropical fruit trees, traditional music, dance festivals and, of course, wild animals. We spend most of our spare time together and I am completely obsessed by this relationship and the inherent potential it carries for foreign travel and exciting adventures.
Four years on Sennen graduates, I complete my teaching diploma and we consider the next step to be marriage. I am shocked when my parents refuse to meet him, and demand that I do not marry him. Is this a display of racism on their part, or do they fear facing up to the prejudices of neighbours and friends?
However, I am determined to follow through on my own decision to marry and emigrate. My parents refuse to attend our wedding and so we marry in Glasgow among our university friends, and shortly afterwards set off for Nigeria. This inevitably creates a major family upset and I hear nothing from my parents. Did they not realise how rebellious and obstinate I have been all my life? The situation saddens me, but for better or for worse I have made my decision.
One thing I have not appreciated is that in Scotland Sennen’s behaviour is apparently westernised, but on returning to Nigeria he resumes his cultural identity and this results in changed behaviour towards me, and confusing expectations for me in my role as an Igbo wife. Initially being viewed with huge respect as a white well educated woman, I soon go from being the trophy wife, to becoming a despised, barren wife. An immediate pregnancy following marriage is an Igbo expectation and I am therefore a huge disappointment - and embarrassment - to Sennen and his family.
My reaction is to revert to silence laced with a measure of passive aggression – reminiscent of sibling fights and put-downs – and so from now on Sennen and I have fewer meaningful discussions about anything - particularly politics. I am aware - vaguely - that tensions are rising between ethnic groupings but do not follow the local news broadcasts. Is this the bed I have made for myself, in defying my parents’ wishes?
The original failed bombing raid was an outcome of these tensions between the Moslem north and the Igbo Christians from the south. Then as the months pass we hear of thousands of Igbos living in the North being slaughtered. Igbos thus begin to feel the need for protection and self-determination and so the governor of the Eastern state declares cessation and names the territory Biafra.
Frequent subsequent successful bombing raids play havoc in the Igbo homeland, as people flee with what they can carry and seek the solace, such as it is, of refugee camps. Sennen and I are also forced to flee on several occasions as the front line continues to encroach. Of the various alternative accommodations we are able to secure, the most traumatic is back in his home village, living with his widowed mother. People like to joke about mothers-in-law. Believe me, it is no joke. First problem: language. Although I speak some Igbo, the language is tonal, so most of my efforts to communicate are gibberish. Second problem: cooking. I am allocated an outdoor kitchen with an open wood fire to cook for Sennen, while Mother cooks for herself.
“Why is she taking such large peelings from the yam? She wastes so much food.” Is one of the many complaints. Am I ever going to win? I think not! A pit latrine is also a problem for me, but I won’t elaborate.
During this time I fall pregnant and we move yet again as Sennen finally realises just how difficult it is for me. We move some distance away to a caravan, and from there I manage, several months later, to get to a hospital in Owerri – the last Igbo stronghold – to deliver our daughter.
Three months later the agonising decision is whether we can sustain life together in the continuing Biafran rebellion, or whether I should return to Scotland and save our child’s life. A heart-breaking choice! Separation from my husband feels like a cruel conclusion. Escape from the war with the baby is a frightening but welcome idea. There is no doubt that motherhood changes one forever, and the maternal protective instinct is very much at the forefront of my thoughts.
I wonder what my parents know or hear about the war. I can only wonder, but they are, after all, family and I do miss them – even my three brothers.
I am apprehensive about my parents' reaction to my impending return. I had made my defiant moves but am coming home again, now with a child who needs an extended family. Given my African experiences, life can never be the same again, but Sandbank is familiar and comforting. My parents' relief that I am alive is tangible. They love our mixed race daughter and boast of my bravery to everyone. My African rebellion is over. I have discovered a personal resilience in the face of extreme circumstances, and motherhood has finally arrived bringing with it immeasurable joy and hope for the future.