I was married to a Biafran

I was born in New York. My name is Rina Okonkwo. I grew up in the US and I moved to Nigeria in 1973.

Em, well, I lived in New York City before coming here in Manhattan. I was born in New York and I grew up on Long Island. Then, when I got married [in 1969], we moved to New York City, to Manhattan.

Professor Dr. Rina Okonkwo shares her Nigerian-Biafran War Memories. Photo by Chika Oduah

Well, I actually got to know my husband when the war started and we used to meet every week at the newspaper library at Cornell [University], the Student Union Building and we used to read the newspapers together about what was happening in Biafra and during the war. I was following it pretty closely while we were at Cornell and I remember we had a visit from some ambassadors from Biafra that came to Cornell, visited the campus, I met with them. So, I really got to know my husband at the same time as the war was starting and I was really interested in what the developments were as much as we could learn from the newspapers.

It was like a ritual

I met him [my husband] when I joined the International Student Association. I think I was always attracted to anything international. So, as soon as I got to Cornell, I joined this International Student Association and I joined that my freshman year and I continued on that all through my university. So, when I was in charge of orientation for new students, international, he was a new student and I met him, ’65.

I was just destined to marry a foreigner. I wanted to be with international. I liked that, international.

[Smiles.]

Something about international made me interested. So, I met a lot of foreign students since I was working on this international committee.

…they were hungry for news…

To read the newspapers. It was like a ritual. Every week we meet there. I think he was interested in me and it was a way for us to meet every week. Just became our routine. Every Monday I think it was, we meet there and go through the newspapers.

Well, he was really worried about Biafra. This was, you know, a very trying time for all of those Igbo students. They were very frightened and worried about their families and they were hungry for news and it was very hard to get news. So, I think he, em, you know, he was just reading anything he could find. That’s before the internet. There wasn’t that much information. So, it was very hard for them, very, very hard. They were worried about their families. They all believed in Biafra. So, they wanted to help and they wanted to know what was happening as much as they could. That was probably in ’67. I think ’67. I graduated from Cornell in ’68. So those two years.

Yeah, he came to the school in ’65. I entered school in ’64 and, then, I joined that international committee in my freshman year. And, then, he came as- when I was in the sophomore year. He was in the orientation. That’s how I met him.

It was a blackout

New York Times [was where we mostly got news on the war.] Whatever we could get. We moved to Cambridge [Massachusetts] when I graduated [from Cornell]. I went to Brandeis for my Master’s and my husband moved, too, and he was working. And, then, we used to go to Harvard Square because they have international newspapers. So, we read the newspapers standing on the street. This was just like a fever. Somehow, the desire to know what was happening and it was so hard to get information.

Professor Dr. Rina Okonkwo. Photo by Chika Oduah

…at the beginning [the war wasn’t being well-covered in the American media]. I don’t think we could get the real information at all. And that time, we didn’t have BBC news or any of those, CNN. There was no internet. It’s just terribly hard to get information. It was a blackout and you couldn’t hear from the people in Biafra. There was no way you could connect. So, these ambassadors helped. They were coming from Biafra to get funding for supplies or something and they came to Cornell and we met with them. You know, I don’t think, at least, at that point, there wasn’t a lot of interest in Biafra in America, in the early part of the war. I am not sure it ever got to be so big. And I don’t think there was anything like what we heard at that talk [a June 2019 presentation at the National Gallery of Art in Enugu, Nigeria on Biafra war art and propaganda in Germany] in about Germany, or France where the people were really concerned about Biafra. I didn’t see that in America very much. Although there was that Life Magazine cover [two malnourished Biafran children who appeared in a black-and white photo on the July 17, 1968 cover] about the war. But, it was never on the front of anybody’s mind, I don’t think. And remember the Vietnam War was on. It was distracting people.

I don’t remember seeing it [the July 17, 1968 Life Magazine edition]. It was recently when we were having an exhibit [at the Centre for Memories, a cultural institution in Enugu, Nigeria, where Rina Okonkwo volunteers] that my daughter sent it. I don’t think I saw that at that time. If I did, I have forgotten.

[None of my non-Nigerian friends at the time of the war were interested in the war]. When we moved to Cambridge- it’s a big Nigerian community, an Igbo community- we were always having events. We had fundraisers. We had these setup tables and streets in Boston and we were telling people about Biafra. They were having marches. I participated in those with my husband. Although, there were so many activities. The community was very very active but, I don’t think that was true at Cornell.

…they were terribly upset about it

Cambridge, Massachusetts. We were living there, at the time and there was a lot of Biafran activity. We were always going out for marches and em, information. We stand at tables trying to collect money and tell people about Biafra. They [the rallies and events] were just, um, to create awareness and get people more involved. I am not saying that we got a lot response. But, we had them very often. We were always out there.

Joining rallies and marches was just up my alley

Oh, I remember that we would, um, stand around and talk to people on the street. Maybe, they put some tables to collect money and then, people will stop and then you tell them, how, what was happening. I don’t remember there being tremendous interest, but, we kept trying. At that time, for my husband, it was a terrible time. And I think for all the Igbos, they were terribly upset about it. They wanted to do something. They felt kind of um, on the sidelines. They wanted to do more. So, what could they do? Raise money or get more people to be interested.

I just joined everything they did. I always supported him and I went along with them. I joined everything.

I just remember walking on the streets. I’m very interested in being in rallies. I was very active in the Civil Rights movement. I was always going on marches. The Vietnam War, I went on marches for that. We had so many activities at Cornell about the Vietnam War. So, that’s just something I did. Joining rallies and marches was just up my alley. [Laughs]. I was used to doing that, holding signs and probably in Boston Moore. I guess Cambridge or Boston. They were a whole group. Maybe, about 20 or 30 Igbos would go along. I don’t know if we got much attention or whether people paid much notice, but, we were always out there. There’s the real, this really was a very hard thing for the Igbos and for my husband to live through that. They felt very useless and they felt they had to be doing something.

We were always having these marches

I think they [people on the streets where we were holding rallies to raise awareness about the war] just basically ignored us. I don’t remember them showing real interest. I’m not sure they did. It was more for us. We felt we had to do something. We were always having these marches. Looked like almost every week, we were out there. In winter even, standing at tables to tell people and educate them.

Professor Dr. Rina Okonkwo. Photo by Chika Oduah

Well, we lived in Cambridge for only one year, ’69, ’68 to ’69. So, that’s just about it. That’s when we did that [the rallies]. When we moved to New York ’69 and the war ended in ’70, so, it was only about three, four months after we moved there, January 1970. So, I don’t really think we did much in New York. But, we had attended several conferences; they had these Biafra conferences in New York. We attended several of those at Columbia [University] where all the Igbos living in the area will come and discuss the issues. Yeah, I guess to plan what we could do.

…the only countries that supported Biafra were minor countries

I remember they [Biafran envoys] came to Cornell when we were there. So, that would be like ’67 probably and they were always coming. You know, Biafra needed money, they needed support. So, they kept sending out these envoys or ambassadors to reach out to people overseas. That was their goal, to get support. If they could have gotten a major country to back them, they might have been able to get much further. But, the only countries that supported Biafra were minor countries. Haiti. If you know how excited they were when Haiti recognized Biafra or Tanzania, they were so excited. That was the biggest thing. But, that didn’t really go far.

Oh, it was a great, a great thing. They were thrilled. It was a celebration. When Tanzania recognized Biafra that was wonderful.

…it never occurred to me to be pro-Nigerian

I don’t remember [how I initially heard about that]. I guess they got the news from somewhere. I don’t know, it was so hard to get information. But, they found out. Maybe, it was in the newspaper. That was a different time from now where you have instant information.

…I was married to a Biafran and a very strong Biafran…

Oh, I was happy. It was, it was something. But, it wasn’t all that lucrative. It didn’t change too much….Everybody was so happy. They felt it was the beginning. I guess we were hugging each other and shouting.

[Laughs.]

It was a great moment. They were very very happy about it. We were always having gatherings in those days. All the Biafrans in Boston, meetings, parties. We were always together. So, I guess we were celebrating when we heard that ’cause this was terrific. We just thought it was so great. But, it didn’t go too far. They were hoping it was the beginning of more recognition but I don’t think it really was. I feel that was the basic problem Biafra had, that none of the major countries recognized them. In fact, they opposed them. Russia opposed them, or Soviet Union, England. They didn’t get a lot of support from nations. Maybe, individuals but not the- not at that level.

…I hated Nigeria as a country

Oh, it never occurred to me to be pro-Nigerian. I was married to a Biafran and a very strong Biafran. My husband really wanted to leave the US and join Biafra. That was what he wanted.

They just wanted to crush them

He just wanted to be there. I don’t know if he thought ahead of, whether he would fight or not. But, he believed so much in Biafra. He felt he should be there and he was worried about his family. But, also about the survival of Biafra. There was no question that I would ever support Nigeria.

Well, I hated Nigeria as a country. I thought they were oppressing Biafra and treating Biafra so badly and Biafra was struggling. I would naturally side with them. Yeah. I felt they were really treating them so badly. I think Biafra wasn’t given much standing at all. They didn’t want to talk to them. They just wanted to crush them.

We lived in our own world, this world of Biafra…

We must have done that [made placards for the rallies] but I don’t remember, em, I remember marching but I don’t remember what we wrote [on the placards]. No, I’m not sure. But, there would be reports from Biafra and people would come together. What I remember, one, em, party we went to when we moved to New York, there was a woman who had been to Biafra and she came and reported to us and all of us gathered around her and she told us what she had seen. She was a celebrity. An American woman, a white woman. She went to look for her husband to find out about how the family was. She came back and reported. Anybody who had any knowledge was so welcome especially after the war because there was so much fear about what kind of treatment the Biafrans would get from the Nigerians after the war and they were so worried about their families. So, anybody who had any information would be a great hero and people would really hang on their words.

I don’t remember [ever talking to my family or non-Nigerian friends about the war.] We lived in our own world, this world of Biafra and I don’t really remember too many Americans in there. There were so many Igbos living in Boston that time. At Cornell, not so many. But, when we moved to Boston, there were so many and then, we went to New York and there were a very big community there. So, we kind of had our own society. I don’t remember sharing too much about Biafra with them. I guess they attended some of the events. It wasn’t like they weren’t welcomed. They were certainly welcomed [other Americans]. Some of them must have come but, this was mainly for the Igbos living there. They had their own community.

I just don’t remember anything [specific stories about the war that I read in the newspapers at that time]. I tell you the one that stays with me is that picture I saw in France in Paris in 1967 of that [Biafran] child crying because I took a picture of it and then, I still have it. So, I think that’s why it stays with me. I don’t think I have any particular other picture in my mind.

Oh, I was so interested in France and I went there for a summer program. I was working there and I went to visit Paris and that’s where I saw these posters [of Biafran children and other images of the war]. So, I took a picture of it. It was just the beginning of the war because I was there in the summer of ’67. But, they already were so involved in Biafra. They were, it was everywhere in Paris. These pictures, so amazing because I don’t think the US was on that same level of interest.

Yes [the pictures of Biafran children and other images of the war were posted on buildings in Paris], mmm hmm, everywhere. It’s very amazing. I found them, the Parisians, to be very compassionate and very involved with the world, world problems.

He really was so destroyed by that war

That time it wasn’t [images of kwashiorkor] It was just [Biafran] children, crying. I seem to remember tears, young babies. They were posters. They weren’t actually photographs. I don’t think. Maybe, they were photographs. This is so early in the war. July ’67 was when I was in Paris. It’s so early for them to be already be worried about Biafra. After all, Biafra was just like a month old by then.

I just loved France and I wanted to go to France and they had an exchange program. So, that’s why I went.

I must have [cried] at the time, but, you know its fifty years ago. So, I can’t remember that well.

I think for my husband, yes [he was overcome with sadness]. He must have had that [intense grief]. Watching him go through this was very very painful for everybody. He really was so destroyed by that war. He felt so upset about it and he wasn’t alone. I think all the Igbos living overseas felt guilty and worried about their families and they believed so much in Biafra. When he spoke last month [May 2019] at the Centre for Memories [for Biafra Remembrance Day], he talked about it and how being in America was so much harder for them than if they had been in Biafra because they wanted to be part of it. They wanted to help Biafra and they were so far away.

Professor Dr. Rina Okonkwo’s hands. Photo by Chika Oduah

He was still in school. He, um, went to Cornell and he was by that time he was about to graduate, ’67. Then he started his Master’s.

I was in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. That’s what I was studying. He was in, I guess it was biochemistry. He was in the sciences. He actually did his Master’s, I think, in nutrition and he did his PhD in pharmacology.

There were certain people who were covering Biafra and we used to read their articles. But, I can’t remember the names now. I don’t remember much of TV coverage. It must have been on TV. But, I don’t remember. I don’t think we had a TV then. I am pretty sure we didn’t have a TV by that time. We were just students.

I don’t remember [how I heard about the war being over]. But, it was a big blow. I don’t remember the exact moment. January ’70. It was terrible. But, that time, I think, there was a Nigerian doctor who came to New York and he was at the same school where we were. When we moved to New York, we were living at Cornell Medical College quarters. And this couple came, a Yoruba doctor and he had a subscription to the Daily Times. So, it’s possible that he was, I think he was giving us the paper after he read it. So, we must have read about it in the Daily Times. We used to read everything. He was getting the Daily Times. That really put us in the picture. We didn’t have access to any Nigerian papers before.

We were able to know, you know, exactly what happened. Maybe, he showed us the paper and gave us the details because we were reading the paper every week. He was getting it. You know, they were having access to everything. He was from Abeokuta [a city in Ogun State, Nigeria] I think. But, they were mailing it from Lagos to New York. He was able to get the newspaper. And also, another thing was the West African, what was it? West Africa, yeah, we were reading that religiously. We had a subscription to West Africa. That’s true. That was a good source of information. We were receiving it in the mail. I think it was weekly. So we, once we subscribed to West Africa, we get a lot of, a lot more information.

We weren’t rich but whatever we had, we tried to give

You know, he [my husband] was just so involved. This is all he thinks about. It was uppermost in his mind all the time. He was worried. He was really frightened. It was a very hard situation for him because as I said, he really wanted to leave the US and join the army or come to Biafra. He was hoping that he would be able to do that. My husband, as we told you, is a revolutionary and he admired Che Guevara and he wanted to be like him. So, he felt this was his cause. He really had to be involved. He was an active person. He wasn’t just going to sit back and watch it. He wanted to be involved. So, I guess he felt very kind of sorry or guilty or something, that he wasn’t part of it to the degree he would have liked. It was like a missed opportunity. Maybe, he felt if he could do more then, they would survive and they would win.

Oh, no [my husband was not able to directly get in touch with any of his family who were in Biafra] but, these ambassadors, one of them was from Awka [a city in Anambra State, Nigeria] and he was almost like a family member. So, he was coming back and forth and we were sending things with him. So, I guess, we had some idea of where they were through him. But, we found out later that some of the things we gave him never reached them [my husband’s relatives]. Money and clothing and food items and he [the Biafran ambassador from Awka] kept a lot of them for his own family or gave them to other people.

It was like a funeral

We did. We did. We tried [to send relief materials to Biafra] and this man [the Biafran ambassador from Awka] was the person who used to take them. We did. We tried to get packages to send, and raising money and giving what we could. We sent a lot. We gave a lot of money. We weren’t rich but whatever we had, we tried to give. We were very involved.

I think [our activism did end once the war ended] and probably we should have done more after. But, that kind of zeal died. People were very despondent. It was like a funeral. I told you how had David Koren [an American Peace Corps Volunteer in Umuahia, Nigeria between 1964 and 1966 who joined the Biafran airlift mission during the war] showed this film in New York and when the film ended- it was about the end of the war- and David said this is like a funeral. It left everybody empty.

Professor Dr. Rina Okonkwo. Photo by Chika Oduah

Biafra, well, first of all, nobody could get in. They had blockaded Biafra. It’s very hard to get into Biafra. I am not saying impossible but it wasn’t easy. So, I didn’t ever think of it for myself. But, my husband definitely did. He dreamed of going. I think he said, I don’t know if it’s true or not, but he said he tried to get in. But, he couldn’t. But, I am not that’s true. I don’t remember him actually leaving. But, he told me he tried. And I don’t know when that was exactly.

I don’t remember that [the May 30, 1969 self-immolation of 20‐year‐old Columbia student, Bruce Mayrock, who set himself on fire on the lawn of the United Nations in New York and died a few hours later – to protest “genocide” in Biafra, according to a sign he left behind].

Well, we came to New York in ’69. But, it was only three months before the war ended. So, I don’t think we were there then but I certainly heard about it [Bruce Mayrock incident]. But, I don’t think I was in New York at that time. We heard about it [then, at the time]. It was big news. It was definitely in the news. I think so [it being covered in the mainstream American news]. I think it was big news. I seem to remember it being well known, but I don’t remember the details. But, as I said, we never had a TV in those days. So, I couldn’t have watched it. But, we did read the newspapers. We seemed to know a lot more when we started reading the Daily Times from this doctor. We knew a lot more and when we got the West African, The West Africa. I think they still produce that magazine.

Well, it was a big, uh, news outlet then and it was probably the best source of news in Africa or West Africa. It was really a top line journal. It was very useful. And we had a subscription. So, I think once we started reading that, we knew much more about what was happening.

I am not sure [if my husbands had relatives who fought in the war]. He had relatives, but- no, well, one of his cousins was actually a soldier. But, we didn’t really know about him being in the war by then. We didn’t have any direct family members; I mean nuclear family. But we had extended family. Some died. That would be cousins.

I guess we were depressed [when Biafra surrendered and had essentially lost the war]. It was a letdown. It was terrible. We felt very sad and we felt very disappointed. And, it was like a funeral, like he [David Koren] said. No, I don’t [remember crying] but, it was definitely very tragic for my husband. I think, for him, it was a lot sadder than for me. I felt terrible but he felt very sad. They really wanted Biafra to succeed.

Em, I think [I was the only white young women who was marching and participating in the local pro-Biafra rallies that we were organizing]. I can’t remember another white woman in the group at that time. I can’t remember anybody. I was so part of it. I, I lived in that group. I really didn’t- you know we moved to Cambridge, I said ’68, we didn’t know anybody there before. I didn’t have any friends that lived there so my whole circle was definitely these Igbos and I didn’t really reach out to many people. Of course, I was going to school. That’s true, I had some friends from school who were interested in Biafra. There was a woman who lived right on the next street where we were living in Cambridge who was very passionate about African affairs and her sister was actually, um, living with an Ethiopian guy. These were white American girls but they were very into Africa. So, they were involved and they were very friendly with us. They lived on the next street. So, they must have been participating. I did make a few friends from my school. So, I think some of them especially this family, the woman and her sister. They were both in African studies and they were quite familiar with Africa. So, I think they joined some of these activities.

…we certainly tried to support Biafra with what we had…

One of them [Biafran envoys whom I remember] was Dr. [Nwoye] Otue. He’s my husband’s relation and he was the one we were giving the clothing and the money to and he came to Cornell. They were a group though, but I remember him specifically because he was from Awka and we knew him very well.

Yes, he was there. I knew him quite well and we met him a number of times and we were always giving him things. He’s the one I remember because he was from Awka. But, I don’t think I knew the names of others. Not that I can remember now. Yes. I did spend my money on Biafra. I mean I didn’t have much. But I was always working part-time, part-time jobs. We didn’t have a lot of money but we certainly tried to support Biafra with what we had and I remember going out to buy food items like powdered milk, powdered eggs, things like that to give them, food items that he could carry back and clothing. And I think we must have, um, in our awareness campaign we must have somehow collected things, money or clothing to give.

I think that it [the relief items] went back to Biafra but not to everybody. I think these [the Biafran envoys] people were helping their immediate families more than anybody. We heard later that it never reached my husband’s family. There was a problem and people were selling some of these relief items in Biafra. You know this attack trade [Afia Attack]. Yeah. They were selling it to make money. When the relief came, there were people going there to sell instead of handing it free to people. It was kind of abused.

…When we came to Nigeria, we certainly heard of people who have died. But, nobody so close. We didn’t lose anybody really close to him.

[I moved to Nigeria in 1973] but, we had visited in ’72. That’s when we could really see the devastation and they haven’t [hadn’t] rebuilt. Um, I remember when we got to the, um, edge of the river, you had to have people carry you across. They didn’t have bridges across the water. So, somebody, you pay somebody and they’ll carry you across the river. And you couldn’t drive across, you had to get another vehicle. The bridges were down at that time.

When I got to Brandeis, I went to the library there and I was borrowing all these Igbo books. I was very into Chinua Achebe and I was reading anything I could get.

Professor Dr. Rina Okonkwo. Photo by Chika Oduah

At the time, I couldn’t have not supported Biafra. I really believed in it. But, I don’t believe in it anymore. That’s where I part ways with these people [present-day pro-Biafrans pushing for the succession of southeastern Nigeria]. I don’t want to see another Biafra and have another failure. If it could succeed, yes, but I don’t see it. I’m not optimistic. I guess I’m too old.

And all those children who died of malnutrition and kwashiorkor. I just feel so sad. The suffering, so unnecessary. I’m really sorry about it.

 

*Professor Dr. Rina Okonkwo granted this interview to Chika Oduah from her home in Enugu State, Nigeria.*

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