Letter from Nigeria

By A. U. Ogubunka
In 1953 it was the editor's privilege to visit Lagos, Nigeria, where he met with a number of nationals from different parts of the country. Last month he received the following communication from one of those whom he talked with at that time. We are pleased to share with our readers this truly human document.

Dear Sir:

During the recent conflict in my country, human experience in terms of suffering provoked various thoughts and reflections. In the face of the sad episode, the afflicted ones wondered whether there was God or not; whether there was conscience or not. Many families had been completely ruined. Men prayed and wished for a heavenly intervention. I had always felt that the phenomenon could only be one of those cataclysms in the history and evolution of an individual, up to a national and world level. To have gone through this is something great enough to warrant its consideration in the light of the theosophical philosophy.

It is in this vein that I have yearned to write you because, throughout that period of tribulation, I found myself sustained by my belief in its practical philosophy which has got quite a part to play in our individual and collective lives. The very intricate and subtle lessons of war and its ravages must be learned for a change in our outlook, especially towards our fellow human beings. We must learn to share the joys and sorrows of others if the spirit of compassion is to be established. We must learn to wear off the malignant strings of selfishness, possessiveness, in order to make an inward-road into our higher selves. It is only when this speaks out loud in our hearts that we can at once put into motion this chord of harmony toward oneness and brotherliness. It is only then that we can learn not to do to others what we would not like done to us.

When I think of my relationship with others, perhaps a farmer, a priest, a politician or a king, my reflections must not go so much towards his physical structure, his wealth, his powers, but to identifying him as a soul, and in the light of the manifestations of his inner self whether good or bad. It would therefore be an illusion and a great folly to see only the outward achievements if the spiritual background is negative. For instance, if John stole from James secretly and thereby acquired the latter's wealth, it would be an illusion to respect and honor John in his newly enshrined position of opulence, no matter his degree of disposition in throwing out pennies to others in order to acquire their confidence and sustain a popularity.

I well recall your visit to Nigeria in 1953. Little did I realize that I learned quite a lot from your interest in our welfare. This was very manifest during that contact. During the years I have endeavored relentlessly to associate myself in a right manner with the problems of others and in a spontaneous manner on a call from within. I have therefore decided to bring to your notice my experience during the war as it strikes deeply into the fabric of my mind.

In 1961 I was on posting in a border province between the eastern and northern regions of Nigeria. Naturally the inhabitants are poor and in several cases were unable to foot hospital bills. I had found it necessary to pay up some bills for the very destitute ones, and also out of sympathy. The nature of my work in the collection of revenue made it possible for me to come in constant contact with the patients. One would have to feel for them if the germ of compassion is present.

One afternoon a man came up to the hospital with a serious matchet cut affecting one of his wrists. He was a farmer. The encumbent hospital fees for his treatment amounted to nearly sixty shillings. But the money was not forthcoming. There was no other alternative -- to go with his injury not treated. I was greatly worried over his plight and so decided to place the financial responsibility over my shoulders. And so he was treated. It was difficult to watch and look at him in great pains without any action on my part. That was how I felt. He made a very quick recovery. Thereafter I saw in him much joy and happiness. That was in 1964.

The war broke out on July 6, 1967 -- three years after the incident narrated above. On the 11th of July I had packed my belongings as any other person did and got my family ready for evacuation to my home town, which is over 200 miles southwards. There was no transport available and so we waited for the next day.

It was on the morning of the 12th when we were wondering what to do. Every mind was heavy. Many people who were fortunate enough to secure transport in the night had fled. No one was aware that the town had already been surrounded by troops. At 7:05 a.m. exactly, to our surprise and chagrin, around us were sounds and the booming of guns and other sophisticated war machines unusual to our ears. Every soul ran into frenzy. The whole town looked ablaze and the ultimate tendency was to look out for a hiding place.

My wife with our youngest was away from the house. I had to gather the rest of the children, eight of them and a house servant. In the mood of great excitement they were kept in my office which is barely thirty yards from my quarters, with instructions to stay there while I proceeded to collect their mother from the rear of the house where she went to gather items for a breakfast. No time was wasted. In less than ten minutes we had returned to my office only to find that the children had bolted away with the exceptions of Ogbonna aged 9 (male) and Ulomaed 3 (female). Bullets were flying in from various directions especially towards us and it was impossible to move about to look for the children more; also the very little ones aged between 4 and 5 are females. It was a real moment of agony. For our own lives we immediately took refuge in a trench nearby with the hope that shooting would subside soon and opportunity afforded to search for these children. Events went to the contrary and so we spent 24 hours in the trench under heavy rains. There was not a moment that passed without extreme anxiety. There was no food, no water and so my little daughter who was then only eleven months old was near fainting in the hands of the mother. It occurred to me that there was some liquid in the little bag I took hold of when escaping from our residence. It was a full sized bottle of stout beer. With very weak teeth we managed to open it and gave to the child for a little sip. This helped the child to develop a better outlook.

In our bid to secure a hiding place, some other people had followed us into the trench. These included a woman who had given birth to a female child less than four hours before the shooting started. There was a very fascinating incident. The baby was crying. At a stage all the inmates of the trench became greatly worried as they feared the crying baby would soon attract the attention of the soldiers and thereby endanger our lives. Some became angry and there was almost a unanimous desire that the lady and child should move out of the trench. There was no doubt, of course, that this was a mighty threat to our safety.

But all the same why should we expose the lady and child to a much more outstanding danger. I spoke to them in a very calm manner and won their confidence in that it would be very unkind of us to move them out in that manner. I saw no difference between our lives and that of the baby and mother. I collected the baby, handed her over to my wife to pet. It was the lady's first pregnancy and she was quite a novice in the art. Funny enough, there was calm again in the trench, and with much earnestness we raised our souls in quest of safety. Soldiers marched past the trench but we were unobserved. Peeping through was the watchword as each advance of a soldier nearer our hideout sent our hearts throbbing. It was nothing but a feeling that the last hour had come.

On the morning of 13th July, we crawled out from the trench. By then shooting seemed to be subsiding. But events were much unfavorable. I looked towards my residential quarters and saw that every bit of a pin had been removed by looters. The question of getting into the house had been completely ruled out on a warning from a passerby who happened to be a casual visitor to my house prior to the war. He had advised us to move out of sight immediately and ever before we could be noticed by some hostile people. There was on him a palm frond which was an indication that he is a son of the soil and so out of danger. There was no other alternative. We scattered as we moved into the bush in various directions.

The memory of my missing six children was there and haunted me as we roamed in the bush. There was no opportunity to look for them any more. It was in infinite frustration, dismay, grief and agony.

We waded through the bush and swamps until we came to the bank of a local river. It was impossible for us to cross unless in a canoe. Dejected and wearied, we decided to look out for a suitable hideout under a shrub. It was terrible. Before us the river lies across, and impassable. On the right was an endless thick swamp. On the left, less than half a mile was a bridge over which soldiers were already flanked. And so we sat in between mounds over some cluster of leaves which formed our immediate shelter under a heavy rain. Night came and it mattered little or not if we slept. My wife gathered some leaves which she spread to form a bedding for the three little children who became our only companions. They were now our only possessions in life. Then came the moment which is the theme of this story, from which much inspiration and spiritual values have come to me.

You will recall my reference to the native who had a matchet cut in 1964 and the assistance rendered to him. In the evening of July 14th, 1967 I crawled out from our hiding spot and approached nearer the river bank from where I could observe people who came to take their bath in the river. To my greatest surprise I saw this man, and alone at the bank of the river. I made an audible noise and so he was able to take notice of me. With my hands slightly raised I beckoned him to come near so that I could speak to him. He approached and sighed and I saw his eyes become cloudy with signs of tears. I spoke to him in a low voice almost whispering, with a request that he endeavor to secure a canoe and cross us over the river. In a low voice he said, "You saved my life, nothing will prevent me from saving your life." He signaled and warned me to stay quiet because soldiers were all around the corner. Finally he promised to engage a canoe for the crossing. He was unable to turn up that evening. I gathered later from him that his failure was largely due to the scarcity of canoes and further efforts at a negotiation, and of course he had no intention of disclosing to anybody the purpose for which the canoe was sought. We spent another night by the bank on our inherited beds of mounds and grass.

The next morning I crawled out again and saw him approaching with a canoe gliding across and towards our direction. There was a great relief in my mind and it seemed as if a miracle had taken place. I moved in with my wife and the three little children plus my first uncle. He then pulled off to a distance and out of view of any other people with comfortable sense of safety.

In order to make sure that he had provided enough security for us he decided to lead us through the bush on the other side of the bank on a distance well over four miles. We parted after exchanging words of thanks and appreciation. I was happy that I had found myself at a spot near safety and to afford myself the opportunity to think out what might be my next line of action. True enough it was here that plans for our safety were spelt out.

The question arises here, why was it that this particular man, of all the natives, should appear at this stage and at the particular place at the bank of the river under the circumstances to be our devoted helper at the greatest moment of need and despair. It is on this very subtle aspect that I am still pondering.

As indicated, tempers had started running low and therefore I summoned a great will to meet the soldiers. I had instructed my wife to follow behind gradually while I set off on a hired bicycle to take me to the spot. The gap was to ensure the safety of my wife and children should there be a mishap. I was resolute. On my arrival I greeted the soldiers and there was a favorable response. But I noticed that when my identity was disclosed they became alerted and repulsive. The sergeant in charge decided to send me under escort to an army officer for instructions. The particular officer was not available and so we advanced to another officer. After a series of interrogations I was "discharged and acquitted." What did interest me was that on my way to the officers under escort, all the natives at the market square wept on my account. It was very strong in my mind that I was about to be shot. It was a big moment for them to see me unhurt.

Haggard and weary I retraced to look for my wife and the three little children. I had expected they would be at most a pole behind. But it turned out to be otherwise. They were nowhere to be seen even after reaching the spot where I had left them. I discovered that they were instigated not to comply with my instructions on the understanding that nothing would prevent my being killed. The natives had been very friendly with me before the war and although they would not stretch their hands against us, it was impossible for them to let us in, for fear of its repercussions against them. Now again they proved very helpful, having to make frantic efforts to dispatch messengers secretly to intercept my wife in order that she might be informed of my safety. This they succeeded to do and it became possible for my wife and children to come back the following day.

Things were not so comfortable and easy as all Ibos were later sent to prison as refugees. There was nothing we could do in our present situation but to pray that our safety continued to be assured.

Then came another heartbreak. I was again removed along with other Ibos to a prison in northern Nigeria. My wife and her three little children were left at the other prison. To think of them there and the six missing children was a great burden to my heart under an atmosphere which was full of uncertainties in our minds.

Throughout my period in prison I have seen in theosophy a living truth. This had been crowned the more at the end of the war. The six children plus the other two relatives living with me reached home safely. As I was told, whoever saw them on the way exclaimed -- "These are Ogubunka's children." They were picked up, led and guided until they arrived in my home. These are the children for whom we wept and mourned during the 30 months' duration of the war, separated from their parents, but the gods were with them. It was a great reunion in January 1970.

 (From Sunrise magazine, November 1970; copyright © 1970 Theosophical University Press)

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