Upper St. Clair students hear about author’s experience as refugee
With his first name pronounced “OK,” Okey Ndibe enjoys sharing humorous stories about the types of situations that can create.
The native of Nigeria also can be amusing when he tells about his transition from journalist to a writer of fiction, with the resulting career as an acclaimed novelist.
But a mention of refugees will turn the conversation serious.
“It resonates with me because I remember the suffering,” he told Upper St. Clair High School students. “I know the feeling of being hungry as a child.”
Ndibe is in Pittsburgh as a writer in residence at City of Asylum, a nonprofit community of writers in the North Side, and he visited Upper St. Clair on Monday to conduct a writing workshop and speak about his experiences. Featuring prominently were recollections of his family being uprooted in the late 1960s during the Nigerian civil war, which caused an estimated 2 million civilian deaths by starvation.
“One of my most poignant memories as a child was standing with my parents at a refugee camp where food was being distributed,” Ndibe said. “Those places were locations of misery, because you could stand there for hours, and they’ll tell you the food has run out. Then you have to find the next location and stand for hours.”
He remembered one occasion in particular.
“A man who stood in front of us just buckled and fell, and my parents were trying to shield me,” he recalled. “The other men gathered up this man who had fallen. Whether he just fainted or whether he died, I will never know. But it’s still stamped in my mind.
“So when I see images of children who are suffering in Syria, it triggers for me the images of suffering that I saw.”
He carried those thoughts with him when he moved to the United States in 1988 to serve as founding editor of African Commentary, an international magazine published by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, whose “Things Fall Apart” is the most widely read novel in African literature.
Ndibe went on to earn his doctorate at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has served as a faculty member at several institutions of higher learning. In addition to writing three books – “Foreign Gods Inc.,” “Arrows of Rain” and his memoir, “Never Look an American in the Eye: A Memoir of Flying Turtles, Colonial Ghosts and the Making of a Nigerian American” – he co-edited “Writers Writing on Conflicts and Wars in Africa.”
War came to Nigeria, the African nation with the largest population, not long after the United Kingdom left the conglomeration of 400-plus different ethnic groups to independent rule.
“The people from my side of Nigeria,” Ndibe said about the Igbo in the eastern part of the country, “wanted to secede and become a different nation called Biafra. The rest of Nigeria, as well as the superpowers in the world – the U.S., the British, the Russians, one of the occasions when the Soviets and the U.S. were on the same side – were opposed to this, because Biafra would be the first nation created by Africans, themselves.
“And the Biafran area would have contained one of the largest deposits of crude oil in the world,” he explained. “So there was a consensus by the international powers that this was going to be too much power in the hands of Africans.”
The effects of war forced his family to move from place to place in search of sustenance.
“Everywhere you went, you were called a refugee,” he recalled. “And so the people in whose towns you settled, even though they were fellow Biafrans, treated you in a certain way.”
Ndibe sees that type of characterization repeated today.
“To be called a refugee, it’s almost as if you’re no longer part of the human race. There’s something somewhat discounted about your humanity,” he said. “When you hear that some kid’s corpse washed up on the Mediterranean, because the kid perished when the boat capsized in trying to cross over to Europe, it’s not us. It’s not somebody we know. But it is a human being who is real. The parent of that human being is as grief-stricken as your parents would be if tragedy struck you.”
He implored the Upper St. Clair students to learn more.
“It’s a great gift to become conscious of suffering in the world, and to become aware of the role that our government plays,” Ndibe said. “It’s not a Democratic or Republican thing. The Democrats and Republicans have played a particular role in the creation and expansion of misery in the world. And if you educate yourself, then you can begin to say that this horror, this dehumanization of all of us, cannot, should not, happen in your name.”