THE IHIALA COMMUNITY AND THE SPIRITANS: MY JUNIORATE STORY
THE IHIALA COMMUNITY AND THE SPIRITANS: MY JUNIORATE STORY
OWELE INNO ANOLIEFO
It remains an understatement to assert that the ongoing contretemps between the Holy Ghost fathers at Ihiala and the Catholic Bishop of Nnewi diocese, Most Rev Jonas Benson Okoye is unfortunate, uncalled for, avoidable and a total misrepresentation of the catholic faith. In this short piece, I do not intend to dwell on the imbroglio as such, in order not to preempt the on-going effort of the Catholic Episcopal hierarchy in resolving the issue and cleaning our dirtied face. I only wish to affirm that the chronicle of Ihiala community is indeed vapid and jejune without the role of Spiritans at critical junctures of their history. The most captious was during the Nigeria-Biafra war when the Spiritan’s humanitarian endeavours gave continuance to the community without which many would have starved to death. I was at the heart of it and so speak with authority. Permit me to relate this by narrating my Juniorate story.
MY JUNIORATE STORY
I passed the entrance examination to the Juniorate in 1967 and was to resume when the Biafra-Nigeria war started and the Eastern region was engulfed in tension and dislocation. The entire educational system in the East was disrupted with most schools closed and converted into Army Camps and the physically fit among the students recruited/conscripted into the Biafran army. The Juniorate, like most schools was closed down but somehow the spiritans managed to re-open the school in 1968 but with only a handful of the students. I learnt the school was in session late in 1968 and found my way to the premises from my home town Awka-Etiti. I was only a few weeks in the school when it was shut again and the students sent home leaving only the senior seminarians. The reason for the closure was the intensity of the war. Air raids by the Nigerian side targeted markets, schools and churches etc. A Biafran made anti-air craft was mounted under the palm trees that form the apian way leading to the Spiritans motherhouse. The anti-air craft was only as good and reliable as it could be but it gave a semblance of protection to the white missionaries residing there. One day an enemy plane hovered so low over our compound apparently scouting for a target when the soldier manning the gun pulled the trigger of the battery operated gun only for it to burst into pieces. I can’t remember whether the man survived it.When the school was closed again the Rector Fr. Macnulty granted that I stay back in the school. By this time, early 1969 the war was at its utmost with dire consequences, the greatest which was hunger. The field in front of St Martin’s primary School and every open space within the premises were tilled and cultivated (dubbed land army) but the impact was infinitesimal as even the crops were all harvested by hungry indigenes before they were matured. Hunger and kwasiokor were the saddest precipitate of the Nigerian civil war on the Biafran side.
ENTER THE SPIRITANS.
The greatest succor, call it savior, to Ihiala Community and environ during the war was the Caritas centre domiciled at the Juniorate and administered by the Holy Ghost fathers. The Juniorate hostels and classrooms were converted to stores and distribution centers for CARITAS- the name given to charities that were nocturnally flown into and moved from Uli Airport to designated points of which the Juniorate was the epicenter. The crowd at the Juniorate on a typical distribution day stretched across the tarred road. Materials included corn mill, egg yolk, stock fish, (salted and unsalted) clothing items and indeed all sorts of life sustaining materials as donated in Europe especially Ireland and the Vatican. I state with very deep sense of feeling that but for the effort of the Spiritans and their associates many lives would have been lost to hunger in Ihiala and neighboring communities during the war. My generation who lived through the war in its fullness will attest to my emphases on hunger as the ravager of the period.When therefore the Ihiala people rise in defense of the Spiritans in whatever circumstances they are alluding to the savior role the missionaries played in their annals and it is with profound emotions.
SUPPRITENDING THE CARITAS CENTRE
We continue with my Juniorate story. When the job of manning the caritas centre being handled by the senior seminarians became a burden and distraction to them impinging on their primary duties they resolved to reassign the duty. After days of deliberation the lot fell on me, so I was told. Senior Emma Agbakuru as then, later Father Emma Agbakuru – Bless him wherever he may be, conveyed the decision to me. I recoiled at the news and my countenance said it all. The reason was very simple, I was barely 14 years of age then and a class one student. To leave an assignment that overwhelmed my seniors in my hands was more than I could understand. The pressure from the caritas stores/distribution center was crushing. To put it in perspective, the Ihiala community’s lives at the time depended very much on bits from the caritas and so the center was a beehive of intense activities, sane and insane. Villagers camped all around the place hoping and waiting for handouts. Superintending such a job was not one for a small boy and I fully understood this hence my hesitance. Senior Agbakuru simply informed me that they have their reason for picking me. The reason I later understood to be my greenness, call it naivety (sounds ironical). They reasoned that only a person of my quality could be trusted not to compromise or compromised in matters caritas. To otherwise entrust the warehouse to an adult was to risk untowards pilfering or looting. Senior Agbakuru assured me they will stand by me in the assignment and so I acquiesced. That chore was my first baptism into the world of intrigue, desperadoes, baddies, rapscallions etc. Hunger can and does everything to an otherwise normal man. On a typical day of distribution the crowd could be riotous and unpredictable. The stragglers and atimgbos were always there to precipitate violence and confusion. They claimed to be more deserving than others on the queue. The stragglers are soldiers who escaped from the war fronts. Atimgbos are soldiers who suffer or pretend to suffer from shellshocks and are sent home from war fronts. They are deaf and dumb therefore unmanageable believing only in brute force to communicate.One day they threatened mayhem on me forcing me to flee from the store. I made my way to senior Agbakuru in angst to complain. I handed over the store key to him declaring done with the assignment and suggesting another should try. He merely laughed and collected the key from me and I left to have a deserved rest, so I thought. After a few days he summoned me to inform that they fully understood the pressure I was in but that I must continue with the assignment. I understood later that despite my resentment they still considered the store safest in my care. And so back to duty but not until after two weeks of inactivity during which hunger bit hard forcing the benefiting community to reign in on those who occasioned the lock up.
THE FAMISHED KIDS AND THE NOCTORNAL FLIGHTS FROM ULI AIRPORT.
Uli Airport is minutes away from Ihiala and was Brafra’s only Airfield, active only at night. It is in disguise during the day so as not attract air-raids from the enemy which constantly hovered around. Cargo clearing and aircraft maneuver were with minimum illumination. It is through the airport that military logistics but more importantly caritas (food items) was delivered to Biafra. Flights regularly zoomed in from Gabon and Sao-tome and Principe, two among the countries that recognized Biafra. The spiritan’s motherhouse in Ihiala was the clearing point for caritas cargoes and the juniorate premises was the depot. Similarly sundry materials for export were packaged in the place and moved to the airport in the night.Biafra’s famished or kwasiokor children were among the cargoes so packaged and flown to Gabon and Sao-tome and Principe. I was part of this exercise. The kids were picked from different localities to Ihiala, often gasping for life from the effect of malnutrition. They were tagged then moved to the airport late in the night to be flown to the countries. I served as the motor boy that accompanied the open mini truck. The kids sat on the bare floor of the cargo planes as they were without seats. Hundreds of them aged between two and five years, often barely able to comprehend happenings around them and where they were headed to.On landing in the countries the charity organizations and the governments took over their care. The records of the kids flown out were probably lost in the way and manner the missionaries were sent away after the war. They were given just hours to quit the country by the Nigerian government which saw them as disguised mercenaries that prolonged the war. They departed in a most unceremonious manner without any form of handover. In the melee the records of the kids may have been lost never to be found again.I missed and still miss my mentor and benefactor Fr Macnulty, the Rector of the Juniorate during my time and the last Irish on such posting. I hope he is still alive.
THE MAKING OF A GABONESE PRESIDENT.
The kids so flown away were abysmally disconnected and disoriented from their roots and being toddlers would have retained but faint memories of their origin and circumstances as time wore on and years passed by. The kids were abandoned and forgotten with their parents unable to track them. The hostility of the Nigerian side against Biafra or anything relating to her after the war was palpable. The quest was to swiftly obliterate her from the consciousness of people. Nigeria even cut off diplomatic relations with the countries that recognized Biafra including Gabon. The kid's disconnection with their roots was therefore total.The Gabonese government integrated them and provided them with the best of opportunities as citizens of the country. They individually and collectively flourished propelled by the Igbo spirit of enterprise. The current Gabonese President Ali Bongo Oudimba is one of those kids as he declared but is unable to trace his root in Nigeria. Somebody may now let him know that at least where he took off from in Biafra/Nigeria is known and there is one alive to attest to that. He can begin the tracing from there.
POST WAR JUNIORATE.
At the forced and unceremonious exit of the Irish missionaries in Jan 1970 the spritan congregation rallied her indigenous priests to take over. Those sojourning abroad including Fr Arazu were invited home such that the exit of the expatriate priests did not have a disrupting effect on the running of her formation houses. The senior seminarians on duty then included Emma Agbakuru, Emma Ede, Goddy Odigbo, George Akanigbo (Charger) and a host of others. Visiting senior seminarians from other congregations included Hilary Okeke later Bishop of Nnewi diocess. I remember being summoned on occasions to exercise Hilary by playing tennis with him
JUNIORATE AND THE DAUGHTERS OF DIVINE LOVE.
A significant event occurred in 1970 which briefly redefined the Juniorate. Bishop Okoye Cssp of the Porthacourt Diocese, an Igbo man was a refugee in Biafra during the war. After the conflagration he returned to his diocese with his congregation- The Daughters of Divine Love Sisters but was vehemently rejected by the Ikweres as Igbos were extremely abhorred at the time being a ‘conquered’ race. Even their properties left behind were seized- the abandoned property saga. The intervention by the Vatican did not change the situation. Bishop Okoye being a Holy Ghost priest had no choice but to return to his motherhouse at Ihiala with his congregation. The Juniorate compound was consequently divided into two to accommodate the aspirants. It was so until the Bishop was reposted to Enugu as the Premium prelate of the diocese.What would ordinarily have posed a problem which was having adolescent boys and girls sharing same premises was well managed. The dividing barricade was total. Contact was only at the church.
I left Juniorate in 1972. My entire class but a few was sacked for some insubordination. This story is for another place and time.
On the ongoing dispute between the Spiritans and the Bishop of Nnewi diocese, howsoever be it resolved, I join in advocating that a new diocese be created for Ihiala area which will factor in the preeminent status of the Spiritans. This is ones take on the matter hoping it makes meaning within the vatican protocol.