Among the many people with fascinating stories and interesting connections at the Legacies of Biafra Conference was Charly Boy. I had never heard of Charly Boy until Friday when people were saying, “Did you know? Charly Boy will be here tomorrow!”
Charly Boy is a Nigerian entertainer, film producer, singer, and activist. He is also an engaging speaker. Encouraging the audience to be activists too, he said he could produce 3 million fans for any candidate who is credible and ready to oppose the current government in the next elections. He gave out his personal phone number. “Just call me,” he said. “I’ll get you the support!”
When he heard me speak Igbo, he was very excited. He happily posed for a photo!
Asaba Massacre and Liz Bird
Another person I met was Elizabeth Bird who is a professor of anthropology in Florida. She introduced the documentary film she directed and produced: Most Vulnerable Nigerians: The Legacy of the Asaba Massacres.
Her book on the Asaba Massacres is coming out in September.
Watching Liz’s piece, The Most Vulnerable Nigerians, I was shocked that we knew nothing about this massacre either during the civil war or after. Yet hundreds of people died in a day.
Her film is powerful. She told me she was in Asaba, across the Niger River from Onitsha, several times doing the interviews.
As the credits were running, I was surprised, and then pleased, to see the name of Simon Ottenberg. Some of the photos came from his collection now at the Smithsonian. Simon Ottenberg and his wife Phoebe were our instructors in anthropology during our Peace Corps training.
Over the intervening 55 years, I have seen his name mentioned occasionally. It’s always fun to remember the connection.
Another name that struck me in the film was Philip Asiodu. I knew there had been an extremely negative incident between him and my husband. I asked Clem to tell me again.
Nigeria’s civil war ended in 1970. Four years later Asiodu was the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy. Clem was Assistant General Manager, Operations, at ECN, the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria. Niger Dams had been created a few years earlier and was also generating electricity. The two organizations were about to merge.
Clem says, “It was at a board meeting. Asiodu was chairing the meeting. He asked me why ECN had a higher number of people operating and maintaining transmission lines per mile than Niger Dams. I told him that if he looked at the total cost of labor and capital equipment per mile, ECN’s cost was lower.
“I said to him, ‘My strategy has been to adopt a labor intensive approach.’ I said this because he and I were both economists. I thought he would agree with this approach.
“Instead he blew up in anger. He said, ‘As far as I am concerned, capital-intensive operations are superior in any situation.’ He then immediately ordered a major reduction in the labor component I had requested in the budget.
“That was the moment I decided that I would leave the public service. It was a setback for the transmission plans for the whole country, and not only for that time. Failing to pursue my strategy has had a long-term damaging effect on the power industry in Nigeria until today!”
Clem just came from the other room to say I should add a sentence. “My immediate reaction was that he was talking errant nonsense in the context of a developing country!”
Family & Other Connections at the Conference
Two people told me they knew one or more of our children. Ebele Obumselu said his sister Ifi knew Chinaku. Another man said he went to school in Jos with our daughter Beth and son Sam. I was sure I had his name written down, but I can’t find it!
On Friday afternoon I met a young Nigerian man who grew up in Australia and now lives in northern England. The conference only came to his notice the night before. He took a train from Manchester that morning. “I’m trying to connect to my Nigerian roots,” he said. His name was Kelechi, which made me think of our grandson Kenechi.
And Kinkwas – I love his name – reminded me that we had met in New Jersey several years ago at a reunion of alumni of DMGS. Dennis Memorial Grammar School, founded in 1925, is Clem’s beloved alma mater.
Final Meeting of Beloved Conversations
Sunday afternoon was the final meeting of the nine-week program, Beloved Conversations, at The Unitarian Church. We were treated to a guest speaker, Donna Thompson-Bennett.
I remembered her from my days working at the Bridgeport Child Advocacy Coalition in Bridgeport. She is a Black retired lawyer and a leader of the Parent Leadership Training Institute, a national organization supporting parents’ role in education and advocacy.
She speaks and demonstrates a position of love, and from that position has hope for race relations in this country. In answer to a question near the end, she talked about how offensive it is for white people to think they have a right to touch her hair!
I wrote about this particular form of micro-aggression in February. In the same post I wrote about the initial meeting of Beloved Conversations.
But for me the best connection with Donna was when she said she’d had her DNA tested. She found her ancestry is Nigerian, Fulani to be specific. She learned about the Fulani women’s love of earrings. I’ll have to show her my Fulani earrings some day!