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Monday, 2 April 2018

WE HAVE NOT HEALED FROM WOUNDS OF THE CIVIL WAR


- Dr. Chike Nathan Okechukwu (Nigerian US based Nephrologist/Author)



Dr Chike Nathan Okechukwu is a nephrologist based in the United States of America. He is one of the few Nigerians making the country proud in the Diaspora. Born a year before the Nigerian civil war in Onitsha, Chike as friends call him, grew up in the middle of the war. The effect of the war was devastating as he lost two god-fathers and other close relations. His family moved to Lagos after the war, from where he later returned to eastern Nigeria for a degree in Medicine. But he kept his flair for writing. After many years in England and America, Chike is back with a masterpiece on the story of the Nigerian civil war.

In this interview with Paul Ukpabio, Chike who is married to an Indian doctor and lives in America, share his story and life style with us. He also tells us the reason for his book, ‘Children of the Fallen Sun.’


It’s a homecoming for you after publishing your book, how do you feel?

I always have a warm feeling each time I’m in Nigeria. This time around, I came with my two daughters. When I stepped out of the plane, I had this rush of warm feeling mentally and physically that tells me that I have arrived back in my country. However much the challenges maybe, I always feel that this is the country I was born and where I grew up.

How long have you been away?


I try to come back here every now and then but I left this shores April 1990. I landed at Heathrow airport and stayed in England till 1994 and then did my surgical training in England and left to America
where I did internal medical emergency, nephrology and kidney transfer.

Where did you grow up while in Nigeria?

I was born in Onitsha, but after the war, my family moved to Lagos where I spent my formative years till 1981 when I was accepted into medical school at the University of Nigeria. I was in Nsukka for the first year then moved to Enugu for the next five years at the teaching hospital. I did my internship while my NYSC year was in Ekpoma. From there I worked at the apex medical centre in Igbokwu, Anambra state and then left for England.

Why did your family move to Lagos?

After the war, the Igbos were looking for opportunities. To some extent, the east was devastated. Many dreamt of the city which was Lagos, and was largely untouched by the war. My father got a job with Philips Nigeria Limited, where he eventually left as a financial director. My mother got a job as a nurse. That was the opportunities that brought us to Lagos like many other families in post war period.

That must mean that your parents were educated before the outbreak of the war.

Yes, my father was an accountant, while my mom was a nurse.

What was your experience of the civil war?
I was a year old baby when the war began. I had no experience at all. I can't say that I had any knowledge of it at all especially since my father wasn't around during the war. My mother did a lot of work during that period as a nurse.

How about your father, did he take part in the war?

My father served in the relief section. His brother, who was my god father, was a captain in Biafra army. He died in the war. When an Anglican child is born, he has two god fathers and one god mother. My two god fathers died during the war. One of my two god fathers was my father's brother. So I was indeed affected by the war. I lost very close people some of whom I didn't know well.

In Lagos how did you adjust?

My life then was largely governed by my parents. But in post war Lagos, I found out that people from the east, west and north, were all affected by the war. We all had to learn to live together again. My mother being a nurse began to work and there were a number of refugees who lived not too far away in a small shanty town. She provided them with free medical care since they had nowhere to go.

You returned to the east for education years later. But by then, did you notice any difference like relics of the civil war over there?

Yes, even by 1973, we were already going back to the east to spend Christmas there periodically. Again from the eyes of a child, it would be wrong for me to tell you that I totally knew what it was like, but then I could tell that Onitsha where I used to move around with my father, over a very short period, had sprang out from the houses that were stunted with the rumble of war to huge edifices. In very short period of time you could see development which demonstrated that there is an indomitable spirit in man.

What were your experiences in the university in the east?


CHIKE AT THE READING SESSION OF HIS BOOK IN ABUJA RECENTLY
I had a fantastic time. But like you asked shortly about relics of war, I remember that there was an amphitheatre in the university that had been damaged and was never repaired. But despite the war, the University of Nigeria still ascended to become one of the premier Colleges of Medicine in the country. That again shows the indomitable spirit of human beings.

What actually led you into studying medicine?

I always knew from the time I was five years old that I would be a medical doctor.

Why?

I used to watch my mother take care of victims of the civil war. I saw life not to be what you do for yourself alone but also what you do for others. There has to be something that you leave behind when you are leaving life. Like I teach my children that they have a duty to themselves, a duty for others and a duty to God. So I have two thirteen year old, and a ten year old, when they come back from school I ask them, what have you done to yourself today, what have you done to your fellowmen and what
have you done to God.

So you finished school in Nigeria, but why did you have to go abroad?



As an ambitious young man, I believe that we have one life to live. I want to wake up at the age of 70 and 80 and know that I have done the best I could do with my life. When I graduated I asked myself how I would like to feel on my dying bed. And I told myself that I would like to know that I had practiced my profession which is medicine to the highest level. I didn't want to have regrets later in life that I could have gone further. So I traveled out, to get the best of what the world had to offer in my professional field. The idea felt satisfying to me. And again why did I leave England for America when I did? That was because of the same urge. I felt after four years in England, that there was still more to learn. I just
wanted to have all the right training so that when I come back to my country, I can influence the care of people the way I want it and the way it ought to be.

Do you think that you have achieved that?

I believe I have been able to achieve that.

How was life in England for you?

FACES AT THE BOOK READING SESSION IN ABUJA. 3RD FROM LEFT IS THE BOOK PUBLISHER, MS CHINELO IWENOFU
It was eye-opening. Going to England did the transformational thing for my entire life. First I learnt that there was a world outside where people were operating at a much higher level. A place where there was a celebration of excellence. A place where there was a quest to do things the best way and in better ways. So beyondmedicine, seeing the way society is organized, learning to see how people think, meeting people from across the world, excited me. My room-mates were from across the world. I had a room-mate who was a White South African. And that was at the time of apartheid. We talked politics. I had friends from India, Pakistan, Syria, Egypt and of course from England itself. That was the beginning of my education.

I had all along been in school but those four years in England shaped me and I think I won’t be who I am right now, without those years. And if I were to have my way, I would recommend that every child in Nigeria, should spend at least three or four years outside Nigeria in a different country or so called Western country and come back. It is very eye-opening experience.

At what point did marriage come in?

That was much later when my father harassed me. He came to visit me in America. I made him a nice egusi soup. After eating it, I could tell that he enjoyed it so much but was dismayed by it. So he said that its time I do something about marriage because any more cooking the way I did, would probably mean me not getting married ever (laughs). I had quite a number of friends until I met a co-resident doctor who was a year below me. For whatever reason, we got stuck in a friendship. She is Indian. Of course we had an understanding that we came from two different worlds. We struggled with it a little bit, but with time I was able to meet her parents and she met mine, and on 17th of August 2002, we got married at an amazing ceremony. There were actually three ceremonies. The first was the Christian ceremony, then a Hindu ceremony, before we came to Nigeria to have a traditional ceremony. I believe that our lives have been more enriched by this relationship.

And where do you live now?


We live in a town called Swarthmore in Pennsilvania on the east coast in North America.

How do you cope with inter racial marriage?

It is not as hard as you might think. But then marriage is the hardest thing anybody can ever get into. And people who are married whether to Hindus, Africans or Americans, will tell you that it is not the easiest thing to do. Looking at it could be all well and sweet but they are two complex human beings who have been raised from two different backgrounds and environment. It is not easy. It is something that you work at every day. So we work at it every single day and I think that we have one of the best marriages anyone could hope to have.

Has your wife been to Africa?

MORE FACES AT ABUJA BOOK READING SESSION
Yes, she's been here a number of times; we had Christmas four or five years ago with the children here. It’s been hard for all of us to all travel at the same time. Like on this visit, I am here with the twins,
while she is there with our younger child.

Does she speak Igbo?

(Laughs) She understands Igbo. You and I can’t have a conversation in Igbo without her understanding what we are talking about. She doesn't speak it, but she understands what we are talking about when she is there.

Do you speak or understand her language?

No, I do not, but I can pick a few words. But even then, she was born and raised in America. She doesn't speak much of her language, though she understands it.

So which language do your children speak?

They speak English language but they know some Igbo words.

Do you go to her place?

Her parents live in America. They come over and we go over to their place. We have a close relationship with her sister and spouse. And we have travelled to India to visit her other family members.

What was the reaction of your parents the first time you told them you were set to marry an Indian?

I didn't have to tell them. Like everything that I do in life, I try to plan way ahead. I try to be deliberate with everything I do. I used to play a lot of chess in school which helps me to plan. I didn't wake up
one morning and called them. What I did was, then, my mother used to come to America to visit me. Sometimes she stayed for nine months, at those times, I brought my Indian girl around, she hanged around with us, we go out and that happened also when my father came around. So, years later when I announced it to them, it didn't come out as a shock. Yes, I know it wasn't the easiest information to pass to them, but it was much easier than picking the phone one morning and dropping the information on their laps. And by the way, I am my parents first born. So to them it is a big deal. But she has been well integrated into my family.

Does she eat eba with onugbo soup?

(Laughs) She does not eat eba with onugbo soup, but she eats yam and a few others. She tried eating eba but it didn't work out. However, she can cook yam porridge, egusi soup, pepper soup, she can even prepare our abasha meal.

Did you teach her all that?

No, I didn't. It was my mother that taught her those. And some of them she did all by herself. And I wonder how she makes them so good.

How about you, do you take Indian cuisines?

Oh yes, I do. You would love Indian cuisines, chicken curry with rice very similar to what we eat though ours is rice and stew.

So right now, you are Ibo, your appearance, intonation and mannerism points to you as an English man, there is also the American side of you, not forgetting the your Indian connection. How do you describe yourself?

(Laughs) First, I am a Nigerian, an Ibo man. I have had an exposure that has enriched me and made me to be a better Nigerian, a personality of the world. I have also taught my children to live in such a way that they can relate with anybody from any background. This has allowed me to remove the difference that there could exist between me and another person. So when I meet someone, the question is not whether the person is Ibo, Hausa or Yoruba or Efik or any other tribe. That is because in my head, I have lived with people from different backgrounds and races. And when people see me from that perspective too, there is nothing that we cannot do together.

At what point did it occur to you that you can write a book and why a book on the Nigerian civil war?

I believe that Nigeria as a community of brothers and sisters still suffers from the after math of the war. I believe that the country has not been healed by what started as a crisis in 1966 and progressed into a full blown war in 1970. Some may disagree, but then we have seen it rear its head up in different ways over the years, through ethnic clashes or killings or people not being able to run for elections in other parts of the country even though they are Nigerians or people not getting jobs because they do not belong to a particular tribe or come from a particular place. I fear that until we address that primary problem where everyone feels like one Nigeria, no matter where you come from, then we might not truly heal. We all think we know what caused the war, but we only discuss it in the little corners of our homes. More than that, we should discuss it with each other, share and discuss so we can get to the root cause and find a lasting healing solution. I wrote the book as a fiction. My main character is a metaphor for enduring damage and consequence of war. So regardless of who you are, Ibo, Yoruba, Delta or Hausa, you have been damaged by the war.

What does the book title suggests?

The book title ‘Children of the fallen sun suggest that regardless of whoever was the victor or the vanquished, they all suffered from the effect of the war. When you read the book, you will
see that my character continued to have problems as a result of mental issues developed from the war. Even at the end where he looked like he might have found salvation, he is left with a concern that he is not
sure. I brought up the medical issues in the book as well, issues which we do not discuss in Africa, the damaging effects of war and trauma. We know people in Iraqhave this problem, people in post war Afghanistan have this problem and we in Nigeria also have this problem but refuse to discuss it. So
I used the characters in the book to discuss these issues metaphorically on how it affects our society.

Where does the beauty of the prose of the book come from?


(Laughs) In my heart I believe that I am a poet. I recall when I was in Government College Eric Moore, how when it was time to choose my subjects, I picked the sciences and then added Literature and French.

My father said that was odd. He wondered why I added literature when I was a science student. I told him that is what I wanted and loved apart from my ambition to be a doctor. Later I had a number of poems published. One of them was published by the poetry society of Nottingham, while I lived in England. Writing a book is more than just writing fact. I try to write in a way that doesn't talk too much at the reader. I try to be visual. So if you read the book you walk away with lots of visual images. I prefer to show the reader and let him or her imagine the pictures in the mind. That achieves more than I can create. I am very conscious of being able to paint pictures in the mind of the reader.

Why did you write the book?

Yes, the title is also a play on words. I fought with the title a lot because I know it can connote different things in different people's mind. I didn't want to choose for the reader either. Some people would read it and say that Biafra Republic has fallen; others could read it and say the war has fallen so to me it is conflict. If you look at the map of the Biafra flag used in the civil war, what comes to your mind? Is the sun rising or is it falling? Metaphorically, there was a conflict borne out of a deep seated feeling in the heart of a people. However, the purpose of the book is not for me to take sides with anybody. I know there might be people who may be angry that I didn't come out siding one over the other, but that isn't the purpose of the book. The purpose is that wounds should be allowed to heal. If you also look at the logo on the cover of the book, you see full-fledged soldiers with a child soldier in the middle. But I don't tell you whether thesoldiers are from North, East or West. That isn't the purpose of the book. The purpose is that there was a conflict, whoever is right or wrong isn't the issue but that this child was thrown into a theatre of war, he became the embodiment of we Nigerians who were thrown into the theatre of war. Nobody wanted the war. But it happened. The question is how it has affected all of us. How did it affect that child that represents all of us?

There have been other books about the Nigerian Civil war, what’s the difference in this one?

This is a novel which demonstrates that beyond the historical facts of the war, what are the societal costs of the war, talking about mental health and how can we cure the original sin of the war? The original sin is not the war. The war is the product of the original sin. Until that is addressed, Nigeria will continue to have the sunrise and fall. But in a good way. It may take us decades and years to get there, maybe we are still young, born in 1914, got independence in 1960, some countries like England and America have been fighting wars for centuries. I didn't set out to talk about two black people fighting like a white man would do about our civil war, but to discuss about two or more complex people fighting, people of a normal
family.

I hear that the book could soon be made into a movie?


Yes, the people working on that idea are very kind. They have read it and believe it should be made into a movie. I have even been told that the book is a masterpiece. My humble opinion is that I cannot get too ahead of myself. But recently a movie director approached me to make the book into a movie. It’s a labour of love. It is like being pregnant and having a child. Though I have never been pregnant! (Laughs). I would rather people read the book before they see the movie.

How accessible is the book right now?

The book is on order at Amazon.com which is the electronic version. Then also it is available at bookshops in Abuja and other parts of the country. My publisher Africagenda has moved it to many shops and on amazon website. Also my publisher has put together a book jam in Abuja where I will be meeting fans and readers in a question and answer sessions. Hopefully we have beautiful more interactive sessions.

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