The Parliament of Bodies: Biafra’s Children: A Survivors’ Gathering


Organized by Olu Oguibe, with Faith Adiele, Phillip U. Effiong, Okey Ndibe, Vivian Ogbonna, Obiageli Okigbo, E.C.Osondu, Emeka Okereke

Fifty years ago, in 1967, a bitter civil war broke out in the newly independent West African nation of Nigeria, a war that would create one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of the twentieth century. Lasting over thirty months, the Biafran War claimed an estimated three million lives, mostly children who died due to malnutrition and starvation after Nigeria imposed a global blockade on Biafrans, who were demanding a secure homeland. The previous year, tens of thousands of Biafrans had been murdered in waves of ethnic cleansing pogroms in different parts of Nigeria. This forced an estimated two million survivors to flee back to their ancestral homeland in then Eastern Nigeria, in search of a safe haven. The ensuing humanitarian crisis and continued violence against this population eventually led them to declare independence from Nigeria, upon which Nigeria declared war on the breakaway nation. The death and carnage in Biafra caused global outrage. So did the collusion of global powers, especially Britain and the Soviet Union, in suppressing the Biafrans and their struggle for survival. In 1968, it was estimated that nearly 6,000 Biafrans were dying daily, most of them starving children. Photographs of Biafra’s malnourished children with their bloated bellies adorned the covers of news magazines and evening television news programs worldwide. John Lennon returned his knighthood to the Queen in protest, and Jean-Paul Sartre described Biafra as the conscience of the twentieth century. Even Winston Churchill, grandson of the British prime minister, wrote a series of newspaper columns deploring the situation in Biafra.

Around the world students staged protests, sit-ins at embassies, and even a hunger strike in Norway. On May 29, 1969, Bruce Mayrock, a twenty-year old student of Columbia University in New York set himself on fire in front of the United Nations to protest Secretary General U Thant’s failure to take measures to stop the war of genocide against Biafra. Mayrock died the following day. Musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Joan Baez held concerts to raise awareness and generate relief aid for Biafra. A group of young French medics who volunteered in Biafra would go on to found the charity, Doctors without Borders (Médecins sans Frontières) in response to the human suffering that they witnessed there.

For two days this summer, June 30–July 1, 2017, child survivors from the Biafran War gather for the first time in Athens as part of documenta 14 to share their stories of living through the monumental tragedies and traumas of conflict, mass displacement, and separation from family as well as bereavement, famine, and hunger. They will also share stories of survival, which are indebted to the resilience of the human spirit and the humanitarian intervention of people around the world who sent relief aid to Biafra or opened their doors to Biafra’s refugee children. Biafra is relevant today, not only because it represented the nearly impossible struggle of a persecuted people in their fight for self-determination and the establishment of a safe homeland, but also because the subsequent humanitarian disaster is mirrored in the plight of refugees fleeing similar crises in Syria and the Middle East today and their attempt to find safety in Europe and other parts of the world. The survivor testimonies of Biafra’s children reiterate the human cost of conflict. Alone the presence and the survival of these women and men, some of who now have children of their own, underline how humanitarian intervention can help save generations and preserve nations.

The event has been organized by Olu Oguibe, one of the child survivors, whose archival meditation on the war, Biafra Time Capsule, is on display at the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) through July 16, 2017.


Friday, June 30

  • 5–6:30 pm Opening Remarks - Olu Oguibe, Bonaventure Ndikung, Paul Preciado
  • 6:30–8 pm Testimonial Session I - Surviving the War Inside Biafra - Okey Ndibe, EC Osondu
  • 8–9 pm Break
  • 9–10:30 pm Testimonial Session II - Surviving the War Outside Biafra - Faith Adiele, Obi Okigbo, Phillip U. Effiong
  • 10:30–12 pm Testimonial Session III - Surviving the Peace: Biafra’s Children in the Aftermath of War – Phillip Effiong and Olu Oguibe

Saturday, July 1

  • 6–7:15 pm Testimonial Session IV - Generations and Legacies: Retrieving Biafra’s Memory - Vivian Ogbonna, Emeka Kupeski Okereke
  • 7:15–8:30 pm Plenary Session - Art, Conflict, and Trauma - All Speakers
  • 8:30–9:30 pm Break
  • 9:30–11 pm Closing Session - Learning from Biafra - All Speakers

Faith Adiele is the author of The Nigerian-Nordic Girl’s Guide to Lady Problems and the PEN Award-winning memoir, Meeting Faith. She’s also the subject of the Public Broadcasting Service documentary My Journey Home, and co-editor of Coming of Age Around the World: A Multicultural Anthology. A professor at California College of the Arts, she is the founder of African Book Club.

Philip U. Effiong is Associate Professor of English at Michigan State University. He holds a PhD in drama from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and has taught literature, writing, and history at various Nigerian, Ghanaian, and U.S. universities. In addition to his book on African American drama, his essays have appeared in several journals and encyclopedias. Effiong’s father, General Philip Effiong, was Biafra’s last head of state.

Okey Ndibe is the author of the novels Foreign Gods, Inc. and Arrows of Rain; the memoir Never Look an American in the Eye, Flying Turtles, Colonial Ghosts; and the Making of a Nigerian-American, as well as coeditor of Writers Writing on Conflicts and Wars in Africa. He has taught at several universities in the United States including Brown University.

Vivian Ogbonna is an interior decorator and writer. Since January 2017, she has been interviewing survivors of the Nigeria-Biafra war: men, women, and children who were direct victims of the conflict, most of whom do not have a platform to tell their stories. Vivian documents these stories on, which she hopes will eventually become a database of memories, testimonies, experiences, and anecdotes about the war.

Olu Oguibe is a participating artist in documenta 14. He has written on his childhood experiences in Biafra, and his archival installation Biafra Time Capsule is currently on display at the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), Athens.

Emeka Okereke is a visual artist and writer based in Lagos and Berlin. His current work explores the theme of “borders” through photography, time-based media, poetry, and performative interventions. He is also the artistic director of the Invisible Borders Trans-African Project.

Obiageli Okigbo is an artist based in Brussels. In 1967, her father, Christopher Okigbo, who is widely regarded as Africa’s greatest twentieth-century poet, died on the battlefront in Biafra. In 2005, she launched the Christopher Okigbo Foundation in his honor. She has exhibited in Brussels, London, Dubai, and Lagos, among others.

E.C.Osondu is author of the book of stories Voice of America and the novel, This House is Not For Sale. He was awarded the Caine Prize and the Pushcart Prize. His fiction has been translated into over half a dozen languages. Osondu is Associate Professor of English at Providence College, Rhode Island, USA.

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