‘The civil war, symptom of primary disease’

— Dr Okechukwu, author of Children of the Fallen Sun

Dr. Chike Nathan Okechukwu, a US-based Nephrologist and author of the book, “Children of the Fallen Sun”, in this interview with Ebele Orakpo, employs quite some medical metaphors, arguing that the Nigeria-Biafran Civil War is a symptom of a disease which still persists, and until Nigerians deliberately discuss it in healthful terms and apply the right medication, the problems will remain.

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Dr Okechukwu

Why Children of the Fallen Sun instead of the Rising Sun as defunct Biafra was called Land of the Rising Sun?

First, it is a fictional account of a family that was caught in the net of a conflict that they had no hand in the making and the real thrust of the book is to show that regardless of who is right or wrong, (which is not what I try to portray in the book because it is different from most of the books about the war), what I am more concerned about is the result/effect it had on a regular person like you or me; people who had no hand in its creation. Whether you are on the side, or think you are right or wrong, it still has a consequence. We are all children of the fallen sun regardless of our ethnic group. The characters in my book are both figurative and literal and at the same time metaphorical for the consequences of the war on each and every one of us. Even when the ‘war’ is over and the sun has fallen, there is a consequence that endures almost indefinitely. In this case, this is a family that was torn apart by the war and the boy who is the protagonist has been damaged psychologically, scarred, a scar that continues to haunt him even into adulthood.

As a society, even though the war seems to have been over 48 years ago, it almost seems as if it was just yesterday that the war ended because there are consequences of the war and until we are able to talk about it and heal from it, it will continue to haunt us for a very long time.

How did you make the jump from a physician to a writer?

Somebody once said that each of us has a book in him to write. I don’t know if this was that but it took me a long time to write this book because as you know, I practise medicine to which I devote every single minute. So I usually write in the middle of the night when everyone else is asleep. I have a science side of me which did medicine and an artistic part of me. I love literature, a love that was introduced to me by my father who was a lover of literature. So despite being a physician, I had this thirst to write prose and poetry. In the past, I have had some of my poems published and it is only a natural transition from writing poetry to writing prose.

How many poems have you written?

I have written close to 100 poems though not all are published yet. My favourite is called Christmas. In the poem, I tried to point out how with all the celebrations that happen at Christmas, we all seem to have lost the true meaning of Christmas.

What did you set out to achieve with the book?

A number of things! We all know the history of the Civil War so it is not to educate anyone about the war. The purpose of the book is to show that there are scars that have been left on all of us. An example was our hero whose scar seems to endure forever, refusing to heal. It also points out that despite having had the most traumatic and significant event in our lives as a country since our birth, very few people discuss the war in what I call healthful terms.

We don’t teach the war in school. This is the most significant thing we have ever experienced collectively as a nation. We don’t address it in our national forum without getting angry about it and so, we don’t have a space that we can all talk about and heal from it.

Reconciliation period

There is no period of reconciliation. So I first asked myself what caused the war. Is our conversation about the war the right way? I believe we all think Nigeria started from the war; that is wrong. I think the war is simply a symptom of the primary disease. We fought the war and it’s gone away but it really hasn’t gone away, we all still live on a day-to-day basis with our own stories in our own heads about what caused the war. The Yoruba has his story in his head, the Igbo has his story in his head, the Hausa, Delta, Middle Belt- all have their own stories.

Each person believes he is right but they can’t all be right. So, until we have a period of reconciliation where everybody’s story is heard openly, (like when we cponfess in church); until we’ve had that period where we can all feel safe, we cannot heal. We, our children, grandchildren and their children, will be haunted by this war the same way the hero is haunted – forever. And if we truly want to cure that disease so that our children are not scarred by it, we now have to start talking about it to find the safe space to discuss it.

So what I try to do in this book is to use fictional account, as vivid as it may be, and inserted some historical facts of the war and at the same time, help all of us focus not on the war itself but on that account. By talking about it, you could begin to ask: ‘Oh my God, could this have happened?’ May be if we begin to talk about the story and you can discuss this with anybody from any ethnic group, it allows us to begin to talk about the war in a healthful term. I live in America and I had lived in the UK. They fought World War I (1914- 1918) and World War II (1939-1945) yet, they still talk about the wars every single day. There is a movie almost every other year on World War II you will think that every story that has to be told had been told but they keep telling it because that is the way they have chosen to heal and to honour those who died. I am hoping that we can get to a point where we begin to take baby steps in discussing the war. We may not talk about who is right or wrong but we may begin to say ’Oh my goodness, I read that book, did you see that vivid image? Even that allows two different people to have some platform to discuss the war.

I am a Nigerian and have lived in Nigeria, America and England. What has helped me become who I am is the fact that I have been able to see every human being for the humanity they have.

I think that what I call the original sin, the disease that led us to the war and near-disintegration is the continued strife that currently exists. The problem with corruption, voting in people we are unhappy with, feelings of marginalisation, inequitable sharing of the national wealth, etc. The basic problem is that collectively, we do not see ourselves first as Nigerians. Nigeria is almost like a convenient moniker that we attach to ourselves. We believe first in our ethnic groups. To be honest with you, we were that way, but our colonial masters helped foster that division. That initial problem which has remained unchanged and unchecked and continues to be enhanced and reinforced by the different things we do, has caused every problem we have. A Yoruba child does not feel he belongs in Anambra State, an Igbo child feels ostracised in Lagos State, a Hausa child will feel he is not a part of Cross River State. When we don’t feel we are part of one country, then we have multiple countries in one and our allegiance is not to the bigger country but to our ethnic groups.

If we indeed wish to have one unified country (I am not saying we should), to see us thrive, join the developed nations, push forward and become everything we can be, then we have to begin to see the collective as our principal vision. We don’t have to dishonour our ethnic origins. We must honour our ethnic origins because it can’t be taken away from us, but it has to be in addition to the collective.

 

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