I'm a baby boomer so in some respects the Biafran famine made more of an impression than Ethiopia's. At the age of ten, in 1968, footage of dying children on our black and white telly was one of the defining sights of my childhood, when the reality of 'starving children in Africa' became a solid fact. Like Ethiopia's famine, the Biafran catastrophe was not due to 'natural' causes like crop failures. Oh no, in West Africa they went the metaphorical extra mile because of a war of attrition where the defenceless and the innocent were literally being starved to death after defeat in barely independent Nigeria. So many people died that parallels with the Rwandan genocide later became inevitable, except of course it was all so much more calculated and possibly even more callous in being so cold-blooded in its slow, drawn out agony.
As an adult I've worked with Nigerians. They are, by and large, decent, hard-working people, friendly, intelligent and practical, so I won't go into the popular preconceptions about their homeland because, really it's irrelevant in that life and politics in Nigeria simply reflects the perennial stigmata of war, famine, pestilence and prejudicial corruption of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. Worse is the attitude of Western culture that invariably follows a metronome pattern of condescending pity and weary apathy, invariably accompanied by toothless humanitarian posturing and, at worst, indiscriminate exploitation whether by 'aid', World Bank bale-outs or martial support and expertise.

So I didn't want to get too deep into obvious politics for my crucial visit to Biafra. Instead I decided to concentrate on the human aspects, and especially ones of gender, that are covered in this harrowing part of the storyline. I've included Teresa Olatunde as one of the voices of
 Safari Tales, even though strictly she has no narrative at all (being dead and only appearing in flashback), except perhaps through her godparents Henryk and Helga Zimmerman. It was both hard and easy to write - in places it almost wrote itself and the key part of it - Teresa's conviction that she was dead actually came out of my research into Rwanda's war. Laying among the dead, wanting to be a corpse. The sexual abuse and torture Teresa underwent also comes from other 'conflicts' around Africa as prostitution and extreme rape - where bottles and knives are used on girl children and pregnant women leaving permanent, ultimately fatal damage or killing foetus and mother alike outright, becomes almost commonplace wherever war breeds. Awful reports come from all around the Congo and from coast to coast in central Africa, spreading outwards like a cancerous infection, as though it's not enough to put a bullet through your enemy, you have to sabotage the very process of making new life itself, to eradicate them altogether.
If anything I was 'gentle' with Teresa as her northern, Muslim tormentors tried to circumcise her, in a drunken attempt after the event to give her some womanly respectability on discovering they'd impregnated her. Another trait adopted in Rwanda, where young Tutsi women were used like whores and made pregnant with good Hutu seed, or met Verity's eldest daughter's fate if they tried to resist.

And then there was my research into kwashiorkor...
... a profoundly distressing dietary disease caused by protein deficiency. It is particularly distressing in small children under the age of five. It becomes prevalent in the most poverty-stricken levels of society of the Third World, in Southern Asia, Central and South America and, most commonly to western eyes at least, in Africa, when the people have consumed the animal population and their by-products to such an extent that protein sources including milk are scarce or non-existent.
The condition first came to global notoriety in news coverage near the end of the war in Biafra, in the Ibo province of Nigeria. Disturbing film footage of toddlers was seen on television screens all over the world. These unfortunates, with their huge balloon-like bellies, stick-thin limbs, bones clearly visible, hair and skin discoloured with a reddish tinge and enormous haunted eyes, traumatised, literally dying in front of the horrified reporters and cameramen, finally pricked the conscience of the international community, eventually contributing to the end of Nigeria's first civil war.
But of course, during a war and resulting famine, protein is not the only thing that is hard to come by - and other innocents suffer as much as, or more than very young children...

Excerpt from Kwashiorkor

Why were they pulling at her? Could they not see she was dead? She heard a thin tormented shriek, then realised the voice was hers. She gasped and was silent, dreading the consequences of the noise she made. Soft hands were holding her close, brushing at her face, chest and shoulders; hurting her because her parched skin was on fire and flinched at the merest touch. They were speaking to her in a strange language, or perhaps were talking about her. She groaned and her eyes fluttered open. A man with a tawny-gold, silver-streaked beard was looking at her with water in his eyes. They were blue eyes, light as the sky and his skin was pale as milk. He looked like a picture she had seen in a book at the mission, long, long ago before her world had changed forever.
‘Am I in heaven, Lord?’ her voice was a hoarse whisper and caused more tears to flow from the kind eyes. His hand gently caressed the back of her head, yet still she cried out softly at his merest touch that tore at raw feverish nerve endings. He spoke to her and this time she understood him.
‘You are alive child. It is a miracle but you are alive.’
She began to cry, though no tears could fall.
‘No! I cannot be. I must be dead.’
‘Hush, little one. You are safe now. We will make you well again.’ One of his tears fell on her hot, scarred little face, landing on swollen cracked lips. She felt the salt sting a little but that did not hurt as much as his hands. Her tongue, swollen and wooden, slowly lapped at the moisture.
‘I am thirsty, Lord,’ she murmured then cried out as he held her close and stood up. The pain was too much and she spiralled back into the warm blessed darkness where nothing could reach her. Nothing could hurt her. Except her dreams.

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  1. Your description of Kwashiorkor is so painfully accurate. I had opportunity to nurse young children suffering from this condition, having been transported from the eastern parts of Southern Africa to our small Provincial Hospital in Paarl, Western Cape. Of course as far as the plot of MILELE SAFARI is concerned, I think it helps to clarify Teresa's situation and her actions later on in the village. Her saving grace (not only her dreadful physical scars, but more her subsequent spiritual healing because of the kind German couple who adopted her) in the story, especially on that terrible day, for me as the reader to feel more than just pity for her, is knowing all about her illness and the real things which happened to her - the embodiment of all that torture and suffering of those times.

  2. Thank you so much for this feedback, Maretha. I did do a lot research into the origins of the Biafran war and subsequent international/humanitarian aid in the famine affected areas afterwards.
    Although Teresa's story was purely my own invention, simply from my own memories of that awful period, meant that I had to write it as authentically as possible from a perspective that everyone could connect with, in terms of such an innocent victim.
    Teresa is of course a composite character, but I wanted her to be as real as possible so her spirit was present throughout the story arc, even when it dealt with happier themes. I'm glad you found her portrait so vivid :-)


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