The Biafran Immigrant

The playwright Mfoniso Udofia is trying to debunk the “typical” understanding of Africa, and specifically Nigeria, in her work.

Nigerian-American playwright, Mfoniso Udofia (Marc J. Franklin via Playbil).l

The New York Theatre Workshop recently staged a successful run of two plays, “Sojourners” and “Her Portmanteau,” two parts in a cycle of nine installments in the “Ufot Family Cycle,” by Nigerian-American storyteller Mfoniso Udofia. These two productions introduced us to Ukpong and Abasiama, a Nigerian couple studying in Houston in the 1970s. The indomitable Abiasama remains in the U.S. following the completion of her studies, but her life is never settled, as the impact of her own decisions ripple across the Atlantic between her adopted home and the country of her birth.

A conversation in one scene between Abasiama and Disciple, another Nigerian who she happens to meet while working the graveyard shift at a gas station, probably did not catch the attention of many in the audience, but few familiar with Nigerian history could ignore it. She asks him about his family back home in southeastern Nigeria, in a town not far from her own, and he answers darkly that his was lost during the war. As the two remember Biafra, she studies him sorrowfully. The moment passes but portends the survivors’ bond they come to share.

This plot-line is left to the viewer’s imagination, but the little bit about Biafra, as well as the heavy silence after it, makes this meditation on the Nigerian diaspora all the more poignant. The stories untold, indeed unable to be told, hold the marvelous tension that animates Udofia’s characters. The play suspends the audience along a tightrope that Chinua Achebe writes of in My Home Under Imperial Fire, a balance between order and anarchy, between communal harmony and individual desire. “Those who visit the Igbo in their home or run into them abroad or in literature are not always prepared for their tense and cocky temperament. The British called them argumentative.”

I immediately saw in Udofia’s plays Achebe’s point, though the characters are Ibibio, and the story about the unique pushes and pulls migrants face. The silences of the diasporic Biafrans in the play made me wonder how the lead-up to the war and its aftermath affected an already edgy people, forcibly silenced. The internally displaced Biafrans, for instance those who fled northern Nigeria, had to be smuggled, hidden in the robes Muslim men wore, by sympathetic neighbors, foreign missionaries, and anyone else who would help. While “rioters,” often paid by politicians, physically killed, drove out and erased easterners, ordinary northern Nigerians looked the other way in order to go on about their lives, as they told me decades later. Blaming the victim, who was gone, was easiest, and, even in westerners’ accounts, an oft-repeated line was that the Igbo, who were good at everything, had become too big for their britches. They were supposed to be unassuming yet productive and, above all, humble. Silencing continued in the name of postwar Nigerian national unity, which forced fiercely democratic and individualistic people to submit. It is little wonder that storytelling became a weapon of the silenced.

Sharing stories, even the fragments of what remains for Disciple, is an act not only for the preservation of self and community, but also for the nation at home and abroad. The play helped me make sense of the lives of many Ibibio, Igbo, and others south-easterners I know living in Kano and elsewhere in the north today who work as doctors, nurses and teachers to help where they were once unwanted. There is both pride and humility in the Biafran diaspora that Udofia captures so well.

I interviewed Udofia shortly after she was interviewed for an article in The New York Times. That article focused on the general experience of immigration – Nigerian and otherwise – but very little on the civil war, which has profoundly shaped Nigerian emigration. These are excerpts from our interview.

You rightly say there are many kinds of immigrants. Is there a Biafran immigrant?

There is a Biafran immigrant.

I am a first-generation Nigerian who lives in the United States of America and I am surrounded by people who lived through the Biafran War. This war is not something that is talked about day-to-day; there is a certain kind of silence around the war itself. While you can find a lot of research breaking down the war, and discover the firsthand accounts of missionary nuns who were on the ground during the time, the survivors of war around me, don’t talk about the war itself. Some of these people were/are Biafran. They are no longer in their home country of Nigeria. They have built lives across the water and have children and grandchildren. They also have memories of the Biafran dream and some of them may even maintain allegiance deep within their hearts.

Of course there must be a Biafran immigrant, there once was a Biafra.

You started in political science and moved to the arts-what’s the connection? Is there one?

I went to Wellesley College and majored in Political Science. I really thought that I would become a lawyer. While at Wellesley I re-kindled my exploration into the arts. I started taking opera lessons and I also did a lot of work with Wellesley College Theater. In my current life, I use all these varying educations to bolster my playwriting.

Basically, you rightly point out in the New York Times article about your plays that theres a typical African that non-Africans expect to see. Is there a typical Nigerian and how does it relate to a typical American? In other words, how do the stereotypes mesh/clash in our hyphenated identities?

Categorizing is a particularly human, and thus particularly problematic process. We strive to categorize in order to understand and streamline a nuanced and complicated world. In the broad sense this can be beneficial, however, problems arise as categories inevitably begin to strip away nuance. I believe there is no such thing as a typical African. Many believe that the whole of Africa is a country riddled with disease, poverty, warfare, etc. These are categories that have been assigned to Africa that are not wholly true. In fact, this is not the Africa I primarily know. So, when I am asked if there is a “typical” Nigerian, the answer must also be no. You will find Nigerians who are artists, community developers, vagabonds, educators, business people and more. You will find Nigerians who are God-fearing, atheist, altruistic, selfish, directional and meandering. It is dangerous to place a category on top of a person or a people and then call that their typical. This “typical” understanding of Africa is what I am trying to debunk in my work. My work demands we look at the continent, specifically Nigeria, and release ourselves from the stereotypes that we have consciously/unconsciously subscribed to. A Nigerian may be anything and perform in any way and that defies any typically rendered category.

One of my best friends in Kano is Ibibio, and I was lucky to chop often at her house! I smelled stew during those plays! Did Houston in the 1970s have the right ingredients? How can a cook adapt her recipes to new places?

No! Houston in the 1970s did not have the right ingredients to make Ibibio food. Many people came with dried leaves and dried seafood in order to retain a taste of home and then they substituted spinach and other leaves to make up for missing fresh ingredients. My mother told me she learned from some of the other immigrants around her how to pound fufu using Bisquick and boiling water. It was nothing compared to yam, but it was a passable facsimile, especially if you didn’t chew the starch!

I am struck by how your women-centered plays have succeeded, where womens art is usually sidelined or pigeonholed. Why do womens stories make us listen right now?

It is an incredible time to be an African woman literary artist. The literature of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Marguerite Abouet, NoViolet Bulawayo, Taiye Selasi, Yaa Gyasi, Helen Oyeyemi and more are changing the literary world. The work of Danai Gurira, Jocelyn Bioh, Ngozi Anyanwu and hopefully my work, are re-stitching the fabric of the American theater. These women writers are authentically telling stories from a lens contemporary audiences might not have seen before. They explore the politics of nation, gender, sex, culture and illness. They tackle issues facing the African Diaspora and through their radical honesty, provide healing. Some of these authors also dare to be African and … funny! How refreshing! It is a golden age for African women writers. May it continue.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.