Chima Enyia did not tell anyone that the state of Illinois would commemorate Biafra Memorial Day on May 30 until the ink from Governor Bruce Rauner’s pen was dry.
The 28-year-old Igbo American and son of Biafra War survivors has been working slowly and steadily toward this goal for the past seven years—first as an intern in former Governor Pat Quinn’s office, rising to become associate director of the Illinois Department of Revenue.
“I found in the workplace, you can’t just throw culture in someone’s face,” Enyia says. “You have to lay the groundwork for them to get bits and nuggets about who you are.”
Enyia started by wearing traditional Igbo dress on Fridays and taking egusi soup to work. He would invite coworkers to see him perform the Igbo War Dance at Igbofest, a Chicago event with a 30-year history, or to go out for a meal at Little Unicoco, a recently opened Nigerian restaurant in Rogers Park.
“That makes conversations around issues of culture like the Biafra War much easier to have,” says Enyia, a Bronzeville resident.
And he had plenty of those conversations as he laid the groundwork to finally talk to governor’s office staff about issuing a statement to mark the 50th anniversary of the Biafra War. In a letter signed by Governor Bruce Rauner this year, the state of Illinois honors the victims of the 1967 Nigerian civil war and “urge[s] all citizens to strive to overcome hatred and indifference through learning, tolerance, and remembrance.” For Enyia, who was born in Chicago after his parents moved to America seeking higher education, the “second” Memorial Day has an additional meaning—that a new generation of Igbo Americans has grown up and is keeping their culture alive in their own ways.
A Half-Century Ago
On May 30, 1967, following a series of military coups and violent persecution of the Igbo people, Biafra (a southeastern region populated mainly by Igbos) declared independence from Nigeria. That precipitated a two-and-half year civil war in which the west African nation fought to reabsorb Biafra, an oil-rich region; by the time the war ended in 1970, it’s estimated that between 500,000 and 2 million Biafrans died of starvation.
Much like the current war in Syria, the world largely forgot about the Biafra War until images circulated in western media. For Syria, it was barrel bombings and chemical weapons attacks shared on social media that created public outcry; for Biafra, it was images of starving children on television that sparked humanitarian aid in 1969. Modern relief organizations, including Doctors Without Borders, formed as a direct response to Biafra.
Enyia, the youngest of six siblings (including sister Amara Enyia who ran for mayor of Chicago in 2015), heard stories of Biafra from his parents, Samuel and Irene. When the war broke out, Samuel fought on the front lines as a battalion commander; Irene wanted to fight, but due to gender restrictions, became a field medic instead. In 1975, the Enyias immigrated to the Chicago area for higher education and remained politically active in the Igbo community, locally and globally, while also Enyia’s parents—who now hold multiple graduate degrees—are leaders in the local Igbo community and helped form the Igbo World Congress in 1994. They also co-authored a book together, “After Biafra: A Nigerian Igbo Redevelopment Plan.”
And so Chima Enyia says he’s always felt the need to honor his parents’ sacrifices and contributions: “How are you going to make your culture come through your work, your professional life? That challenge went unspoken and was issued long ago,” he says. “I think this [Biafra Memorial Day proclamation] is just making good on that challenge.”
This is actually the second time he’s persuaded an Illinois governor to sign such a document: In 2015, Governor Pat Quinn recognized Biafra Day as well, an event that Enyia remembers bringing tears to his parents’ eyes. “We made our contributions and now they are making their contributions to society,” says Irene Enyia. “God will use them to do greater things to fulfill their destiny.”
Enyia hopes this proclamation on the 50th anniversary carries a different message: it’s time for his generation to step up. Though the second generation never lived through the Biafra War, he says they are ready to take up the mantle to ensure the culture lives on through their own children as well.
Building New Cultural Touchstones
When Chima Enyia was young, every Saturday the Enyia family would visit Uptown’s Equator Club so the siblings could play and learn with other Igbo children. Famous during the height of “world beat music” in the 1990s, that institution has since faded. For a younger generation that left Chicago for a few years for school or work, they returned home to a more fragmented cultural landscape.
In 2006, the six Enyia siblings were all back in the city and decided to set up the Umo Igbo Alliance, as a way for young professionals and college students to build community and get involved in cultural activities. In the last ten years, the organization has grown to more than 200 members. Their sister organization, Umo Igbo Unite, is a national organization and has a membership of 2,000.
Onyinye Enyia, 35, resurrected the young women’s dance group, a setting in which she remembers learning traditional Igbo maiden dances at age seven. “Every year I wanted to dance with the older girls who were 13 or 14, and every year they would push the age by a year,” Onyinye recalls. She became the coach and lead dancer for a troupe, which has performed all around Chicago including at Igbofest, Lake Forest College, and Northwestern University.
“Some dance groups of Igbo Americans have adulterated the dance with hip-hop stuff. No, we aren’t doing that. We want to do Igbo dance – without adding in Justin Timberlake moves. We got to do Egwu ukwu: ‘shaking your waist,’” she says.
Today she holds a Ph.D in health policy informatics, works to improve health care technology, and has three children now in tow. She has “retired” from the maiden dances, but she still focuses on translating Igbo culture to the next generation. Her latest project, the Igbo Cultural Kids School, will teach Igbo language and culture through song, dance, music, and food. This summer, she will pilot the school with about 10 or 15 children from four or five families, including her own.
“They are going to understand who they are as Igbos even though they are born and raised in America,” she says.
“We are doing what our parents did,” she says, laughing at how life has come full circle. “We’re programming them to know who exactly they are so even if they go to Nigeria, they don’t feel disconnected.”
A Therapeutic Story
Ugochi Nwagwugwu uses music and storytelling to share the Igbo culture.
Ugochi Nwagwugwu, 45, remembers the first time her parents told her stories from the Biafra War. It was shortly after the younger woman showed her parents the film “Hotel Rwanda.”
“The whole time I’m like, ‘they are going to love this.’ Ha! At the end I say, ‘mom, dad what did you think of that?’ [And my dad responds,] ‘Oh, you think that’s a story? Wait until you hear about the time Nnadi was lost.’ He starts telling how my brother got lost in the war,” Nwagwugwu recalls.
They did eventually find her brother; however, the story would have been lost if she hadn’t asked, Nwagwugwu says. It turns out that her father was studying in America, and her mother was in the airport coming to join him, on the day Biafra declared its independence 50 years ago. “It is something I had to peel back. I had to talk to them. I had to reach for it,” she says.
Nwagwugwu, an internationally recognized musician, believes that the storytelling is instructive and healing, too. Her parents made the difficult choices so that she could be alive today, and by hearing so, she understood them more as people, she says.
“I take those stories, and I have put them in a collection as a poet, as a writer. I didn’t know what else to do to honor it, the experience,” she explains, adding that though the project started as a personal project, she now encourages other women to do the same. In 2008, she publicly performed pieces from this collection, “Igbo Lessons,” at the London Team Poetry Slam. Afterward, her African and Caribbean peers approached her about how they felt her story was so similar to their own.
In Chicago this September, she is collaborating with other women writers from the African Diaspora to organize an African/Caribbean Women’s Literary Festival in Chicago called Akataeko, which means “one who manipulates things to their advantage.”
A New Quest for Igbo Americans
The stories and trauma of the Biafra War remain relevant as modern-day Nigeria struggles with political and economic inequality that persists along regional and ethnic lines. In April, emissaries from Ohaneze, the Nigeria-based premier Igbo socio-cultural organization, appealed for Nigerians living in the United States to formally organize their financial support of the homeland. In August, the Igbo World Congress will descend on Chicago and discuss how the global community can unite and make progress toward its goals.
Chima and Irene Enyia say they hope Igbos will find a way forward that doesn’t require bloodshed. They emphasize the Igbo proverb: unity is strength. “If we are united and say we want to be Biafra, we can’t speak with different voices,” says Samuel Enyia. “If we are going to be a nation, there has to be an agreement with all the entities that will make this nation happen. Then the whole world will know. Until that happens, we are still talking.”
The Biafra Memorial Day proclamation will be formally presented to the Chicago Igbo community at the World Igbo Congress in August.
This report was published in collaboration with City Bureau, a Chicago-based journalism lab.