Olivia Mofus

A Civilised People

“For Obukpa people, God is everywhere and in everything. You can talk to him through the sun, or through a star, through the moon or through an iroko tree or even through a mound of clay.”


In those elementary school days, my mother made sure to bring us to church on most Sundays. Ours was one of the oldest in the Westchester area. Seven Roman arches of white stone formed the entrance and inside, green. red, blue, white mosaic glass portrayed all manner of saints, apostles, and heavenly disciples led by God, hoping to walk us in our own paths to righteousness. The air smelled of incense and ash. Slumping in my pew, looking up at painted scenes of angels and the Messiah, I almost felt ancient. Time slowed in this ritual that bound me to millenia. 

Church was the only place I ever felt a semblance of what my grandfather called God. Otherwise, I didn’t think of Him much unless I was in my religion class at the adjacent Catholic school. If there was an event during the school day, we’d all walk there from class in straight lines, plaid green skirts swaying in the wind, connecting us to our mascot the Fighting Irish. Two white priests adorned in long robes stood to the side of the altar, watching as our white administration announced something to us while we fidgeted in the pews or kicked each other’s feet for fun. 

The only excitement was when a younger, white, blond, blue-eyed priest took over. My class made cards in crayon and glue to welcome him to our congregation. He spoke tenderly and in a “teacherly” manner, though perhaps that didn’t help when he told my sister’s high school class that they were all going to hell, even if they repented. Many girls liked him because they thought he was cute. He wasn’t – he was just younger than 30, which in our school was quite rare. We were too used to older Italian Americans with beer guts and agita, white women who reminisced on the golden years when spanking students was legal, and the dusty odor of 1950 that permeated into 2008. 

I realize now that I must believe in something. God is the last thing that veils the universe with some sense of mystery, and I need something to wonder about. But I likely would never be as passionate about religion the way my grandfather was. It was something he both loved and resented – another poison forced upon his people by the West, yet he could not help but praise the bible and the stories it told. This was the same religion that they also taught to me and my siblings. All other manners of worship, we were taught, were obsolete and primitive. I in my little green skirt and he in the midst of a cultural reckoning – the two of us were held captive, or captivated, somehow, by the same force.  


Daniel Chukwu Ugwu, my grandfather, finished his book depicting the pre colonial culture of his village in 1969, when he was 45 years old. He wrote the majority of the book during the Nigerian Civil War, where the Igbo people fought to secede from Nigeria and form the country of Biafra. When the war ended, he edited the last chapter – The Modern Obukpa – to reflect the additional changes that happened during the ten-year hiatus. 

Igbos and other tribal groups were plagued by ethnic tensions tied to British-drawn borders from the 1910s. In the 1960s, they became violently targeted by other tribes during a series of anti-Igbo pogroms. In 1966, between 8,000 and 30,000 Igbos were massacred by Northern tribes, leading to the secessionist country of Biafra. More Biafran civilians would die during the three-year civil war – between 500,000 and 3 million died of starvation. 

There is a black and white photograph online of a child at their mother’s breast, stomach distended from malnutrition. Kwashiorkor. The mother’s breasts are shallow. They hang like limp plastic bags, wet and flat. Another child’s limbs are sick and twiggish. His stomach bulged like a water balloon. My mother might have been his age. She doesn’t remember much from this time except for one image of her older sister. In their village, they were told that Nigerian soldiers were raping women. One day, the villagers alerted everyone that the soldiers were coming. My mother watched her sister slather her body with palm oil so that she wouldn’t appeal to the approaching soldiers. Daniel later walked them miles away from their village to the countryside, further from the conflict. Biafran soldiers shouted at them to “keep walking,” as she witnessed the cut trees and blocked roads all around them. 

Daniel fought behind the scenes in the Biafran Organization of Freedom Fighters (BOFF) with both men and women. The group, based on the Viet Cong, was meant to infiltrate enemy lines and disrupt Nigerian supply lines. In Ufuma, he was the Zonal Commander. Daniel never mentioned any of this experience to his children later in his life. His only descendant who knew this was his first son, my uncle Chike, who died in the same war. 


I first found his book in Harlem at the Schomburg Center in 2018. My father works in the area and I was stopping by to say hello. Before then, I didn’t know that the building existed at all, but I noticed it on the way back to the subway on Google Maps. My mom told me about the book a couple weeks prior, so finding it became a casual mission that I held at the back of my mind. 

It was dark green and slender when I found it in the library’s catalog. I wasn’t surprised that my mother had seen the manuscript in their home for years, ignoring it each time. I only skimmed through a page he wrote about marriage, how in those days, a married woman could not sit on furniture while she was on her period, and the relatively relaxed customs around divorce. All a woman had to do was remove her chi from a shrine or take off her betrothal necklace to be freed from a poor marriage. 

I felt pride at what seemed to be female autonomy, and gave the little book back to the librarian. 


It is clear that Daniel was fighting a war (perhaps a losing one) for his culture. He wrote the book, he said, for the town’s future generations. However, what he did exactly as Zonal Commander seems lost forever to history. Besides their official capacity as an undercover organization, BOFF and its members are shrouded in mystery. One writer said that they were a group of brave Biafrans who “operated in the warfront without guns because they got extensive training in judo and knew how to subdue and kill people with bare hands.” He continued, saying he heard stories about members who “swooped in” and killed off Nigerian soldiers in guerilla warfare, like peregrine falcons. 

In all my internet sleuthing, I’ve found two blurry photos of Daniel, one of which was from before the war in his 1952 politician profile. He wore round wire glasses, tilting his head at a slight angle. In his profile, they wrote that he played tennis and used to be a tax clerk. 

I didn’t know he was a Zonal Commander until a month ago when I got a hold of his book again. This time, I actually read the first paragraph of the preface where he wrote about it plain as day. It didn’t seem like a big secret, but my mother didn’t know he was involved either. She only knew about the son who passed, who Daniel dedicated his book to. 


“Time was (the good old days!) when Obukpa was a paradise for the people and especially for the children and teenagers… when man was his neighbour’s brother and sister, when life was shared… Gone are those days forever. We are now a “civilised” people, each family is now a city walled around. There is no more need for a public square – otobo. Each person now minds his own business. We are Europeanised. We have arrived!”


My brother and I once went to a park a mile or so away from our house. My mother had just finished up some business in the area and decided to let us run around. While my brother was on the slides, I made my way to the only other kid in the playground sitting on the swings. She asked me many questions with a probing curiosity that annoyed me at that moment. After a brief interrogation, she looked at my brother and asked if I loved him. “No,” I responded carefully. The word was more comfortable in my gut than “Yes” was, but it came out slow. In the “-ooooo” I was wondering why it felt both easy and wrong. She walked back towards her mother, sitting away from us on the green park bench. 

I told my mother about it in the car later thinking the oddity might make her laugh. But she was livid. She whisked her head to the backseat and shouted at me, asking why I would ever say something like that. Where she came from, that would’ve been unfathomable. Here though, it was safer not to admit to loving my brother. I didn’t want to expose myself in this way. I wanted to be above it.  

“I don’t know,” I said, holding back frustrated tears. The three of us drove home in silence. 


My siblings and I were alone on this side of the world, a single boat swaying in a sea of skyscrapers, fast-food, and white. We had no living grandparents and were estranged from the many relatives we have in Nigeria. By the time our father, too, was a sparse presence in our lives, we only had our mother and each other. The four of us played with each other often in the bowels of our basement, hopping over crouched backs while playing leapfrog, dodging the balls we threw at each other with a touch too much force, or draping robes across our backs – pretending to be the wizards and elves we watched on TV. For a brief moment we even called ourselves Connect Four

I am not sure when this all subsided. Walled all around with concrete and formality, I step into the street, stare down, and think about which foot to put forward, with which speed and where. I think about the swaying of my body, how my legs feel like straws as I weave through a crowd as if on circus stilts. I think of spines spiraling from my skin, wet from sweat, and how I cannot be touched. The seasons come and we do not know each other. I wonder if we ever will, or if in another place like Obukpa where my ancestors lived and died, we might have. 


“Just fancy such an institution where the young will no longer bow to his elders or to his parents-in-law and where everyone must ‘mind his business’. Yet, this is what they have in Europe and America. The death of your next-door neighbour means nothing to you. You may not know the name of a person with whom you shared a single house for two years. You have no special village as such; your village or town is where you are. This type of modernity does not seem to suit us, at least this century.”

“It is inferiority complex that makes some people abandon their own culture and their dialect for those they consider superior.”


Daniel believed that the modernization of Obukpa and the neighboring area began in the 1930s when British schools and Christianity were introduced. School boys separated themselves from the “heathens,” learned English, and “spoke of Jesu Christi, Sacrament, Ito n’ime ofu di Ngozi (Holy Trinity), Maria di aso and Eucharista di aso and the rest of these things. These were new words and sounded so strange that those who used them were a class of distinguished people. After all, these were the words of the white man!” 

He recalled one Sunday in 1946, when many Obukpa men and countrymen were summoned to the village square to discuss a new school that the government would approve. Thousands of people came to give their sentiments, orators great and small. He said that in 30 years of attending public meetings, he didn’t remember anything as clearly as the speech delivered by Paul Omeje, a “fanatic” Christian. Paul “burst into a song and tears recounting the ancient glories of Obukpa and invoking in a most emotional manner the spirits of our ancestors, the goddess Nimu, and all he could think of. The crowd joined in the songs and cries of war demonstrations.” Paul died during the war. 

After that, Daniel became more involved in local politics until the time of his death. One colleague wrote about the “radicals” of Nigerian politics – among them, he was listed. I told my mother that her father might have been a communist, but she refused. The word means something different here. 


My mom tells me that my grandfather would have liked me, but sometimes I am not so sure. 


Works Consulted

Ugwu, D.C.. “This is Obukpa: A History of Typical Ancient Igbo State.” Fourth Dimension

Publishing Company, 1987. 

Uzokwe, Alfred Obiora. Surviving in Biafra: The Story of the Nigerian Civil War : Over Two

Million Died. United States, Writers Advantage, 2003.

Wikipedia contributors. “Nigerian Civil War.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia,

The Free Encyclopedia, 12 Nov. 2023. Web. 16 Nov. 2023.

Olivia Mofus is a second year Weinberg student from Yonkers New York pursuing majors in Computer Science and, hopefully, Creative Writing.