Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Crisis erupts

Ed and Jean Ritchie worked as medical missionaries in Nigeria. In the previous blog I told of their romance and marriage. In 1967 a civil war erupted that caught the world's attention and directly affected their lives.

Paul: Jean, you arrived back in Nigeria having been married, what was life like in the months that followed?

Jean: Well I went back to teaching midwifery. He [Ed] was the medical superintendent of the hospital so we would have entertained a bit. Then I became pregnant. [During the pregnancy Jean lost a lot of weight]. I ended up at the end of the pregnancy lighter than I began . . .

Your dad worked very hard. He worked long hours because there was always demands in the hospital.

Jean also mentions a time where she and Ed went to the hill country for a holiday. The journey involved travelling roads with hair-pin bends, in heavy rain, in a car that had no windscreen-wipers.

Paul: What about the birth?

Jean: Your dad was in theatre. [Her doctor was another doctor called Dr. Longley]. Your dad was to be with me as a husband. He got called to an emergency and had go to threatre but I held on until he returned! So he was there for the birth.

Paul: Had you thought of a name?

Jean: No, we hadn't thought of a name. So the nurses names her Ngosi, which means joy or blessing.

There was unrest in the region at the time. There had been a general evacuation of missionaries and ex-pats the previous month. Ed didn't leave owing to his responsibilities at the hospital. Ed and Jean did not think that the war would last so long or get so severe. They had made the decision that Jean would stay. As Jean explains, 'I wanted to be with my husband for the delivery . . .'

Paul: Dad, how long had there been trouble on the horizon before the fighting erupted?

Ed explains about the assassination of General Ironsi six months earlier. General Ironsi was head of the military government of the whole of Nigeria. He was from the east and was of the Igbo people. His death was one of the factors that made eastern Nigeria turn towards Independence. The Igbo people felt they were no longer welcome as part of the federation that made up Nigeria. Shortly before Joy was born, Biafra, the eastern region, declared independence. The rest of the federation tried to end this Independence. Cival war had erupted.

Paul: Dad, how did the eruption [of violence] affect things in the hospital?

Ed: War meant shelling, away in the north. Soon after the capital [of Biafra, Enugu] was taken by the federal troops. For a week it looked like there was no effective administration [of the Biafran government]. However, the Biafran government . . . came to a school complex near Umuahia. The large general hospital in Enugu was evacuated to Q.E.H. Umuahia [the hospital where Ed and Jean were] and within two weeks the hospital expanded from two hundred beds to five hundred beds. Four hundred beds were taken up with casualties. And two surgical teams were formed by African doctors from Enugu to look after these patients. The missionary doctors continued to look after civilians and increasingly took part in the relief programme established by the World Council of Churches. [It was based at the hospital] . . . Schools did not reopen and some missionary families were evacuated, especially children. So Jean and Joy, now aged three months, set out to return home to Ireland.

The two pictures accompanying this blog are drawings by Ed of their home at the hospital compound.

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