“There are kids like me in Syria, in Somalia”

A moving documentary of the story of Maurice Nwokeji from Biafra

As I watch a group of orphans in Aleppo on my TV screen appealing to the world to save them Maurice’s words ring in my ears. “But no. it’s happening now. There are kids like me in Syria, in Somalia. We haven’t learnt anything.”

Maurice knows what it is like to experience war, to be continually bombed and to scavenge for food. He was caught up in the Nigerian Civil War, better known as the Biafran War between 1967 and 1970. Ugwumpiti, the title Maurice chose for his film, is the word the children invented for the mixture of corn flour, powdered milk and water that the Red Cross provided, ‘the most beautiful food that has ever been.’ Thousands of children queued each day from morning till night, some of them dying in the line. One day Maurice won the singing competition held for the children so was able, with his younger brother, to lick the remains out of the massive oil drum.

Maurice’s story of how he survived the war, how his parents, in the UK, eventually tracked him down and arranged for him and his brother to join them in Hackney, is peppered with surprising, often amusing anecdotes. He talks about how he and his brother got knocked down by a taxi as they were not used to traffic; how they stole food from the fridge at night and stuffed it under their mattresses because they could not believe they would have food the next day; how they stuffed chocolate under the car seat because they did not want to tell their parents that it tasted too sweet. “I much preferred roasted rat,” Maurice laughed.

For the film Maurice returned to the house he lived in as a child in Hackney, “This is my England’ and he returned to Benthall Juniors where he went to school. An assembly of children were spellbound as Maurice told his story about coming,  “to this very school” and as he sang several of the music tracks, inspired by his childhood, that are featured in the film.

Ugwumpiti, was recently launched at the Child Migrant Stories event at the V&A Museum of Childhood, part of the Being Human Festival. There was a great response.

‘Maurice’s heart told the story well.’

People readily linked Maurice’s experience with what is happening today.

‘Then is now. Does our society really care? And is that reflected in government policy?”

Do tell others about Ugwumpiti. Why not arrange a screening alongside a Q&A with Maurice and others. Or better still invite his band, One Jah, to give a live performance of some of the music featured in the film inspired by his childhood.

Email world@childmigrantstories.com

Watch Ugwumpiti on the Child Migrant Stories website on https://childmigrantstories.com/portfolio/maurice-okechukwu-nwokeji/

Or on YouTube Ugwumpiti – Maurice’s Story

 

ls1432_0113
Maurice performing at the national launch of Being Human Festival at Senate House, London, 17th November 2016.Photograph courtesy of the School of Advanced Study, University of London. Copyright Lloyd Sturdy.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Being Human

Former child migrants, friends, family, neighbours and the general public gathered at the V&A Museum of Childhood on November 19th for a series of films screenings, talks and performances about Child Migrant Stories as part of the national Being Human Festival. The programme of music, intercultural games, films and music by refugee and other artists attracted over 2,000 people.

The first film to be shown was Child Migrant Stories – Voices Past and Present, featuring 18 of the child migrants who came to East London under the age of 18 from 1930 to the present day. From Bangladesh to Bethnal Green, from the Caribbean to Clapton and from Somalia to Stamford Hill. People held their breath as Marie talked about the separation from her family during civil war in Rwanda. But they laughed when Heather, from Jamaica, recounted how she was told she would turn white when she went to England.

One ten year old girl said she enjoyed the film and learnt ‘that many refugees suffered abuse and racism at school.” She wanted, “to know more about all the kids stories. I was very engaged!”

The daughter of Nurul Giani wrote, “Very empowering and emotional for us as a family to hear.”

Other people commented:

“The film is fabulous.”

“Great humanity, warm and moving.”

“Increased my understanding and made me appreciate difficulties for new arrivals in a strange country.”

“It gives a friendly face or multiple faces to a topic that is often treated via a negative angle.”

Then we showed Passing Tides, the story of Linh Vu who escaped Vietnam by boat with her father. People gasped as they watched Linh, on screen,  draw the small boat with 50 people crammed inside. This was followed by a Q&A session with Linh and a reading by Tina Puryear, co-author of Linh’s father’s recent autobiography, A Catholic with Confucian Tendencies.

image-05-12-2016-at-16-43
Q&A session with Linh Vu after the screening of Passing Tides. Photo by Mitchell Harris.

People appreciated the film’s, “authenticity of emotions” and learnt about, “The process of refugee rescue and transition.” Several people thought it was, “fantastic to have the actual person in the film present at the showing and seeing/hearing their thoughts. It is wonderful how people survive and GROW.” They thought, “the reading from the autobiography really added to the perspectives.”

Ugwumpiti, the story of Maurice Nwokeji who was caught up in the Biafran war, was screened next. People were horrified to hear about Maurice’s experience of war but laughed at how, when he joined his parents in the UK and they offered him chocolate as a treat, he hated it. “Far too sweet. I much preferred roasted rat. ” One person felt that, “Maurice’s heart told the story well.” Another that, “Stories have to be told as part of the healing process.” Many people made the link between historical and contemporary migration. ”Then is now. Does our society really care? And is that reflected in government policy?”

image-05-12-2016-at-16-43-1
Q&A session with Maurice Nwokeji after the screening of Ugwumpiti. Photo by Mitchell Harris.

The last film, Life is a Destiny, is about how Argun Imamzade rescued his family’s photographic album from his bombed out house in Cyprus in the 1960s. People loved the discussion between Argun and his grandchildren on film about what they would rescue if they had to leave home in a hurry. His oldest grandchild recounts how she would seize her mobile phone. Her grandfather looks puzzled but his granddaughter has a point. Her photographs would be stored on her phone and  she would use it to make sure other family members were safe.

There were many ideas on what else the project could do – more research; more videos; more in depth stories; more talks; exhibitions; one minute films shot by migrants of their daily lives; social media for teenagers to talk about migration; films used as a resource for education, inspiration and projects for schools, NGOS, Unicef, Save the Children – the list was endless.This all needs resources, of course, and present funding has come to an end.

We retired upstairs to the hall to hear Maurice’s rousing reggae band, One Jah. Maurice thanked people for hearing his story, something he has always yearned to tell. He played music inspired by his childhood, hiding in foxholes to escape the bombs and scavenging for snakes and lizards. He and his younger brother would not have survived if the Red Cross had not provided them with one bowl of food a day, what the children named Ugwumpiti, the title he chose for his film.

image-05-12-2016-at-16-43-2
Maurice Nwokeji and One Jah perform at the end of the day