Born: January 30, 1929;

Died: April 21, 2020.

FIFTY years ago the face of famine was Biafra. This was the Igbo part of the newly independent Nigeria, which was the largest by population of the emerging African states.

The Igbos, renowned as traders, thought they could go it alone. The previous colonial powers and new elites were horrified. The boundaries of colonies had been fixed by Europeans without respect to language, religion or culture. If any tribal group declared itself independent it was thought that chaos would ensue.

Biafra declared independence in July 1967. By January 1970 it surrendered, overcome by the rest of Nigeria, armed principally by the UK. During the war the Holy Ghost Fathers, the Marist Brothers and the Killeshandra Sisters, amongst others, ran a massive relief effort providing food and medicine. Caritas International planes flew in with supplies from the island of São Tomé.

Nigeria’s government made no secret of the fact that it intended to starve Biafra into submission. Over a million children died and their extended bellies and rickety limbs brought kwashiorkor (severe protein malnutrition) into the West’s TV sets and stimulated the massive Biafra Relief Fund.

When the war ended the foreigners were taken to Port Harcourt; all were fined for not having the proper legal documents until one cried out that the procedures were unjust.

The Marist Brothers – Norbert, Lewis and Ignatius – were jailed for six months for not pleading guilty to aiding the enemy. After two months, during which they were fed from a local convent, they were suddenly flown to Geneva. From there they went to Rome where, as celebrities, they were given an audience with Pope Paul VI who, before he became pontiff, had visited Nigeria and had his photo taken with the Marists.

Brother Norbert (known to his relatives as Billy) was born in Uddingston, the second of eight children, to William and Mary Simms. His mother died shortly after twins were born and he was brought up in Knightswood by his father and stepmother Ellen whom he grew to know as his mother.

In the first year of the Second World War he went to the new St Gerard’s Secondary, where Colm Brogan, the future Herald journalist, was the English principal. Following a talk from a visiting Marist Brother he transferred to the Marist Junior School in Hetland, near Dumfries, where he was pleased to get a room of his own.

He applied to join the Marist Order in 1945 and went to Athlone, in Ireland, for two years. In 1947 he returned to Glasgow to go to university, where he graduated in science. After teacher training in Jordanhill College he taught maths and physics in St Joseph’s, Dumfries. Then, as happened in those days, he was “volunteered” for Nigeria because the Brother who was teaching maths there had to come back.

He taught in the College of the Immaculate Conception, Enugu, in the Eastern State of Nigeria from 1957 to 1967. When war broke out between the East and the rest of Nigeria the College was taken over by the self-declared “Biafran” military. Putting his scientific training to use, Brother Norbert created a dispensary. It mostly aided starving children but it also had to cater for the war wounded. He took great satisfaction in this healing work.

After the war he was declared persona non grata in Nigeria, so the Brothers appointed him to Bishop Shanahan College in Bamenda, across the Nigerian border, in the English-speaking part of Cameroon. Naively, he took a plane to Lagos and was promptly returned to Europe, where he was able to get a direct flight to Douala.

In Bamenda he took up where he had left off – teaching science, playing football and running a dispensary. He also negotiated getting DVDs from here, there and everywhere, and established a film club which became well known in Cameroon.

He wrote up his story: The Nigerian Biafran Conflict (now available on Kindle). By 1993 there were enough Cameroon Brothers to run the college and reluctantly he retired back to Britain.

The first year was spent recovering from malaria, kidney stones and other ailments he had picked up overseas. To keep himself active he joined his cousin, Fr Willy Slavin, who was parish priest in St Alphonsus in Glasgow’s Barras. He took a weekly service and some of those present thought he said “a very nice Mass”. He made friends with several Barras stallholders who specialised in black market DVDs.

Living in the Brothers’ Partickhill house, he gradually found the travel by bus to the East End onerous and began helping in nearby St Peter’s. Last November he moved to St Joseph’s Nursing Home, Robroyston; he died in April in Glasgow Royal Infirmary, where he had been taken with acute renal failure.

Norbert was a well-organised person and a dedicated teacher. He kept in touch with many of his pupils, some of whom went on to distinguished careers in medicine and the law in Britain and America. Of those who got to know him in Glasgow the commonest remark was that “he had time for everybody”.

He was the last of his family. Besides his Marist brothers he leaves behind nephews, nieces and cousins in Scotland, England and Canada, all of whom recognised in him the meaning of the dedicated life.

WILLY SLAVIN