News from Home
by Stephen Vincent ((15) 65-67
Whenever I travel America’s cities and wherever I need a cab, for decades now, the African diaspora is waiting. In Boston, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Atlanta people from Nigeria, Ghana, Jamaica, Ethiopia are behind the wheel.
I look forward to the Nigerians, particularly those from the East. It is as if I am still waiting to hear news from what was once an intimate, but temporary, home. Ibo, Ijaw, Effik, Cross River, Rivers, Ogoja. I used to know and travel among the people of those tribes. They were my students and faculty colleagues when I taught at the University of Nigeria at Nssuka. That was before the devastating Civil War of secession in which mainly Ibos fought to create the new State of Biafra. After deadly pogroms in the primarily Islamic north, faith in a unified Nigeria was broken. My students and colleagues were either strongly for the state or against. Secession brought war. The new state was starved, bombed and badly defeated.
Then there was big oil and big corruption. From the petroleum-rich Rivers region – this was in the mid-60’s, Ken Tsara-Wiwa was then my close friend, private political cohort, playwright and fellow teacher. On campus, already on war footing, he could not publicly say he was against secession,. Instead he had to say he was for a federation of states. He fled for Lagos and became famous for writing a series of Nigerian television dramas. Simultaneously, Shell and the other big oil companies went after the Rivers oil while destroying the ecology and only giving a fraction of the enormous profits back to the locals. Ken went to war against both the companies and the federal politicians who got very rich taking bribes from those same companies. He and his supporters were targeted. He and 12 others were hung – killed for the greed of others.
Today I am in a cab with a Nigerian from the Rivers. He looks 10 years younger than me. When I mention Ken Tsara-Wiwa, he becomes reticent as if I am coming close to a wound. I needed to be checked out. Then he asks me,“Do you know what he thought about the war, the Biafra stuff?”
I know what I need to say. “He was against it. He wanted a federation of states and the Rivers to become one of them. He did not want to have Ibo rulers. But then the federal government ended up killing him.”
“I know. I was his assistant.”
I am shocked. It’s as if a big piece of ice has been broken. We have both been close to a man we loved and lost.
The wound is still close. We change the subject to others. Behind the wheel, there is something broken in his spirit. “I had to leave Nigeria.”
Outside the cab I say, “I am so happy to have talked to you.” I realize I am sweating. News from home. Fifty years since I was in Nigeria.
No matter how long ago, a healed wound or not, I realize what a relief it is to have shared this intimacy of recognition.