Bob Criso’s Return To Ishiagu

Andy Simmonds (18) 66-67

 

“As the crowd became more agitated, the villagers encircled my house in Ishiagu in May 1967.  Soon two men appeared with a 50 gallon drum filled with kerosene.  Jeers and shouts arose as they rolled the metal container under my house.  As mania took control of the menacing crowd and it became more of a mob, we knew we were soon to become toast!” –Bob Criso

 

Returning to Nigeria was the chance of a lifetime!  How often does a Peace Corps Volunteer have the opportunity to return to the spot where over forty years ago one’s ideals and enthusiasm were put to the test.  Thirty-two of us joined forces this November to see with our own eyes just what had happened to the country and the people who had transformed our lives forever.  Travelling with two armed guards on our “air conditioned” bus, quite different from the lorry experiences of yesteryears, but in its own way still an adventure, I found myself listening to Bob Criso who had been a teacher at Ishiagu, about a two hours drive south-east of Enugu.  I too had come close to ending my life half way around the world from home, but Bob’s tale of his escape from Ishiagu in a Chevy PC van while being shot at by soldiers brought into focus two realities.  Youth provides the energies of the unconquerable, while experience hopefully brings wisdom.  Bob and I had decided that we would depart from the group and strike out on our own to see what had become of the schools and the people who meant so much to us as PCV’s.  Unfortunately both time and distance were two realities that prevented the return to my former school at Okene; however, Bob’s return to Ishiagu provided the vicarious experience that was certainly the highlight of the trip for me.

Bob had made prior arrangements with our tour director to use our first day in Enugu for the trip to his former school, St. John’s.  The cost was to be $100, but this meant the taxi and driver would be at his disposal for the day.  We soon found that Nigerian entrepreneurship is most certainly still alive: it was going to cost a second $100 plus $20 more to secure a driver, and of course one could not really be sure exactly who would be the beneficiary of these additional funds!  Time and distance – this occasion would never present itself again and we probably would have shelled out far more if it had been demanded.  Unlike the fun of bartering with a Hausa Trader, our window of opportunity was small and there was little we could do but accept the terms.  As we journeyed together in an almost “air conditioned” taxi it became apparent that finding St. John’s School was not going to be a simple task.  Stated directions from the locals seemed to be off base more than once but of course it was more than forty years ago and much had changed.  As we passed a gated compound with many buildings, something clicked for Bob and he asked the driver to pause on the roadside to let him ask yet again at this agricultural college if anyone knew about St. John’s.  The very dubious guard at the gate was highly distrustful of this foreigner speaking about his quest to return to a former memory!  After much palaver Bob disappeared with the guard. Twenty to thirty minutes passed and finally Bob reappeared – jubilant and stymied: Jubilant because this was actually the location of the former St. John’s, and stymied because the guard was still distrustful and unnerved by our presence.  The guard was willing to escort us in our taxi to the office of the head honcho, but we were obviously not to be trusted.  Of course a dash would have solved all; however, we were so excited to find the old school location, and we so much wanted to find where Bob had lived and taught, that we were not focused on the guard’s desire for money.  He escorted us to the outer office of the Provost of the college where we filled out forms identifying who we were, why we had come to the school, our passport information, etc.  Fortunately the secretaries were far more accepting and friendly and were amazed that we had returned to Nigeria, much less travelled all the way back to Ishiagu to find “St. John’s.”

As we were escorted into the Provost’s office by a secretary and the guard, we did not know what to expect. The Provost, Dr. Lambert S. Eluagu, could not have been more pleasant or accommodating.  He, too, was amazed that people would travel such a distance and take the effort we had to make this dream come true. He immediately asked his secretary to find phone numbers and addresses of the boys and teachers whose names Bob could recall.  As he made contact with former students and handed the phone to Bob it was as if a long-lost family member had been found.  Joy, happiness, tears, laughter were all rolled into the air waves that transported Bob to the far regions of Nigeria that the boys of yesteryear had returned to or now inhabited.

Mr. Fabian Jackson Nwnchukwu, a former student who had left Ishiagu on a business trip to Afikpo earlier in the day, immediately turned around to return to see Bob.  After thirty minutes of wonderful exchanges with the Provost, Fabian appeared.  Handshakes, hugs, tears, and exclamations were all part of this wonderful reunion.  Fabian could not believe his eyes and the same was true for Bob.  The Provost asked if we would like to tour the college which had supplanted St. John’s and where many new structures had been built – and where Bob’s first house (now a small pile of stones) had stood. We of course gratefully accepted his invitation.  I asked if it would be OK to take pictures and he laughed and said, “Of course – we have nothing to hide here.”  This was just to make sure the guard, and now an assistant to the Provost appointed to assist in the tour, would know taking pictures was permissible.

We returned to the classroom where Bob had instructed Fabian so many years ago and they took a “teacher-student” pose to remind both of the special time they had shared earlier in life.  Touring the rest of the school, mostly new to Bob, we realized the guide and guard would stay with us constantly.  In order to be candid in our conversations Bob suggested that we visit his second home in Ishiagu, if it still stood, since this would free us of the guard and the Provost’s appointed guide.  Fabian insisted that we go in his car, a new SUV which attested to his success since his student days with Bob. Bob thanked the guide, asking him to express our appreciation to the Provost, and gave him a handsome dash which immediately changed his demeanor to a far friendlier disposition! 

Fabian drove us to the ill-fated location of earlier years (see opening quote) and much to our surprise the house was in exceptionally good condition.  Signs posted on the doors informed us that it had recently been the tax office for the district.  It was a large structure built on six-foot pillars which allowed a person to walk under the structure without having to lower his head.  Suddenly the apparition of the drum filled with kerosene made far more sense.  Fabian had graduated from St. John’s before the civil war, so he was unfamiliar with Bob’s experience. Bob recounted his tale and went on to say that as the mob was about to take further action an elder of the village stood up on a tree stump and admonished those gathered for their actions, speaking of how Bob had come to this community from America to share his life and talents with the children in school at Saint John’s.  His persuasive manner coupled with a light rain that soon turned into a downpour quieted those assembled; however, they still remained encircling the house!  Late that afternoon in 1967 three teachers from St John’s came to apologize for what had taken place; while Bob was relieved, he seized the opportunity to ask if they could escort two visiting peace corps volunteers, quite shaken by the activities of the afternoon, to the train station so that they might go safely to the Peace Corps headquarters in Enugu.  The teachers were glad to do this, and of course the volunteers were much relieved to say the least!

 A day later Bob decided to leave Ishiagu and was fortunate to depart from Nigeria in the bowels of an Italian freighter from Port Harcourt.  The freighter was denied docking in Lagos, so on to Accra, Ghana it sailed, and Bob was glad to see the light of day again after four days of darkness with hundreds of other expatriates who had been fortunate enough to secure exit from an ever increasingly dangerous situation. Fabian was appalled by Bob’s recounting of the adventure. We asked what had happened to him during this time, and Fabian told us how he had no choice but to join the army, or he would have been shot.  Because of his education and the respect in which he was held, Fabian was immediately made a commanding officer of a large number of troops.  He recounted how he would lead troops into battle with only three rounds of ammunition – in the early days of the war the enthusiasm of the men and boys for the cause would carry them to victory; however, as the war wore on the tide changed, and it was truly a miracle that Fabian survived what happened to so many of his friends.  Fabian explained that the final outcome was really the only possible successful ending, with One Nigeria emerging from the strife that had existed. 

The subject changed as Fabian asked how much the taxi from Enugu had cost, and he was shocked.  He immediately offered to repay Bob, but Bob dismissed this offer and would hear nothing further about money. Fabian then drove us to the house he had had built, and was still in the process of moving into.  The compound was surrounded by ten-foot walls capped with circular prison razor-wire; Bob asked if such safety measures were really necessary.  Fabian assured us that there had been many changes since the war, and that indeed such precautions were essential for the protection of one’s family.  He reported that those times had reopened the vestiges of might over right and men had been taught to kill and take without regard.  This horrendous change had caused great upheaval and is still reflected in the Nigerian society of today.  Fabian, who had been the elected governor for the area in 2002, is now an appointed official for the population census, which demands a great deal of travel.  Bandits and thieves seem to run rampant in the Rivers Area, and even he feels it is not safe to be travelling at night. 

As a guard opened the gates we drove into Fabian’s compound to be welcomed by two of his pre-teen sons, children of a second marriage who were happy to see their father.  As we entered the house the first room was exceptionally large with a grand cathedral ceiling and an inlaid marble floor.  On the wall was a large Sony flat screen panel and there was a beautiful walnut cabinet built into the wall. Pictures reflected travel to various foreign countries and it immediately became obvious that Fabian had been quite successful.  He offered us refreshments and we gingerly asked if he had any Star Beer available.  Indeed he did and the children produced glasses and beer.  To our surprise Fabian did not take a beer – we learned that he had seen too many consequences of alcohol consumption, and decided as a young man not to participate.  However, as we toasted old friends and renewed acquaintances he did turn up the emptied Star bottle and drink the one drop that remained.  Much talk, many memories and news of old friends filled the next hours.  Fabian could not express just how much difference Bob’s efforts had made in his life and he continued to thank him for all that he had done.  As the time approached to head back to Enugu, a bottle of champagne appeared, a modern offering of the kola nut.  We were greatly honored, as it was obvious that this was a special gift for an old friend and a way of honoring both of us for the effort that we had taken to make this time together a reality.  We were both thrilled and grateful for his expression of love. We assured Fabian that the Star had certainly satisfied our thirst and that his gift was a special tribute to us we would never forget; however, we could not manage more alcohol at the moment.  Fabian understood.

We bade farewell to the children, and Fabian drove us around Ishiagu and then to the Ishiagu market.  I asked if it would be possible to buy CD’s with highlife music in the market.  Fabian made a call to his nephew Felix in Enugu, asking him to contact us at our hotel upon our return, reporting that there would be a far greater selection in Enugu and that Felix would help us with this request.  We then reclaimed our taxi, and Fabian drove us to the edge of Ishiagu to make sure our taxi driver got on the correct road to Enugu. Off we headed with warm hearts and fond memories that will last a lifetime.