From Enugu to Ife Ezinihitte

Renate Schulz (7) 63-65

 

I had reserved a car and driver through Nkechi, our Nigerian tour guide, who accompanied our group of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) in the southern part of the country. Not even I was adventurous enough to do my own driving in Nigeria! My destination was Ife Grammar School in Ife Ezinihitte, Mbaise District, Imo State where William Schulz (7), my former husband, and I had been stationed from 1963 – 1965. The cost of my means of transportation, originally quoted to be $110 for the approximately 130 miles roundtrip, had unexpectedly increased to $225. But I was ready to pay anything to re-visit the place that had been home for two years and an experience which still counts among the most formative of my life. Innocent, my driver, and I left almost two hours after my desired departure time in a fairly new Czech-made Skoda. I was somewhat apprehensive to be seen in such a new car. The one impression I wanted to avoid in Nigeria was that I was rich or important or had any other attributes that would make me attractive to kidnappers…. Only half-way jokingly I informed my travel companions that I did have objections to being ransomed, but had no objections if U.S. Marines came after me.

Several of my travel companions who had also taught in Igboland during their Peace Corps service had rented cars and driver as well and left with friends or spouses to visit their former work station. I was the only one who travelled solo.  Though on most of the trip our group had been accompanied by armed guards, I was reluctant to ask someone to accompany me on this venture, because 1) I was uncertain that I would find the village; 2) I had no idea whether Ife Grammar School still existed, since the only on-line reference to the school I had found on Google was in my own CV;  and 3) since I had not received a response to letters I had sent to the principal of the school and the postmaster of the village, I was quite certain that even if the school still existed, there would be few, if any, people to talk with me on a Saturday. My efforts to get in touch by e-mail with any address I could find online on an Mbaise District website as well as of the Anglican Church in that area also had been unsuccessful.

The Enugu to Port Harcourt road (a narrow, paved, but well-maintained road in the sixties) has become a four-line highway. Wow! But the wow-effect fades soon after leaving the city when innumerable pot holes slow us down considerably. Every few miles we encounter a road block, manned by soldiers who expect a 'dash' (bribe) to let a vehicle pass. Approaching the first road block I instruct the driver to continue driving, but change my mind immediately when two machine guns are aimed at us by two grim-looking soldiers. Surprisingly, they wave us on. Innocent's explanation: "Because you are a white woman." Unfortunately, neither my whiteness nor my womanhood help at subsequent road blocks…. 

The expected procedure becomes quite clear from observing vehicles in front of us: The car/van/truck comes to a stop. One of the soldiers approaches the driver's window. The driver and soldier exchanged some words. The driver more or less surreptitiously hands the soldier some money out of the window. The soldier waves on the vehicle and waits for the next victim.

I inform Innocent that I am not paying any bribe to anyone for any reason! Poor Innocent! His car papers are  checked at least half a dozen times. He is asked at several road blocks to open the trunk of the car for inspection (Innocent's explanation: “They take you behind the car so that no one sees when you give them money.”) Some soldiers engage me in small talk, hoping for a dash. Some ask me outright for money or food. Some ask whether I had voted for Obama and my affirmative response is greeted by much appreciation and hand shaking.  Innocent assures me that I am his first passenger on that highway without paying a dash! Western morality prevails! My driver’s response to my question of what would happen to these soldiers when their commanders found out they were taking bribes: “Madam, they share the money with their commanding officers. If they don't bring enough money to them, they will not be placed at lucrative collection points tomorrow.”

Between the road blocks we negotiate pot holes which often force us to come to a total stop. Innocent explains that it is at these places – after the car has come to a halt -- that robbers come out of the bush and rob the passengers. He also lets me know in no uncertain terms that he wants to be back in Enugu before sun-down.

We leave the 'luxury' of four-lane driving on the Enugu to Port Harcourt road and turn onto the narrow (but relatively well-maintained) Aba to Owerri Road. Thank God, no more road blocks!

Throughout the trip I am consulting an excerpt of a detail map (Shell Oil 2004) showing my approximate destination which a friend of a friend (thank you, Chuck Dorigan!) had miraculously found somewhere in the DC area and Fed-Exed to me the day before my departure to Nigeria. The map shows that we should be close to where we need to leave the highway and go into the bush. Bush roads are unmarked on the map. We leave the main road.

Thank God, Innocent does not suffer from the prevalent western male’s aversion to asking for directions!  But whenever he asks, he gets conflicting information. It seems that the sentence "I don't know" is tabu in Nigerian culture.  Finally, Innocent finds a man who not only assures him that he has been to Ife Ezinihitte, but who also claims to know Ife Grammar School. We negotiate and he agrees to accompany us there for 2000 Naira (approx. US $18, probably equivalent to his weekly pay).

The bush paths our guide takes us on are unbelievable! They haven't been graded for at least five rainy seasons. Innocent becomes concerned that we may never make it to Ife at this speed -- not to talk about back to Enugu. He suggests we turn around. The guide assures us we are close to our destination.

I look around: bush, interspersed by occasional mud huts, here and there a larger compound with several buildings, occasionally an impressive residence (surrounded by walls), probably owned by a local politician or other expert on fleecing the population. I recognize nothing!

The guide tells us that we have arrived. I still recognize nothing, but about 100 yards ahead awaits us a major commotion of people, mostly school children in white uniforms. The driver stops and communicates with someone in Igbo. The children scatter like mad, arranging themselves into parade formation in front of our car. Drummers start beating their various portable percussion instruments. Young girls in colorful wrappers follow the drummers, dancing to the beat. Then comes our car, followed by a group of villagers. We pass under an overgrown arch announcing barely legibly "Ife Grammar School."  The procession slowly approaches the old familiar structure where I taught 43 years ago. I finally realize what is happening and I am loosing it! A line of smiling adults (some dressed in western business attire, some in traditional attire) is greeting me: Principal Nwachukwu and his wife, the teachers, the Anglican priest, some school alumni, the former cook for the students (the only person I actually recognize), a number of important villagers, a photographer. Children in school uniforms left and right staring at me (some taking pictures with their cell phones).  I can't stop sobbing. The principal's wife hands me a role of toilet paper to wipe my face. (Later she tells me that she brought the toilet paper on the recommendation of her daughter – now living in London – who, after being told this very morning on the phone of the plans for the day, predicted my emotional response and advised her mother to come equipped….)

I am disappointed that my godchild, Renate Ugonma Udodinma Ajero (born 12/29/1964) is not among the greeters.  I had lost touch with Chief Ajero, her father, at the beginning of the war. But her older sister is there who gives me my godchild’s cell phone number in Lagos (I later make arrangements to meet her – now Renate Nwaobasi - and her family in Lagos the eve before my return to the U.S.).

Obviously, the bush telegraph is intact and still works well.  (Messsages relayed formerly by drums or messengers on bicycles are now relayed by ubiquitous cell phones.) All my communications had arrived, and they had been waiting for my arrival for the past two hours, since the trip from Enugu should have taken no more than two hours, rather than the 3 1/2 hours it took us to meander through the bush.

I tour the school compound with the principal and the teachers. Heart breaking! The walls of classrooms covered with graffiti; barely any furniture; the blackboards (wooden boards painted black) cracked and practically unusable; still no electricity (and, of course, no sign of the generator which we had procured for the school with Peace Corps help in the sixties and which provided three hours of light every night); broken shutters ; the chemistry lab (my former husband's pride and joy) dirty, with practically no equipment; still no running water (though I note an overgrown, crumbling water tower). The school library (built and equipped under my directions) bare of book cases and books; windows (formerly the only glass windows on campus) broken. No sign of the sturdy 36 chairs and six tables, expertly constructed by the local palm-wine drinking carpenter whom I needed to visit (and harass) daily to make sure my furniture was being constructed between bouts of palm-wine induced stupor. The principal notices my dismay and assures me that the books had been moved to a classroom. We find the small classroom, crammed with furniture and books, unusable for library purposes. I recognize my book cases!  I take out one of the dirt-encrusted volumes. The Dewey Decimal code is in my handwriting! On the inside cover I read "Donated by the friends of…." some American organization from which we had received books (admittedly most of these donations were inappropriate for the purpose they were supposed to serve – but they looked good on the shelves!)  I start sobbing again.

Ife Grammar School, a secondary Anglican boarding school for boys in the 1960s, was taken over by the state after the Biafran War (1967 – 1970) and has become a co-educational day school – now called Ife Secondary School. The dormitories are collapsing. Our former comfortable bungalow is still standing, but no longer inhabitable. No sign anymore of the big, lovely flower bed that had decorated the circular drive way in front of the school building. Overgrown grass everywhere! The bush is slowly reclaiming the compound. (In defense of the school I must say that during our time at Ife, when the school was still a boarding school, the boys did much of the maintenance work on campus, and we did not shy away from commandeering them and their machetes to cut the grass, dig latrines, or do other menial tasks. Now, I   assume, all of that work would need to be done by paid labor.)

We move to an upstairs classroom, decorated for the occasion with a welcome sign, tables, chairs, plastic flowers. Villagers examine the old photos I have brought along and identify teachers and students who had died. The three-year Biafran War had cost millions of lives, and Ife Ezinihitte had been in the area resisting the Federal troops until the very end.

Formal welcoming speeches, speeches expressing hope that I can help the school solve its problems with American dollars, speeches assuring Nigerian/American Friendship, speeches expressing hope that I will return. I am presented with a traditional dress and headdress, Kola nuts, baskets with fruits and yams. We eat peanuts and crackers and drink bottled water and lemonade. A formal photo of the group is taken to commemorate the occasion. A photo with the school girls and me, the girls fighting to stand right next to me. I give a farewell speech to the school children, trying to convince them of the importance of their education. I am not certain how much they understood.

And then I have to leave because Innocent is becoming anxious that we make the return trip by nightfall and our guide needs to get home as well. The principal leads us in his car to the tarred road – thank God a shorter and better maintained bush path than the one we came!