Letter from Maiduguri
In a city surrounded by the Nigerian military, where we travel in armoured cars, you assume to know what protection means. Threats are considered external. But for women, protection is against men, mostly. Every woman has a baby, even if there are few men about. I had a rare opportunity to meet with two sisters last week. They have contrasting stories and because of failure to protect them, they have different futures. I never asked their names so let us call them Zaida and Miriam. The rest is how they told it.
We sat on chairs in a makeshift room that was two metre square. Twenty women sat on the floor. My instinct was to sit on the floor and look each one in the eye as we spoke. I was advised that this would not be appropriate. From the chair I assumed the position of judge which I wanted to avoid. We opened with easy questions asking where each had come from. It was obvious that Zaida was distressed having more to say. Last week, while collecting firewood a few miles from town, her fourteen year old son was abducted. She is distraught. She wrings her knuckles as she speaks. She is not sharing, she is begging for help.
We move to another room to speak where she will not be disturbed. There are three babies sleeping on a mat of green plastic. The structure is made of white canvas stretched over a wooden frame. The floor is poured concrete that can be washed down. There are two flaps that open to let in air. Zaida asks for these to be shut, to close out the small curious boys who stretch to look in at us. Her story is one of pain upon pain. She is covered from head to toe in donated material, a plain blue smock that covers her ears and throat over loose trousers made from a colourful pattern that might have been cut for curtains.
Three years ago, her home town was overrun at four in the morning. Her husband, her father and her uncle were all killed before her. She fled wearing the clothes she slept in. She ran with four children, she was four months pregnant running in the dark. They slept in the forest for days before reaching another town where they took shelter. After three months and a further attack, they ran again. After three attempts, they reached Maiduguri.
There is confusion in the story regarding a brother that was forced to join the rebels. It is then clarified that it was her sister who was taken by a rebel as a war bride. Her younger sister who has since escaped when her husband was away on a raid. Her sister who turned up in Maiduguri to find Zaida five months ago and was turned over to the military by her own people as they knew she had been with the rebels. Her sister Miriam has just been released after five months in prison where she was held with her children.
Zaida shares that her sister is isolated and rejected by the community. She is in the camp and after a while joins us. Miriam tells us that she is twenty and she has her youngest with her, born in the prison a few months ago and possibly the reason for her recent release. Miriam was captured following a raid when one of the attackers knew her from her village and followed the family to take her. A young man suddenly empowered to take what he wanted.
Miriam does not look us in the eye, she knows only her local language and Zaida translates our questions. Miriam is nursing a baby boy born of a rebel and rejected by everyone else. Zaida her older sister, cares for them. Zaidi is reeling from the recent loss of her son. At fourteen, he is the age when the rebels turn captured boys into killers. She says nothing more but we know she fears the worst.
Letter from Nsukka
The gates of Nsukka University, built in the tradition of great houses of learning, are casually manned this Sunday morning. The first time I passed through these gates was in February 2016, using the University as a short cut to the funeral of an Irish priest, Fr Charles Newell. Today, we have more time to absorb the campus with its mix of traditional pre-independence buildings and the glitzy foreign funded centres under construction. Those familiar with the books of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie will associate Nsukka campus with war, suffering, young love and the struggle for identity.
American academic Dr Nathan Suhr-Systma, was a guest speaker in the Embassy a few weeks ago and spoke of the links between poets in Ireland and postcolonial literature in Nigeria. In Nsukka, Donatus Nwoga was once Professor of African Literature. A classmate of Seamus Heaney in Queens University Belfast in the 1950s, Nwoga, the first editor of the student literary magazine “Gorgon” was almost certainly the first person to publish Heaney. Following his death in 1991, Heaney wrote a tribute poem published in The Independent on Sunday,
“A Dog Was Crying Tonight in Wicklow Also” is a tribute not only to Donatus but to the Igbo tradition, borrowing heavily on a local legend and a reworking of The Toad, a story included in the Origin of Life and Death, a compilation of African creation stories. The poem talks about man’s attempts to cheat death;
“When human beings found out about death
They sent the dog to Chukwu with a message:
They wanted to be let back to the house of life.
They didn’t want to end up lost forever
Like burnt wood disappearing into smoke
Or ashes that get blown away to nothing”.
The poem, according to Suhr-Systma, is an example of literary border crossing, in this case between Nigeria and Ireland. My second visit to Nsukka is, in fact, to meet a man, who has cheated death. He is a tailor who has lived for many years among men on Death Row in the prison in nearby Enugu. He is free because of an organisation established by Fr Charles. The Carmelite Prisoners’ Interest Association CAPIO last weekend celebrated its Silver Jubilee and continues to provide hope and dignity to condemned men and women in Nigeria. The Embassy agreed to provide a modest grant of €1,000 for every person released, following a strict vetting procedure by CAPIO. The funds are used to set up former prisoners in business and to help them reintegrate back into society. After a visit to the tailor’s shop, open especially for us on a quiet Sunday morning, he invites us back to his house.
It is just past ten in the morning and we are presented with the traditional kola nut of the Igbo people and locally produced palm wine. The wine is in a jug plugged with straw. There is an assumption is that we will polish it all off in a single sitting. We decline of course, because of the early hour and number of other appointments ahead of us. We settle for soft drinks and nibble on the bitter kola. In Nigeria, the television is always turned on to welcome guests and to null the embarrassment of silence.
In this part of Nigeria, where every white man is assumed to be a priest, people are quietly bemused by Susan who sits by my side. The shyness ends when the tailor’s mother joins us and once she realises why we have come, shares the sober reality that a year ago, this meeting could never have taken place. There are many prayers and mumbled thanks, more kola and a suggestion that we open more palm wine. In truth, there is very little said, few quotes to shape into a poem. There are a lot of glances, curious and shy. The children are paraded to greet the guests. His mother is staring into the middle distance, lost for words. These are Christian people and their church has delivered for them. Fr Ambrose Ekeroku of CAPIO, in his humble brown robes is a light in their lives.
On the back seat of the car between Susan and I, is a black plastic bag containing matching Igbo outfits that the tailor had made for us. When we tried them on outside his house for a photograph, we were stirred by the fact that they had fitted us perfectly. We had met the tailor only once before in Abuja at the farewell for our colleague Eoghan McSwiney. The tailor who struggled to look us in the eye, was all the time looking beyond and when we were not looking, he was busy measuring us up.
As we return through the University gates, I imagine Heaney and Nwoga reunited, sitting under a tree on the campus sharing the kola and palm wine. With infectious good humour, they are plotting a new poem on cheating death. The sheer giddiness of a man who has escaped Death Row and now walks free, drives them on. Heaney, a lover of words wants to include a reference to “border crossing” as a private joke. Nwoga is buzzing about the proud place that Nigerian writers hold in African Literature today, and maybe tonight in Wicklow also.
Letter from Gambara Ngala
As we approached the far north east corner of Nigeria, a fellow passenger suggested that we should catch a glimpse of Lake Chad. He mused that the Lake, once the sixth largest in the world, was now only one twentieth the size it was in the 1960's. As we flew in low, we crossed miles and miles of bare ground, cleared, levelled and drained for irrigation. From above, the sun bleached concrete structures look like the broken skeleton of some massive life now extinct.
From the sheer scale, you get a sense of the place this once was. High science and endless water must have made this an irrigated paradise. Today, it is all on hold, a symptom of the war being raged by Boko Haram. As we touch down, I can only think of that grey area between symptoms and causes, poverty and war.
The day then takes its own momentum. I am warmly welcomed by the Commander before we go to visit a camp of seventy thousand displaced people. The clumsy weight of my security entourage drags through the clearing ahead as people move to let us pass. I fumble to pocket my bottle of water as we pass hundreds of women standing in the sun queuing for food. Those who arrive with basic items are refugees returning from Cameroon, those who have nothing have come from the forest escaping the conflict. Nobody is in a good place.
Everybody is tasked with the impact of the approaching rains, the need for drainage in the camp and the shortage of potable water. Small boys push handcarts a few kilometres to the one deep sweet- water well. Nearby, the houses built for the foreign workers who once managed the huge irrigation schemes are locked and empty. There are rumours that they will soon return. Priorities are always determined by funding. Different agencies do different things. Everybody is busy. There is no shortage of goodwill here.
Hours later, back at the command centre we gather our thoughts. We discuss the challenges, what is being achieved and what needs to be done. It takes a special type of person to work like this, always against the odds. The irrigation schemes may start again one day but life will never be the same. Climate change is irreversible change.
On board again, I rewind the day. In that rapid pass through the camp, we entered a tent from the wrong end. In front of us there were the backs of perhaps twenty boys all standing and chanting out their mathematical tables. They are small, small boys. Their teacher only a few inches taller had watched us come in. We edged through them as they all sat down in respect. Through translation, we learned that the boy teaching was just ten years old.
I never saw the Lake. The rains will bring a chance for some to scratch the land in a corner here and there and grow something to sell. The deep black cotton soils will swell and crack and breathe. For now, the green shoots of hope are not in the fields but in those young boys hungry for knowledge. I wish looking back that we had dignified their teacher by inviting him to stand up with us when I would have bent my knees and looked him in the eye and firmly shook his hand.
Letter from Minna
The road to Minna is measured in hours not miles. When we asked in Lagos, nobody knew how long it would take. Everyone was of the same mind that it was a journey that they would not make. The closure of Abuja airport for essential repairs, left us with no option other than travel by road. Having already stopped in Ibadan on the way south, Minna was not on the direct road back. It involved mile after mile of slow climbing behind an endless convoy of fuel tankers. Every few miles burned out wrecks stood as testimony that many had not made it.
It took us eleven and a half hours, arriving just before sunset. When I considered that we had only stopped twice for fuel the miles covered were modest. Always looking forward, my Nigerian hosts told me that a hard bed was the best cure after a long journey. After half dozing in the stranglehold of the seatbelt all day, the bed was as comfortable as a night spent sleeping on an ironing board.
The pilgrimage to Minna was at the invitation of the St Patricks Missionary Society for the “Send Forth” of one of their longest serving veterans, Fr Jeremiah D O’Connell, known to us as Father Derry but as “Baba” to the local Nigerians. As St Patrick is also a patron saint of Nigeria, the date had been fixed for months. I had readily agreed to participate and acknowledge a working career that was close to one and a half working lives for a teacher in Ireland.
A Send Forth is more than a farewell. It is more than a send-off. It is graduation to a higher place. Fr Derry is due to retire to Ireland after working for fifty five years in Nigeria. Since 1967 he has been principal of the secondary school in Minna. I was informed by the Bishop that as a special guest, I would have to speak on at least three occasions. Somewhere in the back of my mind I was also trying to justify the hard travelling to get there. Three speeches, on the same day, on the same subject, to the same man! The day started with a special mass celebrated by no less than two Bishops. I was called up for my first address to a huge gathering. I remarked that while Fr Derry had given his life’s work to the people of Minna, he had actually worked in one place for longer than the average lifespan of a Nigerian male. This stirred much chatter in the church (with one journalist noting later, in a proud Nigerian way, that Fr Derry had actually worked for longer than a lifetime in Minna).
The school is in itself the story of religious tolerance in Nigeria. It was opened in January 1965 as St Fatima’s Secondary School with Fr Derry confirmed as principal two years later. In the 1970s when all religious schools were nationalised, it became the Government Secondary School, Minna. This month, the Governor of Niger State has agreed to rename it Fr O Connell Secondary School Minna. When Fr Derry retires, a new Muslim Principal will take over.
It was St Patricks Day away from the usual. It was a celebration of one man who had articulated in his lifetime a lasting bridge between Ireland and Nigeria. The name Fr O Connell is associated with Minna wherever Nigerians are found. I had been asked to pass on greetings from Ghana, from Ibadan and perhaps most memorably from Bama in Borno State, a town destroyed by Boko Haram but now secured by an Army Commander from Minna. Like everywhere in Nigeria, once we had identified a common link, we became brothers and I walked through the IDP camps in Bama, in front of the world media, as the Commander held me warmly by the hand.
The day’s celebrations began to draw to a close as we gathered at the back of the church in an open courtyard where dancing would soon begin. Fr Derry had reportedly gone home to rest as temperatures rose over 38 degrees. The speeches were shorter now. I stood to make my final remarks, when in what can only be described as a cinematic moment, a fully loaded Toyota Corolla swept into the yard in front of me with Fr Derry strapped into the front seat. The restless crowd cheered and clapped as he was escorted to his seat.
We had arranged a small symbol of partnership between our two countries, something very Irish but at the same time African. A local carver had copied a hurley (camán) using local African wood. For a Cork man, a hurley is always special. For a Cork man living in Africa, a mahogany one, maybe more so. The Master of Ceremonies was jiving in front of the cameras as they strained to take a picture not understanding why I was presenting Baba with what looked like a fighting weapon. The MC then read out the small inscription, “Fr O Connell, a Champion for 55 years” and after repeating it a few times, hummed it into a refrain that he then chanted out aloud. The crowd gathered in to dance, as celebrating and standing still in Africa are not possible. As I was escorted by the two Bishops back to the residence for a quick lunch before the last journey of a St Patricks Week that had included five cities and a thousand miles of road, I glanced back to see Fr Derry gripping the hurley, its fullness in his hands possibly taking him back to another St Patrick’s Day so many years ago.
Letter from Accra
On Saturday 7th January in the blistering sun, the NPP supporters came out in their red, blue and white. Every route to Independence Square was choked with traffic as some 400,000 Ghanaians made their way to witness the inauguration of President Nana Akufo-Addo. Traditional drummers pounded out a hip swaying beat that seemed to add electricity to the stifled air. Under the canopy, I was jammed in a folding seat hurriedly placed in a passageway. There wasn’t room to roll a sweet in my mouth, yet alone raise my hands to take off my hat for the National Anthem.
This was a truly African affair in sharp contrast to the more sober military formations in Nigeria complete with silver swords and white horses. President Akufo-Addo was inaugurated in traditional Kente attire, radiantly flamboyant for the occasion. He cut a fine contrast with the highly respected Vice President Dr Alhaji Mahamudu Bawumia who favoured the modest white tunic of the Muslim population. President Akufo-Addo was following in his father’s footsteps, a national hero during the independence struggle 70 years ago. He was gracious in his remarks about the outgoing NDC yet determined that Ghana needs a new start, one that brings economic growth to the country and reaches down to rural areas where mass poverty remains entrenched. The President promised to reduce taxes and to provide stimulus for private investors to kick start the economy. He championed the need to focus on youth in every corner of the country. Traditional Chiefs in their distinctive and yet unique attire stood en mass to applaud their new President.
And despite tight security, this is an easily accessible government. At a banquet immediately afterwards for diplomats and visiting dignitaries, Ministers mixed freely as they began the task of building partnerships for the future. The President and the Vice President worked the room shaking hands with everybody and allowed time for each of us to pass on greetings. Ireland is well got in Ghana from the contribution of missionaries and teachers in the development of the country to the warm memories of Dr Conor Cruise O Brien who was the first Vice Chancellor of the University of Ghana after independence.
The leaders of the region came to join the celebration, to welcome Akufo-Addo into the ECOWAS family and to sit en merge and determine next steps as the political crisis in Gambia unwinds. The ECOWAS Chairperson in her remarks urged Gambia to follow the example of Ghana in accepting election results and moving forward. The speeches were short as the banquet room moved up a gear to the distinctive jazz of legendary South African musician Hugh Masekela. In canary yellow, the veteran raised his trumpet and called the party to order. Everybody was dancing as if it was their own wedding day, bumping into each other as the dance floor spilled over. Soon the revellers gave up trying to take selfies as the free moving crowd succumbed to the Africa beat. Masekela was only getting going, at 77, like Africa he seems like he will go on forever.
Ambassador Seán Hoy
09 January 2017