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I Remember Syl

By Valentine Ukachukwu Umelo

Author Notes: Valentine Ukachukwu Umelo is a Pharmacist. He was trained at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria. Apart from short stories, Mr Umelo writes radio plays. In 2003, his radio play, ‘Knight in Shining Armour’, was joint third place winner of the BBC’s yearly playwright’s competition, ‘African Performance.’ Mr Umelo also writes for young people. Some of his novels for young people are presently under consideration for publication by a major publishing company in the U.K. Mr Umelo kicked off his writing career in 1998 by sending weekly contributions (about 300 words) to ‘Last Word’, a BBC’s three minutes commentary read at the end of the weekends ‘Focus on Africa’ news bulletin.Mr Umelo who considers his wife his greatest asset as a writer (she is his in-house critic and editor) has two lovely children.

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Banjul, The Gambia.

October 24, 200-.

3:07 p.m.


Back in Moscow, I understood why some Nigerians hate to be known as such. I understood why some Nigerians want to throw their Nigerian nationality to the dogs and pigs and acquire the nationality of other -even lesser- countries. The airport authorities detained us, as well as other Nigerian and African deportees. There were Tanzanians, Kenyans, Somalians, Ethiopians, Guineans, Ghanaians, Senegalese and so on. They too had been sent back to await a plane back to Africa. Like my two friends and I, many others were being sent back to Africa because of faked visas. But many, many others were being sent back, especially Nigerians, for frivolous and untenable reasons. The Guineans and Senegalese and Tanzanians called their ambassadors, and help came quickly. Their cases were sorted out and they were once more on their way, to a better future. The Kenyans, Somalians and Ethiopians did the same, and help came quickly.

"Why can’t we call the Nigerian embassy here in Moscow," someone suggested. "They should come and help us."

Someone dug out the number and rang the Nigerian Embassy as we all gathered, listening and hoping for help from the Giant of Africa. Over the speakerphone:

"Please can I …we speak to the Ambassador-"

"I ...we …who …who exactly are…"

"We’re Nigerians stranded here at the Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow."

And the line went dead, dead cold!

They should have at least listened to us, to our tales. For Christ’s sake, they should have at least heard us out. Simple courtesy! If after listening to us, they decided none of us- the entire lot of ten Nigerians- needed help of any sort, then so be it. We would have borne them no grudge, not a tiny bit of rancour. But no, they treated us like rabid dogs, poisons to be kept at bay.

And so we spent over a week at the airport, sleeping on the hard, freezing bare floor. Eating what one of us could buy and share with the others. Thank God I had learnt to fast when I worshipped with one Pentecostal Church in Yaba, Lagos, whose pastor promised jobs, healings, successes and riches upon completion of his prescribed stringent fasting regimen. (Don’t laugh, please, for this is not a laughing matter). Else I would have died of starvation.

On a more serious note, the way we were treated by our embassy, the representative of our elected government in Russia shocked me to my bones. We were like dog dung! The least I had expected was some level of responsibility and concern, seeing how far away we were from home. But then, home or abroad, a skunk would stink.

Why? Why bother call yourself a Nigerian when the Nigerian government would do nothing for you? Why? Why bother call yourself a Nigerian when the Nigerian government doesn’t care about you, whether you lived or died.

It was after this rotten, shameful, degrading and left-handed treatment that I decided to rethink my identity. Yes, rethink my nationality.

The returning Boeing 747 had made a stop to refuel. We were allowed to stretch our legs. I didn’t have a watch, but it wasn’t 9:00 a.m.

"Why should I go back to Nigeria?" I asked myself as I trudged down the aeroplane's ladder.  "To continue struggling day after day without a job? To further add to the hordes of jobless and idle youths who flood the nation?"

I didn’t want to join the numerous other young, vile graduates who had delved into the fast lane of advanced fee frauds and blood money from ritual killings. I knew I didn’t have what it took to survive. I wanted to work for my money. I knew there was dignity in labour, but I was being frustrated.

"What was in Nigeria for me except more pain and suffering?" I wondered. "I must do something. I must not allow myself to be deported back to Lagos to wallow in abject poverty."

That was how I sneaked inside a toilet and firmly locked the door. An hour later, I breathed a sigh of relief as, through the windows, I saw the plane airborne. Finally, its wispy white, exhaust smoke and the metallic, deafening sound of its Rolls-Royce engines disappeared with it into the clear blue sky.

Gingerly unlocking the toilet door, I strode out to the noisy arrival lounge. To my dismay I discovered that the airport was in the middle of nowhere. The only way out was a ride along the motorway. There was no place to hide, no trees or shrubs. I spied in the distance barbed wire fences surrounding the airport. Rooted firmly to the ground in confusion, I was thinking of what step to take, when to my chagrin, I saw and recognized the plane that had taken off only a moment ago as it taxied to a stop on the smooth asphalt tarmac. Uprooting myself, my legs came instantly alive and quickly, I dashed back to my toilet sanctuary. From there, I listened to the hullabaloo rippling through the lounge.

"A male passenger is missing," a woman screamed. "He must still be around, we have not been gone for more than ten minutes."

The authorities searched the toilets and other places where a person could possibly conceal himself.

"This toilet is locked," a man called out, a soldier probably, what with his gruffy voice.

The door’s handle was tried again and again. Someone placed his shoulder against the door and heaved. It held! Soon a crowd gathered, excited voices, in various languages ranging from English to Arabic, rose and fell as the airport authorities tried to find the door’s spare key.

"Open up," the gruffy voice called out. "Passenger number 18, we know you are there. We have seen you from the camera."

I looked around and a tiny camera sunk into the wall peeked at me from a far corner. I tried to swallow but my parched throat wouldn’t let me.

"I’m not going back to Nigeria," I croaked.

"Open up, please."

"Sanni Abacha5 is after me, he is after my life. He’ll kill me."

"The game is up. Open up now, we have seen you."

After several minutes of dilly-dallying, I opened up. Several soldiers smiled at me wickedly. I almost laughed out (loud) when I mentally compared their automatic rifles with the rusted, comic looking German G-3 and Russian AK-47 rifles our ill-fed soldiers brandished and threatened locals with at roadblocks and checkpoints. But this was no time for laughter. Instead, I cried:

"Abacha will kill me. I demand my human rights. I’m not going back to Lagos."

"We are not going to Lagos. This plane is bound for Cotonou, Benin Republic," an obviously relieved airhostess assured me.

"Cotonou? Only a stone throw from Lagos. It’s the same thing. He is looking for me everywhere. He has eyes everywhere."

Three mean-looking soldiers hung their automatics on their backs, broad as barns and began rolling up their sleeves. Thick biceps, like giant yam mounds confronted me. They were determined to carry me in at all costs. I deeply enjoyed the consternation written all over their faces as suddenly, I began marching towards the plane. Later that day, nearing midnight, the plane taxied to a stop at the International airport in Cotonou.

I didn’t cross the border into Nigeria. Why should I? I wasn’t stupid. Why should I when I had heard  fantastic stories about a certain place …a certain small tourist country called The Gambia, further along the west coast?

** **

The fact, as you must have gleaned from the above narration is that for me, The Gambia wasn’t planned. It was simply an escape valve for my frustrated European journey. I meant to come here, work for a few months, and then proceed to Europe again, to make my big bucks. But ten years on, ten whole years on my dear friend, I’m still here, merely peddling chalk. CHALK! CHALK!

But be that as it may, I’m still determined to go to Europe. I’ve no choice in the matter, really. I have to better my lot. I have to better the lot of my immediate and extended families. Europe is the place. Unless, unless something dramatically positive happens to our country, Nigeria. And I don’t see that happening in the near future, not with the way our ‘born-again’ president is running our country.

I remember when I was about to leave the university. The day I wrote my final exams, I had blunted my pen and sworn I would never write another exam. And the day I walked out of the university gate with my Bachelor’s degree under my armpit, I had sworn never to set foot in any other university campus for the purpose of study. Nearly twenty years on and I terribly regret all those vows, vows made out of what should I say now, youthful exuberance. How I now wish to go back to a university. How I wish to write an exam now, any exam that would today land me in a European university! I desperately need my Masters degree. And my doctorate too. I want to go to Europe to study. Academics, that is where the magic for a good quality life lies …at least for me; making big bucks is no longer the incentive, the attraction for going to Europe. Big bucks doesn’t necessarily translate to a good life, but of course you would argue that obtaining a Ph.D doesn’t either. But that is what I want. Europe for academics, for self-emancipation, NOT for big bucks! Big bucks have never meant emancipation! Ask me and I will tell you (But that is another story).

You once said that once you set foot out of The Gambia, you would never return. Do you still feel the same? About The Gambia …about not coming back? I don’t think The Gambia is what we used to think it was. Agreed, it is a small country, but it isn’t useless. It isn’t retrogressive either. You may say I feel differently because I am now married to a Gambian and have Gambian relatives, but I say that is not why. I see things a bit differently. Clearer so to speak, not with that same eye with which we saw things in the early nineties when we first arrived as hustlers.

I think you have changed too. I was rather shocked to receive your letter, not to talk of the beautiful gifts you sent me. Giving gifts was never your strong point. You made this clear in Farafenni when your numerous girlfriends complained you never sent them anything, not even on ‘Valentine’s Day’. Do you remember? The tone of your letter made it quite clear.

But I tell you one thing, you are lucky to have left when you did. Everything changed that academic year you left. We became slaves, more or less and were worked to our very bones.

"They’ll work for even longer hours," the school authorities said, even to our hearing. "They would be jobless if they went back to their country."

We said nothing. There was nothing to say!

And the economy became bad. The dalasi devalued by more than 300 percent. Who else to bear the blame for the worsening economy, but foreigners? And which foreigners? Nigerians! You won’t believe it, but our residential permit is no longer D500 but D1, 300. And a new tax, ‘Alien Tax’ was introduced. Every Nigerian pays D1, 000. Nigerians can no longer drive taxis here. Taxation for those who own businesses has skyrocketed. And there is talk in the air that next year, things would be doubly difficult!

Why don’t we go back home, you are asking? Home to where? Nigeria? To confront all the religious riots? To confront the Northern Talibans? To confront the carnage in the Delta region? You’ve forgotten where I come from: East, since abandoned by the Federal government in terms of developmental projects.

And from where will I get a new job? With which money will I pay a five-year house rent, what with Shylocks for landlords? You see why going home will be difficult? You see why going home is difficult? You see why I’ve to move forward, to Europe? Even if it is doing as you did: walking all the way, through the great Sahara desert, swimming the Mediterranean and braving the sniper’s bullet at Lampedusa!

Joe, the saddest thing is that to be called a Nigerian out here in The Gambia now is a heavy cross to bear. I know it’s the same in Europe, I was there, remember, and have never forgotten the manner in which that female Polish immigration officer handled our green passports, genteelly, as if they were crawling with the Ebola7 and AIDS virus, or had excrement smeared over them. That particular experience continues to torture me.

There is so much anti-Nigerian sentiment out there. Why do other nationalities abhor us so, why? This negative attitude is driving innocent Nigerians insane. It’s driving me bananas. Other nationalities take one look, just one look at us and are threatened. Threatened of what, I don’t know. Only if they know what you and I know, that deep within, the average Nigerian harbours deep fears …that it is the fear of this fear that makes him appear fearless, just so as to prevent himself from buckling under.

I think it is this seeming fearlessness in our demeanour that people detest. I think it is based on this seeming fearlessness in our carriage that makes people antagonize us with all their hearts, and with all their might! Everyday that passes, I see Nigerians gradually becoming like the Jews as is written down in history!! Hated by all. Loved by none!

And it isn’t as if the Nigerian authorities, our government, aren’t aware of these anti-Nigerian sentiments, these gross injustices meted out on her citizens. They are, for God’s sake. But what do they do, those we have elected to protect us, what do they do? Sit and do nothing. Absolutely NOTHING! I’ve never heard of the Nigerian government lodging a complaint against another country for the maltreatment of her citizens. Other countries do it from time to time.

But instead what do we get? What?

Nigerian government sending out our soldiers on peacekeeping missions. To go and die for nothing. To die for countries that would never appreciate our innocent blood spilled.

How many Nigerian soldiers died for nothing fighting Charles Taylor8 in Liberia? How did the Nigerian government show its concern for these dead soldiers? How?

By giving Charles Taylor asylum in our own Nigeria!

How many Nigerians did Charles Taylor amputate? How did the Nigerian government show its disgust?

By giving Charles Taylor a presidential mansion in Calabar, providing him round the clock military guard and ensuring that he and his family go to bed with their tummies filled to the brim.

With whose money, eh, with whose money are these feats being accomplished?

Our money, our taxpayers’ money of course, while the average taxpayer and his family go to bed hungry, with stomachs growling in protest.

How many Nigerians do you think died trying to bring peace to Sierra Leone? And now poor Nigerian troops are trooping to far away Western Darfur9 in Sudan, to go and die.

Of course, we must prove we are the Giant of Africa!


And what does the average Nigerian get in return for these humanitarian assistances rendered by our ‘sorry heart’ government, what? Ridicule. Molestation. Imprisonment. Haranguing. Death. Yes, even death!

** **


My dear Joe,

I ask you again: Do you remember Syl? Yes, Syl! Do you still remember him? You gave him his nickname, ‘One Side’, because he walked like a crab …side, side, side, a case of mild polio in his childhood.

By the time you arrived in Farafenni, we were already there, Syl and I and the others … Akin, Clive, Ola, Josh, Chris. Syl was one of the first Nigerians in Farafenni. I knew him the best, so let me tell you more about him.

Did you know he had a first class in Animal Science from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka? Oh yes, he did. Syl was among one of the most brilliant people I ever knew. As you can attest, he had such a vast knowledge that he could discuss any topic under the sun, from Astrology to Zoology. That explains why his voice was loudest those nights we spent arguing and shouting at the top of our voices after our dinners of the wood-like Fula bread, tapalapa, and bowls of scalding tea.

Syl wanted to set up and own the biggest poultry and pig farm you ever saw. He had graduated in 1980 -just when you and I were entering university. Try, as he could to secure a bank loan to start off, he failed.

"Collateral," the banks snarled at him.

He tried to explain that he was an only son, just out of the university, father dead, relatives poor. But the banks didn’t care. They laughed and shooed him out of their exotic premises. He approached one influential person after another in his hometown. There were so sorry, they told him. They didn’t want to invest in poultry. And they didn’t like pigs. Pigs were dirty!

But Syl was made of steel.

"I must succeed," he swore. "I must make it."

And then he heard those tales you and I had heard: about The Gambia. About the places in The Gambia called ‘German’, and ‘London Corner’, where you could get a bus ride to Germany and Britain respectively. And like us, he picked out the Atlas and sought out The Gambia. He learnt it was a small country of only about 1.2 million. No natural resources. Subsistence agriculture the main stay of the economy. Seasonal tourism. Illiteracy rate, highest in the West African sub-region. Only two major hospitals! And yet he took off, what with the heady tales of this ‘German’, and ‘London Corner’.

Sometimes, I wonder who gave life to these deadly tales. And then, like a very contagious disease, it spread so fast that every Adamu, Agu and Akande in Nigeria who could afford the transport cost was in a hurry to get to this ‘London Corner’, and ‘German’. Some even stole money, while others sold their parent’s landed properties.

One thing Syl never told anyone was that he was hypertensive. It was embarrassing to him, to have been diagnosed of such a disease. I found out by chance, and was shocked. He swore me to secrecy. He told me:

"Can you believe it, I was diagnosed in my mid twenties."

I didn’t know what to say, and I couldn’t say, ‘sorry’. Syl didn’t like to be told sorry, remember? Said it made him feel funny. And because he felt embarrassed at his hypertension, he refused treatment!

Whenever he had cause to go to the hospital, he was given a load of Nifedipine and other anti-hypertensives. But no sooner had he left the hospital premises than, fiam, he flung them far, far into the bush. That was something I found strange about Syl. With all his intelligence …a sound and solid first class in Animal Science! Who else should have known about the idiosyncrasies of the human body? Who else should have known that the human body was nothing more than a simple, but highly glorified machine …that it could fail and fall, like our milk teeth, without a moment’s notice? Syl knew and lectured us about such concepts as the human genome, quantum and particle physics and other scientific abracadabra …and yet-

By the time he arrived in The Gambia, he was actually quite ill. He was probably devastated with all the negatives he received while questing for a bank loan to kick-start his poultry and pig farms.

"I believed so much in the system," he told me. "I never believed any one in his right thinking mind would turn down my request for a loan, especially when I had made such a wonderful grade in school."

That was the impression, the promise his professors at Nsukka had given him, and that was why, he told me, he had read so hard, shunning goodtime and rest, and burnt the midnight candle on both ends, given that his father was dead, had died poor, and he had no ‘Abraham’ for a godfather. Doing well in school, he strongly believed, was his only chance to success!

How wrong everything …his beliefs, his professors’ promises turned out to be. He thought about that poultry and pig farm morning, afternoon and night. He literarily lived for it, that poultry and pig farm. As you can attest to, he neither drank, nor smoked, and had no sin, except that once in a while, he …he masturbated in his hands, using his toilet soap (how many times did I catch him at that?), but then, no man is without a vice. Even me, I had and still have my own small faults, …what…what with my visiting the prostitutes every once in a while.

** **

In fact, you’ve to thank Jesus for me. Since I married, I’ve been with them, I mean the prostitutes, how many times now, let me see …one, two, three, four, five, yes, only five times since the last seven years. It used to be so regular then, when we were in Farafenni, remember? And this HIV/AIDS scare, God, is it real (you know I’ve this morbid fear of catching some terrible disease)? …I’ve promised myself severally to call it quits …anyway, I’m trying …and to imagine that my wife, Haddy is so pretty. Joe, these prostitutes, they keep attracting me like a magnet attracts iron fillings; like a corpse attract flies …do you think I should see a psychiatrist? Anyway, I always use a condom, what do you think? I don’t want to pass anything to my Haddy!

** **

Anyway, five years ago, Syl went home. You’d already trekked off to Europe. Syl went home and came back a broken man. Really broken. And full of regrets. They’d all made it, he told me. Most of his friends, class and age mates had made it. Big cars, fine houses, beautiful wives, wonderful children. By now, he would at least have gotten married, had children, he loved children. He shouldn’t have left.

"But why didn’t you remain then?" I asked.

"Baaaa…." He cried. "Remain? Remain to do what? Remain and be mocked by folks I was better than in school?"

And so Syl worked extra hard in the school. He was determined to go to Europe, at all cost, come what may. And then he talked about you. Day and night, he whimpered about you. You became his hero.

"Joe is brave," he would cry.

I would say nothing.

"Joe is very brave. At the end of this academic year, not a day later-"

And not only did he teach Agric Science, his specialty, he now brought his extra knowledge to bear. He taught Math, Biology and even stood in for the English teacher, for two terms!

"I need the extra money for the end of this academic year to be a reality," he told me.

You should have seen him. He now limped more, walking more and more like a crab, side, side, side …you would think he was approaching you but he was rather ambling away at a curious angle.

"My poultry and pig farm must be a reality," he told me, so much so that in my sleep, all I heard was Syl’s grinding moan: ‘My poultry and pig farm must be a reality.’

And Syl forgot that age was telling on him, he was almost forty-five. Worst of all, he neglected his high blood pressure: "My BP is normal," he would repeat again and again.

Most local teachers had deserted the provinces. The salary was too meagre, they said. That was how come Syl could teach more than one subject as well as stand in for the English teacher. The school authorities praised him: how he was the ideal teacher, and was desirable, how others like me whom they had had so much hope in had terribly disappointed them. And the more they sang his praises, the more Syl slaved.

Then, one evening, as he made an ‘Osmosis’ demonstration in the Biology practical class, he had a blackout! He had actually been complaining of this severe headache. Didn’t he think it was due to his high BP? No, it was the severe Farafenni weather, the unbearably high temperature. Why not go to the hospital, just to make sure? Oh Boy, don’t talk about my pressure! ‘Boy’, remember? That was what he always called me.

It was indeed a fatal stroke. He was rushed to the Farafenni Health Center. That night, the nurse on duty broke the sad news that Syl was paralysed on one side. I noted it was on his one good side. That same night, his condition deteriorated and he slipped into a coma.

"We will have to move him," the nurse announced the next day.

"In this condition?" I asked, shocked.

"We don’t have the facilities to sustain his life in this comatose state," she revealed.

First it was to Bansang Hospital, and finally to the Royal Victoria Teaching Hospital in Banjul. Try as they could, the Cuban doctors couldn’t revive him. The last time he uttered one intelligible word was as he was rushed to the Farafenni Health Center. He simply croaked in my ears: ‘My poultry and pig farm.’

And then one morning, I went to see him. His bed was empty. Only a mattress, stripped of its blanket stared at me. Seeing my confusion, a nurse approached me.

"Where is the patient occupying this bed …this bed here?" I stammered.

"The one that was brought a week ago?"


"That stroke patient?"

"Yes, that stroke patient."

"Oh, he died …around 5 O’clock this morning."

Cold sweat broke out all over my body and with mouth wide open, I inhaled a sizeable dose of disinfectants.

"Check the mortuary," the nurse advised me. "It is just by the white building over there," she said pointing.

At the mortuary, I watched Syl being washed, in preparation for refrigeration. The preservative, formalin, was being pumped into his body through his collapsed vessels. I searched for signs that would tell me it was all a lie, a big lie, that Syl wasn’t dead, that he was still alive. But his hairy chest was steady in death, not heaving. His complexion was a deathly palour, his skin having been drained of life. I beheld his broad flat nose, and recalled how it often flared, firing warm air as he took up any one who wished to argue on the ‘Politics of Oil’, or ‘Rogue Nations’, or ‘The Decadence of the Nigerian Ruling Class.’ I beheld his face, with subtle growth of days old beard, which would grow no more. It was contorted with, I think, pain. Or regret. Or humiliation. Or embarrassment. Or all!

You know what, I didn’t cry. No, I didn’t cry for Syl. For one, he wouldn’t have sanctioned it, my crying for him. But that wasn’t why I didn’t cry. I didn’t cry for the simple reason that Syl had lost nothing in death. To me, he had only transcended. He had only transited to another plane, a higher plane. He had simply moved on, perhaps to a place where he would get all the loan he wanted to float his state-of-the-art poultry and pig farms.

But I did shed buckets of tears for our dear country, Nigeria. For by losing someone like Syl, our country had lost something invaluable.

He was one of the most determined, hard working and intelligent fellows I ever saw. What wouldn’t he have done to make good in Nigeria, if only he had had half the chance? If only he had gotten a quarter of the encouragement he so desperately sought. Sometimes, I blame the system, our government for his fate and the fate of millions of others like him. I know of him, myself and you, my dear Joe, how we have suffered, and continue suffering amidst plenty, our country’s plenty. But there are thousands, no, millions of others out there, scattered around the globe, like chaff in the wind, trying unsuccessfully, yes unsuccessfully, to squeeze water out of stone, eating dust, nothing but victims of chronic mismanagement and mal-administration in our great, rich country, Nigeria, the supposed Pearl of the ‘Black Race’ and Africa!

Do you feel hot tears sting your eyes? Don’t cry, don’t. Though I can’t help myself, my tears are simply flowing, doing a free fall. Thank God my wife and kids are already asleep. To see a grown man like me crying would have broken their hearts. They have never seen me cry before. But to tell you the truth, even if they did now, I won’t mind, not when I’m crying for my broken country, Nigeria.

Did you hear that Chinua Achebe cried for Nigeria only recently? That was when he rejected our country’s second largest honour, the ‘Commander of the Federal Republic’ (CFR) award. Who needs an award hanging uselessly, like a withered appendage, when two thirds of his fellow citizens are eating from the refuse dumps? Who needs an award when in his country, one that produces vast quantities of oil, the largest barrels per day in Africa, there is no electricity?

Who needs an award when every other day there is a strike in his country, union leaders pitched against the government who are forever increasing the price of petroleum products, quadrupling the economic burden on the ordinary citizen whose ordeal they are inert to?

Of what use is an award to a man with a conscience when in his country, university lecturers are not appropriately remunerated; when like a chronic haemorrhage, his country is being incapacitated with massive brain drain; when graduates can’t find work; when there are no essential medicines in hospitals and clinics?

Of what use is an award to a right thinking Nigerian when there is environmental degradation in the Niger-Delta, when farms and streams from which the local inhabitants derive their daily sustenance are heavily polluted by oil spillage, when there is no portable water, roads, schools, hospitals in the Delta region, which oil supports government’s uncountable elephant projects in other parts of the country and pays for peace keepers in countries fighting irrelevant wars in which the ruling class do nothing but smile to the banks with the spoils of war?

Tell me, of what use is an award to a God-fearing man when more than 10,000 innocent Nigerians have died during communal clashes since 1999? Why won’t Achebe feel betrayed, and broken-hearted like you and I and millions of other Nigerians? To imagine that our government, despite the myriad social problems it has to attend to, still has time for making and presenting awards. It reminds me of that proverb about the foolish man who chases rats while his house burns!

Sorry I digressed, but man, sometimes, I get so pissed off thinking, according to Achebe of the ‘dangerous’ state of affairs in our Nigeria, ‘a country that does not work’.

** **

It was Syl’s burial that really broke my heart, shredded it! The shoddiest event I ever saw, a slapdash, an apology …for one so brilliant, one so enterprising, one so determined. A foreign log of wood in a foreign country, that was what his body, his corpse became. No body wanted to take responsibility, not even the school, for whom he was a star, a shining example, and for whom he was toiling while his stroke struck.

He should have been flown home to Nigeria for proper burial, why not? Because suddenly, the school realized something vitally important: There wasn’t such a vote, to fly a deceased Nigerian teacher home in the school’s financial outlay for that year, or for any other year for that matter. The school said they were sorry, but the truth was the truth: Flying a deceased teacher to his home country for burial was not a priority. And the ministry of education too had no such vote in their yearly budget, to fly home a deceased foreign teacher who had contributed immensely to the development of streams of young Gambians.

But saddest was the Nigerian Embassy. They too had no such vote, to fly a dead compatriot home.

"Ours is a small consulate, a grade D consulate," they said. "We do not have the vote-"

But of course, a small consulate or not, a grade Z or a grade D consulate or not, there was a vote, plenty of votes to buy four wheel drives in their numbers, pick up prostitutes, keep concubines, live in mansions and travel overseas for headaches, toothaches, boils and minor itches in the buttocks and armpits …as well as for the wives of tenth grade diplomats to have their babies overseas!

And so Syl, our dear Syl was buried in a shallow grave in the Banjul cemetery, near the sea, the roaring Atlantic Ocean. The grave is presently unmarked! Last time I was there, I almost missed it, nearly stood on it. When we committed him to mother earth, we had erected for him a simple epitaph, which read:

‘Here lies the remains of Sylvester Chukwumma, a Nigerian teacher.

Died May 2000.’

The epitaph has since been blown away by the elements. You know, like you, Syl and I were very close, especially so when you went off on your trek, and I had no one else to dream with. So now, at the slightest opportunity, I visit his gravesite, just to say hi. Even when I drive past the cemetery in public transports, I find a moment to wave to him, using my mind’s hand. I’ll never forget him: His enthusiasm, diligence, determination, intelligence and his death.

Yes I’ll never forget his death!

I think I owe him a favour. A duty I believe I owe myself too. Someday when I might have gone to Europe and acquired all the education I want, with the financial benefits I know will accrue with it, I’ll come back to The Gambia. I’ll never forget The Gambia ...for Syl! You know, he is not happy. And I’m not hallucinating when I say this. He has told me, in my dreams.

"I want to go HOME," he says.

I’ve given him my word. Someday I’ll come back to The Gambia to fulfil that vow. I’ll take him home: home to his only child (that year he went home, he sired a child by mistake), home to his mother and to the rest of his family. Then he would be happy. His soul would rest in peace.

Do you feel like I do? You will say I have always been the sentimental type. But then, it is not my fault that I feel the way I do. For once in my life, I want to do something selfless, something I stand to make no financial gains from. REALLY!

** **

It is quite late now, nearing midnight. Everywhere is as quiet as a graveyard. The sea has now calmed down, like a sated beast, like a vanquished enemy. I can even hear my wife and children’s relaxed breathing in the bedroom. Outside, the sky is alive and crawling with brilliant silvery stars, and one of them has just unhinged, like an old door …and is falling, falling, scattering its silvery embers everywhere, falling fast towards my window… oh, what a beauty …a shooting star, Joe, a shooting star …I’m wishing now, wishing for good health for you and for myself and family, and long life for all of us …and prosperity too. Yes, prosperity!

** **

And talking about prosperity, are you now prosperous? Have you achieved your mind’s desire of making bundles of money? That was your main aim of going to Europe. Remember? Or have your values, like mine, gone through a severe metamorphosis?

In spite of all the disappointments, from my failed European journey, to the ‘white lies’ of the prospects of the places in The Gambia called; ‘German’ and ‘London’, to the impotency of our great country to give meaning to the lives of her citizens; in spite of the pains of watching fellow Nigerians die and be buried like animals in far away countries while searching for greener pastures that their country could have otherwise comfortably provided; in spite of the humiliation we suffer for being what we are, ‘Nigerians’, I tell you, hope still lives in me.

Though if I say I’m thrilled at the way my life has turned out, I’ll be lying. But I am not sad. I am not heartbroken. At least I have started a family. My wife Haddy and my three sweet kids are more blessings than I could ever wish for. Each of them is priceless.

But I’ll leave it to you to decide if I’ve made progress or not, especially considering my age …our age. Sometimes I wonder how the forties caught up with us. So fast and so sudden, like a thief, a highway robber in a starless night.

My dear Joe, as a last word, I’ll leave you with a quotation from ‘Heirs to the Past’, a brilliant novel by a Moroccan novelist, Driss Chraibi, which I was privileged to read not long ago. Driss Chraibi wrote:

‘Dig a well, and go down to look for water.

The light is not on the surface, but deep down.

Wherever you may be, even in the desert, you will always find water.

You have only to dig deep.’

I believe Driss, Joe, I believe him. My eyes are now open to understand what he was talking about. Does it make sense to you?

Remain blessed my dear friend. That we’ll meet again is a forgone conclusion. The only question is where and when.

Write me again soon.

Your friend,


11: 39 p.m.

The End



5 Nigeria’s former military dictator. Now late.

6 The Gambia’s currency.

7 A contagious and deadly viral disease.

8 Former Liberian warlord, now exiled in the Eastern Nigerian town of Calabar.

9 A town in Western Sudan. According to the United Nations, it is the world’s worst humanitarian crises [at the time of writing this story]. Over 50,000 people killed, more than 1, 000,000 forced to flee their homes.


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