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The U.S. State Department will tell you that Nigeria is a country of around one hundred-fifty million people living in an area about the size of Texas and Oklahoma, making it the eighth most populated country in the world. Lest you think it backward, note that it also ranks ninth in the world for internet usage and sixteenth in the world for cell phones. One might guess that perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the median age in Nigeria is about nineteen years old, as opposed to, say, Italy where the median age is more like forty-four. But no, Italy ranks thirteenth in the world for internet usage and eleventh for cell phones, so go figure.
The State Department also tells you that there are more than two hundred and fifty different ethnic tribes in Nigeria, and almost as many languages. Only English is spoken by all. A map of Nigeria shows the "Y" made by the intersection of the large Benue River with the even larger Niger River, which happens more or less in the center of the country. Most of us tend to forget that crossing wide rivers used to pose something of a problem throughout most of human history.
Americans must go past the government websites, however, and on to less dry sources of information like Lonely Planet to get the more interesting story. Here one discovers that before the dubious distinction of British colonization, in the area that is now Nigeria's lower western side of the rivers’ Y, there used to be a patchwork of small states, often dominated by a group known as the Yoruba (your uh BAH) and containing the famous Benin Kingdom of old, an important centre of ancient trade and a producer of fine metal artwork.
Today the Yoruba and others in this southwestern part of the country are about half Muslim and half Christian and, judged by the standards of violence in the rest of the world, they coexist not so poorly. Examining a map also shows that this region contains the left half of the Niger Delta, which problematically turns out to contain large quantities of oil which are worth a lot of money to some and which do a lot of damage to the crops and fishing spots of others.
Meanwhile, in the lower right side of the Y, lived and still live the Igbo (EE boh) and other "agrarian peoples," who chose not to develop centralized empires before colonization, but did allow themselves to be overwhelmingly converted to Christianity, particularly Catholicism, and who continue to inhabit the eastern side of the Niger Delta.
Setting in the upper cup of the Y are the Hausa/Fulani (HOWS zah/ foo LAWN ee). These people, due to religion (already converted to Islam), culture, and geographic isolation managed to remain relatively untouched by Europe. A closer look at the history of this arid northern cup shows that while the two tribe names are often run together today, they were at one time more distinct. It would probably surprise no one to discover that the Hausa and the Fulani did not always get along so very well. The Fulani were traditionally nomadic herders, and although they were mostly Muslim like the Hausa, there was some local animist religion mixed in. The Hausa, more settled into towns and more strictly Muslim, once considered the Fulani second class.
In the early nineteenth century, a Fulani leader named Usman dan Fodio created an empire which would later be known as the Sokoto Caliphate, which eventually centered around the northwestern Nigerian town of Sokoto, and which would become the largest sovereign state in Africa. After a rocky beginning of conquering and defending himself, Usman dan Fodio and his kin settled into ruling this area with peace and prosperity for many decades. The empire became known for its education and its arts, with the leaders themselves writing poetry and publishing discourses on religion, politics, and history. This, by the way, included Usnam dan Fodia's wives and daughters, and particularly one daughter named Nana Asma’u who became famous as a writer, politician, and educator and today still serves as an example of female accomplishment for Muslim girls and women the world over.
Over time as the empire became more Hausa in character, even adopting the Hausa language, much of the animosity between the Fulani and the Hausa began to dissipate. In addition, thanks to the success of the caliphate, the population itself enjoyed an unprecedented level of safety from raids by Saharan nomads. That was until it was seized by the British in the 1880s, for reasons that must have made sense to the British at the time and probably involved, more than anything, Britain's ongoing pissing match with France. The British allowed the caliphate to subsist for awhile on British terms, at least until 1903 when the region was just plain divided up between the French and British.
Today, descendents of dan Fodio continue to fill the appointed position of sultan of Sokoto, who serves as the main religious leader of Nigerian Muslims. The Sokoto Caliphate remains an Islamic spiritual community in Nigeria. In 2006, a new sultan of Sokoto was appointed when his brother and predecessor was killed in a plane crash. Colonel Sada Abubakar, generally described in the press as a relaxed and easygoing peacemaker, was selected to serve as a symbol of good governance and Islamic unity, and to continue his brother's work of trying to ease tensions between Nigeria's Muslim and Christian communities.
Nigeria has approximately seventy million Muslims, sixty million Christians, and twenty million people who pray to other gods or not at all or to some of both. The vast majority of them get up in the morning just like most of the rest of earth’s other seven billion inhabitants, hoping for peace and comfort in the day ahead.
Some of these Nigerians start their day filled with love, some with pain, some with hunger, some with ambition, some with boredom. A small but not insignificant percent would readily cheat another, at least a stranger. And a fair number carry anger of one type or another throughout their day. But the fact is that few are compelled to harm others. Legitimate religious groups there support coexistence, and it is the rare human who tries to justify inflicting more pain in a world in which they have already seen plenty.
But with a pool of more than a hundred and fifty million people to choose from, the violent and fanatic do exist. Like any other country, Nigeria has its predators, its bullies, and its extremists filled with such a sense of righteousness that they believe the goodness of their cause justifies actions which defy understanding.
Alex had a surprise for her of which he was really rather proud. She could tell when he met her at the airport. Lola, organizer and planner that she was, did not particularly like surprises and Alex knew it. But because she was smart enough to never want to discourage a little occasional romance and intrigue in their maturing marriage, she kept quiet and bided her time. To wait was not her strong suit, but she would find out soon enough. She slept for fourteen hours once she got home, which helped with everything, then dragged herself through work on Friday, appreciative that it was the weekend already.
That night, over pasta and red wine, Alex casually reminded her that the following weekend was Easter. Indeed, she had forgotten. She remembered years of egg hiding and Easter basket making and picture taking in the park with Alex fooling with tripods and timers that never worked quite right, while she held in check squirming children who could not wait to get out of their fancy clothes.
"Teddie's friend Shawna's family is going to the lake for the weekend and they invited her along. I told her she could go." Okay. Lola wasn't all that crazy about Shawna's family for reasons she could not quite put her finger on, but this weekend trip would probably be just fine. She was also going to start seriously working on doing less needless worrying. Sure. Teddie should definitely go.
"That leaves you and I," Alex smiled. "And I know that you have next Friday off." Hmm. Lola was starting to envision a bed and breakfast getaway. A little romance. A lot of sex. Okay. That would work well. Good for Alex. Not part of his practical nature at all to plan something like that, but hey, it was good for everybody to behave a little unexpectedly every once in awhile.
"So let's get that camping stove out of the attic and make sure we still have all the pieces to your old tent."
"What? We are going camping?"
"Oh no dear. Camping is only a small part of it." Alex was clearly very pleased with himself. "Guess what I found out? I knew that one of the math teachers that I work with used to be a rafting guide. But what I did not know until this past week was that his real passion is doing whitewater in an open canoe. Just like you!"
"Alex, that was twenty-five years ago."
"He and his wife go every once in awhile. They've been dying to do the Big Piney River in Arkansas, but he was telling me how they really ought to have a second canoe for safety. It is only about an eight-hour drive from here, but we can leave right after school Thursday and get in by midnight. Be on the river all day Friday and Saturday. Drive home Sunday. Lola, it's what you wanted. Some excitement. Some thrills. You do not have to go all the way to Africa."
Okay, that's what this was about. "Alex, you've been in a canoe with me about six times over the past twenty-five years. I am really out of practice and while I will definitely give you that you are strong and athletic, you’re not particularly experienced. We probably don't belong in anything past a class one rapid together."
"And that is probably what we will be in, dear. Ken says that one of the problems with this river is that it gets too low to run. We're more likely to be dragging our canoes over rocks than dealing with rapids. I told Ken all about your background canoeing up in the arctic when you finished your undergrad, and I could tell that he was impressed, but honestly I think Ken invited us along more so he'd have another big guy to help drag the canoes. And if we do get into a few riffles, you'll do fine. I promise that I will cheerfully sit in the front and let you steer. I trust my wife."
Now really, what could she say to that? The canoe trip was on.
Nwanyi called on Tuesday morning, and, according to a rather defensive Ikenna, it was short and uneventful. Somadina asked her father if she could please use his cell phone to call Nwanyi back, and only got a strange look and a painful worried feeling from her father. Odd. Yet in spite of the concern, almost panic, that she could clearly feel from him, Ikenna assured Somadina that all was well with her sister and asked her if she would please stop worrying. The following Monday afternoon Nwanyi called again, for another short and subdued hello to her father, who passed along the greetings. Again Ikenna brushed off Somadina's request to use his phone to call back. Somadina thought, This is nonsense. I am going to take Azuka up on his offer. I am going to start to make money, and I am going to get myself a cell phone of my very own.
As Lola and Alex enjoyed their meal, a giant low-pressure area was beginning to move slowly down from Canada, carrying an unusually large amount of moisture in its wake. The rains began in upper Michigan on Saturday, and by Sunday, Wisconsin and Illinois were drenched as well. As Alex and Lola gathered gear and clothing and supplies with increasing enthusiasm and anticipation, the low-pressure area expanded. By Monday night a large circle extending from southern Indiana to Biloxi, Mississippi was experiencing heavy rainfall. Even Houston got a few showers. The low-pressure area lost much of its momentum by Tuesday, virtually stopped moving, and continued to dump record amounts of moisture in the south-central to southeastern United States.
Early Wednesday evening, Alex emerged from the attic with one more item to bring. He had found her old canoe paddle, the one she had bought herself in 1982 when she had had almost no money, joining friends and dorm mates that summer for the adventure of a lifetime in Canada's Northwest Territories. It was a battered white with a yellow plastic handle. Just seeing it again made her smile. "I don't want to lose it," she protested. "Then don't use it. We'll tie it into our canoe as our extra paddle, and keep it with us for a backup, which we won't need, and just to make you smile the whole time you are traveling down the river."
Later that night, Ken called to let them know the good news that water on the Big Piney was nice and high so water would be plentiful and the odds of having to drag their canoes were almost nil. Better yet, the forecast for Friday and Saturday in Arkansas was cool and sunny, with highs in the 50s, blue skies, and the pesky rains due to be well out over the Gulf of Mexico. This was indeed going to be a very fine weekend to be on the river. Lola had to admit, once she had adjusted to the idea, that she was excited to go do this and appreciative to Alex for setting this up. Sometimes he knew her better than she knew herself. Anyone would go to a romantic B&B. This was an adventure, one tailor-made for her. She was an incredibly lucky lady.
Djimon was a man who started most days with a simmering anger. He had been raised to believe that his people, his mother's people, had created a paradise of beauty and enlightenment. No passing fluke, this wonderful Utopia had existed for nearly a hundred years before it had been washed from the earth by the unnecessary and unfathomable cruelty of those unable to accept that members of another ethnic group, his ethnic group, could create a superior and civilized society. And look what a mess the foreigners had made for them instead. Nigeria's most precious resource, oil, had been spilled without concern, squandered on foreigners and a few Nigerians too selfish to use the proceeds to rebuild a great nation. Corruption, scams, and sexually transmitted diseases were now his country's most famous exports.
Djimon lamented every day to himself about how Christians the world over dressed their women like whores while Muslims the world over scared off legitimate converts by ruling like medieval tyrannical thugs who incited angry and ignorant youth to commit violence without plan or reason. Djimon thought that never was there more of a need than now for an enlightened ruling class, just like the Sokoto Caliphate had once been. And never was there a country more poised for it than Nigeria. He loved Nigeria. He loved all seventy-five million of its Muslims and all seventy-five million of the others. If he had his way he would not hurt a fly to rebuild Nigeria into this great new nation that he envisioned.
Though Djimon was devout, of course, he did not consider his cause to be about religion. He was willing to allow any human their freedom of conscience, in hopes, obviously, that the freedom would eventually lead the more enlightened to Allah. No, this was about groups of people doing what they did best. Some farmed. Some built, manufactured, or sold goods. And some were destined to lead—to be the scholars, the scientists, the artists, and the intellectuals—like his people. They had so clearly been meant by their creator to fill that role for all of greater Africa. Their very minds and bodies evolved to be the born leaders of the continent. Until the outsiders had come and ruined everything. In their blurry vision, all Africans were alike, all Africans were less than they. The outsiders had robbed Djimon's people of their natural place, of their birthright. Djimon's anger simmered every time he thought of it.
But who would listen to him, to his small group of committed Fulani, and a few sympathetic Hausa. They met and they planned but they had no power. No voice. No avenue to get their message out to persuade except for the one avenue always open to the powerless, to those who will not be listened to any other way. And so what must be must be. What he was trying to rebuild, what he was trying to give back to this sorry, hurting world, surely was beautiful enough to more than justify a few acts of less than admirable behavior.
In a typical year, about two and a half million Americans die. That seems like a lot of people, but of course we are a lot of people. In more understandable terms this means that every year roughly eight out of every one thousand people die. Six of those are over sixty-five, and pretty much thought of as "old" by most of the population under fifty. Except of course when the dying person is one’s own relative, in which case, depending on circumstances, the person might not have seemed that old at all. Cancer and heart disease claim roughly half of those "elderly" lives, and other diseases claim most of the rest.
Over any two statistically average years, three of the remaining four deaths would be folks in the forty-five- to sixty-four-year-old range, most likely being men or women who had the misfortune to succumb particularly early to heart disease or cancer as well.
The remaining death, a local tragedy of someone in the one to forty-four-year-old range, could have a lot causes but statistically it would most likely be an accident of some kind. After forty-five years of age, accidents become increasingly less significant as a cause of death, because disease becomes more prevalent and probably also because by the time one hits his or her mid-forties, one is supposed to have gotten a little smarter about not taking stupid risks that have a high probability of ending one’s life.
Through a small local outfitter, they had reserved canoes and arranged for the initial ground transportation upriver to the put-in point. They arrived at the outfitters, as hoped for, under beautiful blue skies Friday morning. But the outfitter was hesitant. Water from all that rainfall, he explained, was just now reaching the Big Piney, and the river had yet to crest, even though the rains had stopped. The currents were strong and deceptively dangerous even in regions without rapids. So while normally a great river for canoeing, at least when there was adequate water, the Big Piney was really not the place for a canoe today. Perhaps they would consider an inflatable raft, which would be much more forgiving?
Lola was okay with the raft. Ken's wife Sara, a sweet outdoorsy woman from Maine, nodded her agreement. But Alex did not want to see Lola denied her adventure in a canoe, and Ken wanted this eight-hour drive to yield a new entry on the spreadsheet he kept on rivers he had been on in an open canoe. Neither woman wanted to be the one to insist. So the compromise was made to promise the outfitter and themselves to portage around any rapid which appeared dangerous, to scout frequently, to take no chances. Just do the fast flat water and walk around the rest. It would be fun.
As soon as they got on the river, Lola knew it had been a mistake. Alex, graceful and quick on a tennis or basketball court was big and awkward in the front of the canoe. His balance was off even worse than she remembered from years ago, and though she believed he had intended to listen to her instructions as promised, as soon as they entered the first little set of riffles he began to improvise, instinctively trusting his body because in so many arenas he knew how to use it so well.
But not here. She had argued with him unsuccessfully before that reaching far out of the canoe was a very bad idea, even in flat water, but, physics teacher that he was, he insisted that if she would just watch him and reach out equally far in the other direction at the same time, the combined effect would be to make them more stable. Sure enough, as they sailed through the first little shoot he spontaneously reached far out to his side. Damn. She needed to keep her paddle close in to steer and this was no time and place to have to argue physics with the man. She opened her mouth to yell, "Stop it you idiot," but never even got to "Stop" before the tilt of the canoe in the fast water set the canoe on its side and over, with the two of them flailing in water seriously deeper, faster and colder than she would ever have expected.
Unfortunately the riffles turned into bigger rapids around the bend, and as the water picked up speed and intensity, Lola found herself unable to even keep her feet downstream of her body, the most basic rule of safety, much less able to make her way through frighteningly strong water to either of the river’s banks. A branch or rock seared into the side of her thigh, and her teeth started to chatter with shock and cold as she bobbed her way through the water.
"Get to the side." Ken was yelling at her from up ahead on the left bank with Sara, who was busy checking the runaway canoe which they had somehow managed to rescue.
Thank heavens these guys are good, Lola thought, doing her best to make her way over through the now slightly calmer water. Alex. Where was Alex?
With relief she heard his voice yelling from the right bank. Okay, she thought. We were lucky. Let's get off of this damn river.
They took an hour or so to dry off a little in the sun and to bandage up Lola's bleeding thigh as best they could. All agreed that this was probably a bit more than they had bargained for. Lola suspected that Ken and Sara probably had the skills to have gone on by themselves even in this fast water, and that at least Ken wanted to, but they recognized that Lola and Alex were definitely in over their heads and that aborting the mission, so to speak, was just the right thing to do. Next time they will probably bring two more adept people, Lola thought sadly.
Alex wanted to just try to get back to the road where they had been let off and use Ken's well-waterproofed cell phone to call for help. But Ken looked at his maps, and determined that there was just a short, maybe half a mile, stretch of absolutely flat water between where they were now and where a road crossed the river. They could exit easily at that point at the bridge, where both they and the two canoes would be simple to retrieve. It made much more sense.
Lola had hung onto her paddle throughout her ride, but Alex had let go of his as soon as he was dumped. As the vintage "spare" paddle was slightly longer than her rented one, she insisted that he take it. As Lola and Alex, still damp and chilled, reluctantly got back in their canoe, Alex turned to Lola sheepishly. "You're not mad at me?"
And she could honestly answer, "No. I am just glad we're both all right. Let’s get the hell out of here, okay?"
The American Canoe Association promotes water safety and provides a variety of colorful and easy to read pdf files which one can download for free. One, called The Paddler's Safety Checklist, details hazards on a river, including something called a strainer. It explains that strainers are "fallen trees; bridge pilings, undercut rocks or anything else that allows the current to flow through it while holding you. Strainers are deadly. "
Ken and Sara took the lead, moving quickly without incident down the middle of the river towards the new take-out point. Lola and Alex were a bit more wobbly, squirming in their wet clothes, nervous about another incident, and just anxious to be done. For all that Lola liked being on the water, she was not particularly fond of being in the water. She could barely swim, always got water up her nose and into her eyes, and her one attempt at scuba diving had been a claustrophobic disaster with her unable to remain under the surface long enough to even learn to use the equipment. Alex had completed the lesson on his own. No, give her adventure in the open air any day. Well, almost any day. She had enough adventure of any kind for this particular day.
When they rounded the bend Lola saw the pile of brush, leaves, and branches which had accumulated along the outside bend of the river. She tried to steer away into the middle, but most of the water, and most of the force of the water, was directed at the pile of debris. "Paddle harder," she screamed at Alex, hoping he could give their vessel more momentum with which she could work. But it was too little too late. Damn. They hit the mass of branches and twigs broadside, and the force of the water quickly tilted them sideways and then they went over. Again.
Lola started to pop back up, but could not break the surface of the water. The top of her head kept hitting the submerged side of the canoe which was directly above her. The current was holding the craft tight against the branches and debris behind her. Shit. She needed air. She pushed upward on the canoe. It did not budge. The water held it firmly, turning the flat piece of metal into the equivalent of a two ton object which was keeping her submerged. She tried again, this time pushing at it hard with both her hands and the top of her head. It still did not budge a fraction of an inch. Whoa.
She could see the sunlight hitting the water on the far side of the canoe, sparkling at her a mere two feet or so away. Plenty of space to come up to the surface out there. So she tried to move herself forward against the current to the upstream side of the canoe and found that there was no way she was moving upstream. She was in fact pinned tightly against the pile of twigs and branches, held in place by a current far, far stronger than she. She could not move forward at all, much less clear the twenty-four- or so-inch width of the damn canoe. And she needed air.
She tried to go left. No luck. Right. No. The water had pushed her hard into a concave wall of debris, flowing with extreme force to a point behind her and that was absolutely the only direction she was going to be able to move. Except that she couldn’t. For while there was plenty of room for the water to go past her, the thick mass of twigs against her backside contained no holes big enough for a rabbit, much less a human, to pass through.
A strainer. She had heard the term, but never quite understood the name. Now she clearly saw a pile of spaghetti in her sink, water flowing through the little holes, pasta held firmly in the container. Oh yes. She was being strained like a cooked piece of tortellini.
At this point her brain calmly told her, If you keep doing what you are doing, you are going to die. Soon. It was a factual pronouncement made without any emotion at all, and Lola knew it to be absolutely true.
Then the voice split into two. One very calm, very soft piece began reasoning with her that dying right now just was not a good idea. Alex, the children, the guilt of the accident, people counting on her at work, friends, and neighbors, much left to be done and so on. Even at the time Lola found the soliloquy on staying alive odd. This was not a premise with which she was inclined to argue.
The other part of the voice began asking simple questions. Have you tried up? Yes. Forward? Yes. Left, really hard. She tried again, harder. No luck. Right really hard? Yes! Think Lola, it said. What direction have you not tired?
I've tried them all, she responded with frustration. I cannot move.
It asked again. What direction have you NOT tried?
Oh yeah. Down. She had not tried to go down.
The life jacket, designed to save her life, and without which she would not have dreamed of getting into a canoe, had kept her up just under the surface of the water, right under the boat. But now, if she took it off and used all her strength, particularly her legs, which were her best hope for sheer power, she thought that she might be able to wriggle downward. She could feel her hands quivering as she fumbled to loosen the buckle and tie. She had to hurry. She needed air.
She inched her way down while the current kept thrusting her hard against the mass of branches. The jacket slid off above her as she managed to slither and squirm deeper down the wall of muck, finally succeeding at least in turning towards it while she did so. The twigs and bark now scraped into her flesh in front .
But now that she was facing the wall of debris she could use her legs better and fight harder to go down. Finally, her one foot found the river's base, and then it felt an even stronger current moving along the river's floor.
She did not have to think about whether to lower herself into the current, because at that point the river grabbed her of its own accord and pulled her firmly along the bottom. She could no more have resisted it then than she could have fought its power earlier. Later she would wonder that no piece of clothing had caught on anything, and that in fact the space at the bottom had been large enough for her to get through. But at the time she just rode it like the ultimate water-park thrill and emerged seconds later on the far side of the strainer, eyes clear and nose miraculously empty of water and took a great gasp of wonderful, beautiful air.
Halfway through that gasp she was sucked back under again, this time beneath a second, much more shallow strainer. The current carried her under it without effort, smashing her head against the logs above as she traveled with no choice on her part, and she emerged from the second strainer choking and fighting to stay afloat.
It was then that she thought of Alex. Oh my god. He'd been dumped with her. He'd been under the canoe with her. She had not even thought of him. Had not even looked for him. Good Lord. She had been busy saving her own life, and he was still there. Probably now dead.
Lola was more upset than she had ever been in her life when she heard Alex's voice, loud and extremely commanding. "Lola. Grab the paddle!"
Coming up very quickly on her left was a sopping wet Alex who had clearly waded out way past safety and was reaching out to her as far as he could with her wonderful old canoe paddle.
Lola would later wonder how she ever managed to grab it. It seemed far away and she was coughing her brains out and had not an ounce of strength left. But somehow, the blade of the paddle was firmly in her hands, and Alex was pulling her in, now aided by a clearly concerned Ken and Sara. She sat on the shore and coughed up water for seconds more while they all gave her some space. Then, she just sat longer and let herself shudder.
Finally Alex came and put his arm around her silently, and Sara brought over whatever she had been able to find which was dry to put around her. Ken was looking for more bandages. Lola noticed that she was bleeding in multiple places.
Sara turned to Alex and said, "Amazing. All that and she is sitting there smiling."
The drive home was far more subdued, with a bandaged Lola huddled into all the dry clothing she had left in the car. Fortunately, no one cut was particularly deep, and the cold water had worked well to keep her from bleeding too heavily. Alex turned out to have been thrown from the canoe when his end hit with more force, coming up mid-river, and this time he had shown the presence of mind to hold on tightly to her precious paddle. Ken had watched with concern as she had failed to surface for more than a minute, knowing full well the dangers such a strainer could pose. Lola questioned his assessment of the time involved. She had guessed that it had been only a few seconds, moving in that odd slow way that time sometimes does during an emergency, only because she could not imagine that under any circumstances she would be capable of calmly holding her breath under water for a full minute while functioning in any capacity other than sheer panic. And yet …
Lola also wondered about her survival odds if she had continued to be sucked downstream, choking and exhausted in the cold water which turned out to contain an ever-increasing amount of debris. It turned out that Ken and Sara had tried to talk Alex out of wading out into the water to get her, but as far as Lola was concerned, "Grab the paddle" had saved her life.
Dinner that night was at an all-you-can-eat buffet found along the road. Ken, who was driving and pensive, had iced tea, but Lola, Sara, and Alex were happy to order a beer. Lola had three.
A few days after Somadina decided to go into business, any business, she had a lucky break with her mystery woman. It was early evening of the Friday night before the Christian Easter. Azuka was still at the shop working. She was sitting on her porch listening to the songs of the crickets and rocking her son, who had woken up cranky from a late nap. As she stroked his hair and hummed to him to calm him down, she had a strong feeling of rising panic in herself. It was not seeing a snake kind of panic, or one of hearing a particularly loud thunderstorm. It was an irrational, deep, fear for one's life kind of panic. Her first thought was to find and help the sufferer. Who could watch Kwemto quick for a few minutes? In which direction was this person? But before she could get out of the chair she recognized a familiarity to this victim. It was her lady. Dying, or at least in very real-life threatening trouble which Somadina could not identify. Could not do anything to alter.
"You must not die," Somadina said softly. "You must live. You are important. Others need you." And Somadina could tell that the woman heard her. Heard Somadina telling her she needed to stay alive. And that she found the words soothing. Soothing enough that the woman herself was calming her panic, had calmed it, and was trying to find a solution to her predicament. Somadina could offer no other help, for she had no idea what the predicament was. How did a fine, rich powerful lady get herself in a place where she had to fear for her life?
So Somadina just kept the soothing words coming. "Life is good. Now is not a good time to die. You must a find a way to live." And as she soothed she stroked her own son’s hair, repeating the words calmly over and over until she knew that somehow the woman had found a way to live. She could feel the lady's exuberance, a temporary return of the panic, then more exuberance as everything was okay after all.
The next morning, as Somadina lay awake in her bed, she took her opportunity, knowing that if she dared waste such a chance, it might not come again. She concentrated as hard as she could and visualized the steel doors as gone. In their place she left an offering for the lady. She put the most beautiful bunch of flame lilies she could imagine, because she knew that the lady's favorite color was red. She added a couple of live butterflies, because the lady loved butterflies, and as an afterthought she added a platter of the best mango and some kola nuts, and spread the finest red and gold brocade she could imagine under all of it. There. Even if only imaginary, it was now a gift worthy of a queen, and hopefully the lady could see this and take pity on Somadina and her plight. But, just to be sure, Somadina concentrated hard to send a thought, a feeling, with it which she believed to be the most basic of messages between strangers. "I helped you. Now please help me."
That night as she lay falling asleep in her own wonderful bed, Lola felt a cool refreshing breeze blow. She had the sensation of looking up to see where it was coming from and could not have been more surprised to see in her mind’s eye the pair of giant metal hinges which had held the big steel doors she had so carefully visualized closing while in Nigeria. But the doors were no longer closed. They were gone entirely. Vanished. What the hell?
And down on the floor in one corner was sort of a, what? An offering? There was a bunch of beautiful tropical red lilies of some kind. Two live butterflies softly perched on them. There was a platter of food, with some sorts of fruits and nuts. And this exquisite fabric lay under all of it.
And with it came a message, a feeling so basic that Lola had no trouble understanding it. "I helped you. Please help me."
Now that Lola knew more about Nigeria, she started asking more questions of her co-workers in Houston. She discovered that one geologist in Houston was Hausa and the other was Igbo, and noticed that the two young men seemed to be good friends. She thought about the tensions she had read of, and finally carefully asked Okocha (Oh KOH cha) the Igbo, about whether the tribes were still hostile to each other. She got a careful silence. Not the educated, he explained. In fact many of his closest friends were from boarding school and from his year in the National Youth Service Corps and in both cases, they had roots very different from his.
"National Youth Service Corps?" Lola was surprised to discover that all university graduates in Nigeria, male and female, are expected to spend a year working in a sort of internal Peace Corps program in which they are posted in any part of Nigeria except where they are from with the expressed purpose of reducing prejudices and hostility.
"What a great idea. When did they start this?"
"1973." Okocha said, then added when Lola laughed in surprise. "I know. It has been awhile. It was in response to the Biafra secession, and it had a very long way to go to accomplish its mission. It has probably made more inroads than you think. The real problems today are often caused by outsiders, usually just kids brought in from neighboring countries to make trouble, and by our own uneducated. Those are hard issues to fight."
Indeed they were, Lola thought. Anywhere.
"But we are all still proud of the tribes that we come from, and we try to keep our customs and languages alive," he told her. She recognized an opening. "So what is unique about the Igbo?"
Okocha chuckled with pleasure at being asked. "We are the business people of Nigeria. In my home town, everyone is expected to get up in the world, to amass some means of their own and build a good reputation. We work hard and look out for each other, but we also expect everyone to strive and compete."
"Sounds a lot like the ideals I grew up with in West Texas."
"Good. I think the Igbo and the American West have a lot in common," he agreed. "Community cooperation, but a strong expectation of individual accomplishment."
"That's Texas," Lola laughed.
"But we are a stubborn people, too. We do not choose to fight, but we will not be pushed around."
Lola nodded to encourage more.
"You know how they packed the slaves from Nigeria onto the ships, shackling them together for the voyage?"
Lola didn't. It was an uncomfortable part of history she had not gone out of her way to study and she would not have dreamt of bringing up the subject with someone from Africa. But Okocha proceeded as if slavery were a perfectly fine topic for conversation.
"Well there was one ship with just Igbo men on it. Some say a thousand of them. Worth lots of money. And they made a pact among themselves on the voyage over. Everyone had to agree. When they finally took the men off of the ship on the beach in South Carolina, all one thousand of them turned and walked together into the ocean. And drowned. That's how stubborn the Igbo are."
Lola saw the light of pride in Okocha's eyes and felt his overpowering emotion at this story of inspiration which he must have been told from childhood.
"You know, after that they tried to get slaves from other tribes and avoided the Igbo. And that's what my people are capable of."
Although Lola shuddered involuntarily at the idea of being trapped under the waves, drowning while shackled to a thousand other human beings, or even a dozen, she had to wonder, even if the story were only partly true and had been exaggerated over time, why hadn't such an amazing tale of heroism made its way into her history books too? Over the course of her childhood she had been forced to memorize every detail about the Alamo. Were her historians that blind to the bravery and self-sacrifice of others?
Nwanyi had lived in Djimon's household for about two months, and one of the very few joys she had been allowed was a call home every week. This call had gone far to help her maintain, so she was understandably disturbed when after two months the phone privileges stopped. This of course was part of Djimon's careful planning, but Nwanyi thought and hoped that it might have been a mere oversight which could be easily corrected if she could only find the courage to speak up.
It took her two days of carefully planning what she would say. Then, while she was clearing breakfast dishes the next morning Nwanyi began, albeit meekly, to remind them that that she had not been allowed her weekly call home now for over two weeks. Mairo looked up in genuine surprise at the sound of Nwanyi's voice and Djimon thought with just a little satisfaction that Mairo must have assumed, in error of course, that Nwanyi was already completely subjugated. Like such could be done so easily with any human, no matter how pitiful.
Djimon, who had actually studied human nature at the university, had carefully planned for years now how he would break this person down completely once the opportunity arose. But, he reminded himself, he had not shared that plan fully with Mairo, and so Mairo was merely operating on no more that just a set of naturally cruel instincts. He should not fault his wife for being, after all, just an uneducated woman who shared his goals. She was lucky to be paired with such a capable and informed husband, who in this case had successfully anticipated Nwanyi's next move. Djimon had given careful thought to his response, as he knew how very important each part of the choreography truly was and did not want to react merely in anger this time.
"Would you repeat that?" he said in a very neutral tone. When Nwanyi hesitated, he actually gave her just a bit of a smile. It was all she needed. Her eyes lit up a bit, and she started again, slightly louder, slightly bolder. Within her first few words he had in his hands the garden shovel he had brought inside and placed within easy reach. Halfway through the sentence he had used the handle of it to smack her as hard as he could across her left cheek, swinging it with both hands as if it were a baseball bat. He thought he heard cartilage, maybe bone, crack. Mairo's mouth dropped open. "You should learn some better techniques with her yourself," he said to Mairo dismissively as he walked out of the room, leaving Mairo herself to deal with the aftermath.
There had been no call this time for over two weeks. It was a Tuesday morning when Somadina was making a little breakfast for Azuka and Kwemto, humming softly to herself with her other worries temporarily forgotten, when suddenly she let a out blood curdling scream. The little boy ran to his father's lap in terror, and Somadina collapsed on the floor. Two neighbors ran in to see what was wrong and found Somadina crumpled on the floor, apparently just fine but rubbing the side of her face with a look of disbelief in her eyes. Azuka was holding the boy, standing yards away, looking equally baffled.
"'It's the spirits. They speak to her," one of the older neighbors declared with certainty.
"She always has been a bit chosen by the spirits, even as a little girl," the other nodded.
And so Somadina not only had a second, unfortunately horrible contact with her sister, but from that contact she gained the source of income that she had been seeking.
Lola woke up with a scream. A baffled Alex stretched out an arm in reassurance. "Bad dream?"
"I guess so. I can't remember much about it. Blinding pain. Sorry dear. Go back to sleep."
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