Chapter Seven: The Black President

“I really shouldn’t be doing this…”

That was all that kept running through my mind as I followed Nneka past another building. It was dark and poorly lit in Lagos but here I was, sneaking out into night, away from the safety of my dorm. “Nneka wait up!” I called out as loud as I could without drawing attention to us. She turned for a quick second, flashed me a smile and gestured for me to hurry up as she dashed around another corner.

You really should have stayed home I muttered, slowly regretting my decision to join Nneka in her visit to one of Lagos’ most notorious quarters. Nneka had been telling all of us in our dorm about her first time in the Kalakuta Republic, the famous compound that had housed the Chief Priest, his family, band members. She even shared her first time in the Shrine just some months back before it was attacked by Nigerian Soldiers. It was also the first time she had witnessed the unique aura of the Chief Priest. As she recounted her experience, she couldn’t help but smile, giggle and even slip into a distant daze every time she mentioned his name. She shared with us how she had spent hours twirling and grinding in the cannabis-infused smoke that was rumoured to be always present in the Shrine. With every word she spoke, my curiosity and need to visit the Shrine grew… I wanted to feel what she did. That sense of abandon that I had never felt at home with my strict parents. I needed to feel it even if it would only be once in my life…

 

kalakuta-attack

Nigerian Soldiers vs. Kalakuta Republic… Guess who won.

So I hadn’t hesitated when she snuck up to my bed just a few minutes ago and asked me to join her at the shrine. I hadn’t hesitated when I was putting on my tights and loose top or when I put on a dash of powder and lipstick on my face.

No, I hadn’t even thought of hesitating. But now, here I was, about 10 minutes away from the former Kalakuta commune, panicking and anxious as we dodged the numerous military patrols that were now a common sight every Lagos night.

But I was going to see him… to feel him… and at that thought I shook off whatever fear that remained and set my eyes on my destination: The Afrika Shrine.

After what seemed like forever, we finally arrived at Kalakuta area. I knew this because besides the signboard that still hang in the destroyed commune, there was a certain change in the atmosphere on entering. It was like we just entered the land of the free. It was also then that I noticed the throngs of young people that were trooping into Kalakuta area. Some seemed to be students, others the average unemployed Lagosian, and some dressed in clothes that you only saw in movies but they all appeared comfortable and filled with a sense of excitement. Some were smoking, others were laughing and others were chatting. Everyone seemed at home. Content. FREE.

They were all moving into the old Empire Hotel building a few meters ahead and there it was… the Afrika Shrine. The Shrine had a very “natural” feel to it with a few macho men posed at its entrance.

new-africa-shrine

The Afrika Shrine 2.0

They stood scanning through the crowd for any notorious or suspicious characters that could disrupt tonight’s event. We were finally doing it… We were finally about to see the Chief Priest. The Black President himself.

Within seconds we had made our way into the shrine. Nneka had not been joking about the cannabis and smoke in the shrine. It was everywhere but for some strange reason, it didn’t bother me. Rather there was some calming effect that it brought with the dark room and a well-lit stage.

The mixed scents of the shrine wiped away any lingering doubt or anxiety i had from earlier. I was completely open. My mind was clear. All my thoughts of disappointing my parents, all the financial problems I was facing, all the pressures to succeed in university, all the pressures to be good, were all gone. In the Shrine, I was just Seyi, a young lady trying to live. And Seyi was ready. I was ready. Yes I was ready for him.

Suddenly the crowd went quiet…. I looked up to the stage and noticed the lights had now dimmed. The show was about to start. A colourful young man walked on the stage followed by a throng of background singers and musicians. His background dancers or His Queens as they were popularly called, were doused in makeup and wrapped in beads and unique Yoruba cloth styles with much of their legs and tummy exposed.

fela-and-dancers

The young man took the mic said  “Evening everybody, I hope ona ready oo. Na today the Chief Priest don land in the Afrika Shrine. Oya make ona give am a warm welcome oo.. The one and only King of AfrobeatFela Anikulapo Kuti!!”

With that the crowd burst into loud screams and shouts. Everyone cheered and jumped as a cloud of smoke swept across the stage.

Then he appeared… OUR BLACK PRESIDENT

sun-fela-kuti-spin-dot-com

Barechested with beads around his neck, he came on stage dancing to the music and  clad in only tight pants with white marks across over his face.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Right before me was Fela. The notorious and open-minded Fela Kuti. Our counterculture icon who never fretted in the face of danger and continued to live an open life criticising the government and everything in between no matter the cost…. And he was strangely very attractive also.

Fela raised his hands and everyone went silent.

Then he smiled to the crowd and said:

People… Today I no fine o. Na so many things dey worry me. Why all ona politicians be vagabonds like that? Riding in big cars while we all suffer for here…

And with that he launched into one of his famous Yabis (roasting sessions) recalling many of the incidents that he had encountered under the Nigerian government from being jailed and charged numerous times to being beaten up and the attack on Kalakuta as well as the fatal injury Nigerian soldiers gave his mother who was thrown out of the commune in the attack.

yabis

The King of Yabis himself!

I followed the sessions intently both amused and irritated and strongly angered. He spoke raw and free but he was real.

He then signalled to his Africa 70s band and they began with the background music of one of his hits, V.I.P. or Vagabonds in Power

vip

“Very Important Person”
Mean say na power
Mean na sole sole power
Him be special person

But everybody get him power (Everywhere!)
Everybody get him power (Everywhere!)
I say, everybody get him power (Everywhere!)
Everybody get him power (Everywhere!)

….

Him no know hungry people
Him no know jobless people
Him no know homeless people
Him no know suffering people

Him go dey ride best car
Him go dey chop best food
Him go dey live best house
Him go dey waka for road
You go dey commot for road for am
Him go dey steal money

[Chorus]
Na “Vagabond in Power”!

Him be wrong man”

Then he moved on to another hit which focused on the effects of foreign countries in Africa, I.T.T or   International Thief Thief

itt

Well well, na true I want talk again o

Na true I want talk again o
If I dey lie o
Make Osiris punish me
Make Ifa dey punish me o
Make Edumare punish me o
Make the land dey punish me o
Make Edumare punish me o

….

Before them come force us away as slaves
During the time them come force us away as slaves
Na European man, na him dey carry shit
Na for them culture to carry shit
During the time them come colonize us
Them come teach us to carry shit
Long, long, long, long time ago
African man we no dey carry shit
Na European man teach us to carry shit

[Chorus]
Say am, say am!

Many foreign companies dey Africa carry all our money go
Many foreign companies dey Africa carry all our money go
Them go write big English for newspaper, dabaru we Africans
Them go write big English for newspaper, dabaru we Africans

I read about one of them inside book like that
Them call him name na I.T.T.
I read about one of them inside book like that
Them call him name na I.T.T.

Them go dey cause confusion (Confusion!)
Cause corruption (Corruption!)
Cause oppression (Oppression!)
Cause inflation (Inflation!) “

I swayed, jumped and danced as I listened to the playful but serious words his music proclaimed… Was it true?? Had we really lost our Africanness because of foreign companies? No wonder he got on so well with the late Thomas Sankara and even allowed him into Kalakuta once. They were so alike.. I noted proudly. I just wanted to be like them.. I needed to be brave as they were…

fela-and-san

Fela then shifted even deeper into the battle with foreign religions with his song Shuffering and Shmiling

shuffering

Suffer, suffer for world

Amen!

Suffer, suffer for world
Enjoy for Heaven
Christians go dey yab
“In Spiritum Heavinus”
Muslims go dey call
“Allahu Akbar”

 Open you eye everywhere
Archbishop na miliki
Pope na enjoyment
Imam na gbaladun

[Chorus]
Archbishop dey enjoy
Pope self dey enjoy
Imam self dey enjoy
My brother wetin you say?
My brother wetin you say?

My sister wetin you go hear?
My sister wetin you go hear? “

Just then the music stopped.

Fela turned to his singers and gestured for one of them to join him.

Then he turned to the crowd “Ah see this fine woman. See African woman. She no fine??” The crowd yelled in response “She fine oo” He added “but this no be what some of ona women want. They don’t want to even be called African woman. Na lady so them want… Make I tell you all something about one lady….”

The music started again and it was another one of his songs Lady

lady

If you call am woman
African woman no go ‘gree
She go say, she go say, “I be lady, oh”
She go say, “I be lady, oh”

…….

Call am for dance
She go dance lady dance
Call am for dance
She go dance lady dance

African woman go dance
She go dance the fire dance
African woman go dance
She go dance the fire dance

She know him man na master
She go cook for am
She go do anything he say

But lady, no be so”

As he sang, he turned and danced with the singer. Grinding his hips with hers closely and allowing her to be free on stage. They danced so intimately and in tune that I couldn’t take my eyes off them.

fela-dance

I felt a pang of jealousy course through me as I began to wish that I was her. That I was dancing with him. That I was one of the supposed 27 women he had chosen to be his Queens…

fela-queens

The song ended with him giving the lady a quick kiss on the cheek and a wink. He paused. 

fela-kuti-14-450pk021610

Just when I thought the show was over he turned to the crowd and launched into one of his most notorious songs and the song that got Kalakuta republic burned.. ZOMBIE!

I had only heard this once in a bar that I had entered with Nneka some months ago. Infact many of Fela songs had been banned  from the radio with even the current leader of Nigeria, General Oluwasegun Obasanjo accusing Fela of destroying the lives of Nigerian Youth.  Fela had famously replied that “yes he was destroying  Nigerian youth, but only the kind of mindless, pliant youth that a dictator craves.”  Now that was one insanely bold response.

fela-playing

It was really no wonder he was always a target but he still stayed in Nigeria throughout. The Chief Priest had stood firm in the face of elites and never abandoned his shrine. He truly refused to be a ZOMBIE….

zombie

Zombie o, zombie (Zombie o, zombie)
Zombie o, zombie (Zombie o, zombie)

Zombie no go go, unless you tell am to go (Zombie)
Zombie no go stop, unless you tell am to stop (Zombie)
Zombie no go turn, unless you tell am to turn (Zombie)
Zombie no go think, unless you tell am to think (Zombie)

Tell am to go straight
A joro, jara, joro
No break, no job, no sense
A joro, jara, joro
Tell am to go kill
A joro, jara, joro
No break, no job, no sense
A joro, jara, joro
Tell am to go quench
A joro, jara, joro
No break, no job, no sense
A joro, jara, joro

…..

Attention! (Zombie)
Quick march!
Slow march! (Zombie)
Left turn!
Right turn! (Zombie)
About turn!
Double up! (Zombie)
Salute!
Open your hat! (Zombie)
Stand at ease!
Fall in! (Zombie)
Fall out!
Fall down! (Zombie)
Get ready!

Halt!

Order!

DISMISS!!!”

And with that, he fell to his knees with his hands raised. The crowd burst out into uncontrollable cheering and shouted “ BLACK PRESIDENT!! BLACK PRESIDENT!!”

Nneka and I joined  the others in cheering, amazed at the outer-worldly performance we had just witnessed.

I was amazed at the boldness that was FELA. The honesty that was FELA. The rawness and realness that was FELA.

That night something changed in me.

That night I knew I could never keep silent on any injustice that I witness or am privy to.

That night I changed. That night, I had my first ever #FELAREVIVAL

MY FIRST #FELABRATION!!!

fela-hands

Learn More About Fela

Fela’s Music is the Weapon Documentary

Fela Kuti – The Chronicle of a Life Foretold

Fela’s Greatest Hits

Finding Fela

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Chapter Six: The New African

It had been almost six years.

I could still remember the first time I stepped off the Charlotte III steamer and  onto the shores of my new home.

America.

I remember the harsh, cold chill that stung my face and the sigh of relief I heaved, appreciating God for bringing me across the ocean to the land of dreams and opportunities.

A lot had gone into making this trip successful. I had given up so much in the months leading to my journey here. I had saved every penny from my  low-paying secretarial job in the Gold Coast to purchase my one-way ticket on the Charlotte III. I also had to deal with my mother’s heartbreak and the disapproval of my friends when I announced my departure. The news took all of them by surprise. A woman unwed at 21 was a huge disappointment to my family and now I wanted to travel to the  land  across the ocean alone. Now that was preposterous  and completely unheard of.

ss09_neptunia

A solitary tear streaked across my cheek as I remembered the despair that seemed somehow tattooed on my mother’s face in the few weeks leading to my departure. My mother wasn’t a woman of many words but ever so often I caught her sighing and once in a while she muttered a few sparse words of advice regarding my trip but she never cried. Not to my face.

Regardless of how she felt, my mother still helped me pack and prepare. Through it all, I could feel her heart break… her only daughter had just chosen to leave her for a land where she knew no one. I was all she had after my father passed away a few years ago and she was all I had… and now she was losing me too.

This made me question my choice. I doubted myself, my strength to survive alone. I had numerous restless nights both contemplating the craziness of my actions and filled with fear with what lay before me. But every morning after that, I woke up more convinced I had made the right decision. Soon, the nights became more bearable and my stance became more resolute. YES! I WAS LEAVING TO AMERICA!

The fear didn’t hit me again till I stood on the deck of the Charlotte III as it prepared to set sail from Takoradi Harbour. My mother was in the crowd, fervently straining to wish me farewell. Her short hands were lost in the sea of people who had gathered at the docks, but still she fought to make sure I saw her. It was then I saw the tears she had tried so hard not to shed. They were streaming down her face. My mother was BROKEN. That was when I lost all self-control and crumpled on the deck in tears. My vision was still blurred with the tears streaming down my face as the Charlotte III blew its final horns signalling our departure. What am I doing??? What am I really doing?? A wave of panic and fear rushed over me and I began to hyperventilate. My palms were sweaty and my mind was racing with so many unanswerable questions.

I turned towards the crowd to try to catch a glimpse of my mother again, and it was then I noticed she was raising a small placard, which read “BE STRONG COMFORT. I’LL BE HERE WAITING FOR YOU”. A certain calm came over me after reading that. Somehow I just knew I will be fine. That we will be fine. With that, I blew her a kiss and turned to face the vast sea that lay before me. The sea that hid the vast secrets of America from me. Yes! It was that sea I was about to conquer.

And conquer it I did. I had never imagined that finding the American dream would have been so difficult for me. I thought that once I got to the US, everything would figure itself out, but was I wrong. With nothing but $50 to my name, I walked off the deck of the Charlotte III on a harsh winter’s night in 1956 right into homelessness and struggle. Every day was a fight to stay alive. So I did anything and everything. I washed dishes at sloppy diners. Cleaned seedy hotels. And with every tough situation, I was forced to grow, learn and adapt.  I became smarter, stronger, independent.. free.  The type of freedom, I would have never gotten back home.

Everything I did was to make some money to survive and for my family back in the Gold Coast, sorry Ghana I mean. You see, barely a year after I left, my country gained its independence and was renamed Ghana. I couldn’t help but swell up with pride when I watched from  the public televisions in one of those seedy hotels, Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah up on the podium that day in March of 1957 surrounded by his right hand men, proclaim to the expectant teeming masses of the newly minted nation;

Ghana!!! Our Beloved Country is FREE, FOREVER!!

kwame-nkrumah

There was so much excitement that day in Ghana. Everyone cheered, danced and even I could feel the excitement hundreds of miles away. We were free!! I believe that year was generally a great year to be Ghanaian because it was right after Independence that I landed a job with Marlon’s Papers, a black-owned local newspaper in the Bronx. Even though Marlon’s Papers  was a small operation, it was increasingly popular among African immigrants and other Blacks in the Bronx because it not only focused on local news but also the wave of independence that was coursing through the African continent at that time.

I had been with Marlon’s Papers for about 4 years when one day, Mr. James Marlon (my boss) received an invitation to attend a reception in New York for the entourage of a celebrated African leader who were in the country working on a business deal – Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. All the news sources were abuzz  about the visit and the hydroelectric project with Kaiser Aluminium.

Finally, he is living up to his promises. I thought proudly remembering how throughout his early days in government he had promised to begin an industrial revolution in the country, that could only really take place with good and reliable energy. Even US President Ike Eisenhower had appreciated the need for such a revolution and assured Nkrumah of US support and now he was back to claim it.  I smiled to myself… smart man.

nkrumah-funny

I knew I had to find a way to be part of the reception. I had only known Jim for just a few years but he was almost like family to me but I was still nervous. This was a huge favour to ask of my boss. Right when, I was about to ask the question plaguing my mind, Mr. Marlon turned to look at me and said,  “Connie, you’re Ghanaian so I know you would be very interested in this reception, mind tagging along with me?” It took all the self-control I could muster not to burst into a quick dance and yell YES! Instead i opted for a more reserved but equally excited “YES!! Mr. Marlon Sir, I would like that very much sir.”

Even though the reception was a week away, this excitement radiated from me until I was seated in the conference room, surrounded by some of New York’s prominent black owners and scholars waiting for Osagyefo‘s arrival. Every few seconds, my eyes would dart to the doors, worried that the moment I took my eyes off it, I will miss his great entrance.

Fontomfrom drums… the popular drums of the Ashanti people reverberated through out the chamber, two young ladies clad in beautiful kente, beads  and gold accessories entered dancing to the rhythm of the drums. With poise and skill, these ladies danced adowa with each step and  gracefully moved to the rhythm of the fontomfrom with our president in tow. Dr. Nkrumah had shed his typical business suit and even his political suit for a more regal traditional attire, a beautiful kente cloth on a white jumper.

Kwame Nkrumah, Wife And Chieftains Dance

People roared and cheered as Osagyefo and his entourage came in. Dr. Nkrumah waved  and shook hands of the people closest to him. His face lit up with childlike glee as he also followed the fontomfrom beats with some adowa moves of his own as if accepting the beautiful welcome the ladies were bestowing on him.

Finally, the man of the hour reached the podium and turned to face the audience before him. Suddenly a hush fell upon the room…then someone shouted “kom yɛ” (meaning silence is good)

nkrumah-speech

With a smile, Nkrumah responded “Thank you! Thank you! and Greetings to you all from Ghana and from Africa as a whole!”

The crowd replied with a mix of Akwaabas and Welcomes!

Then he continued,

It is great being back in the land that greatly inspired my desire  to fight for freedom in Africa. Just a few months back I had the great pleasure of meeting your president, John F. Kennedy and I must say, you’re all extremely blessed to have such a great and forward thinking man for president.

As most of you already know, I am here to finalise the  energy deal for Ghana and though this trip has been filled with tough decisions and compromises, I am still optimistic that this dam will fuel the much needed industrial revolution in Ghana and in Africa as a whole.  

Africans must work hand in hand for the entire continent to develop. Rather than foster hatred and bitterness against your fellow countryman, it is in our hands to join our strength, taking sustenance from our diversity, honouring our rich and varied traditions and culture whilst also acting together for the protection and benefit of all of us.

This principle is important because then we understand that we  do not face East or West, but rather we must face forward. Forward-thinking. Progress. That should be our goal whether it means receiving benefits from both sides. We must move beyond being puppets and take advantage of our unique position to carve out our own African story.”

kennedy-and-nkrumah

His words permeated every fibre of my mind

YES! OSAGYEFO! YES!

He continued in a lower and more contemplative tone,

People say I have changed. That I no longer believe in democracy. That I have become paranoid and this has made me a bit autocratic. Maybe they are right. Maybe I can’t afford to leave our precious fight for progress and revolution in the adulterated and neo-colonialist hands of some of my officials.

I do not believe in democracy, not when such would mean the loss of our freedom. If democracy is really about allowing colonial hands to rope us back into mental and economic slavery, then democracy can go kill itself. If my nature of governance is unappealing to your superpowers or to your ever-so complicated world politics, then forget your world politics.

Why can’t I just be free? Why can’t my people be free? Allow us to be free. No matter what some of you might think, it is far better to be free to govern or misgovern yourself than to be governed by anyone else.  We should be allowed to make our own mistakes.

Only then can we grow as a people, as a continent. Africa is one continent, one people, one nation.

I looked at the faces around me. Some were nodding in agreement, others were quiet. I wasn’t surprised since many people were staunch supporters of democracy but Nkrumah’s words though painful held an essence of truth that even some of the greatest supporters of ‘democracy’ couldn’t deny.

nkrumah-serious

With a deep sigh, he looked around and as if willing us to understand his words,

Africans are really on our own. We must fight for our own progress because our colonial masters do not want that for us. We cannot always use their solutions and often biased advice to understand our issues.

It is clear we must find an African solution to our problems, and that this can only be found in African Unity.  Why? Well, because then such a solution becomes ours. We own it and that pride of ownership will cause us to safeguard it and make it dynamic and more relevant to our livelihoods. We can’t succeed without being one. We must unite now! or perish!!!

I am sure, some of you are saying, but I am not African. I do not even know where my ancestors came from but let this be known to you today. 

I am not African because I was born in Africa but because Africa was born in me. So as long as you feel that call to African unity and the spirit of the African struggle, I invite you to join us as we take back our continent and make it the new Africa!

nkrumah-and-queen

With that Dr. Nkrumah, turned to head out of the conference room. As he walked, people swarmed to him, struggling to pass through his security just in order to get some sort of interaction with him. His entourage evidently annoyed, fought through the crowd to provide a clear passage for Osagyefo out.

I was completely awestruck as I watched him, the man who I had held so much admiration for over the past couple of years. I also pushed my way through the crowd. I had to meet him. I just had to. I needed to. I just had to know he was real. That my eyes weren’t deceiving me.

I was a few inches away from him when he turned my direction as if sensing my gaze and my need to connect with him. I froze as his eyes connected with him, suddenly struck with an unsual shyness. He smiled and took my hand in his palm, asking “And who may you be my dear?” … I replied shakenly “Comfort, I mean Connie, from Marlon’s Papers… and also Ghanaian, sir.”

“Comfort…” he said warmly, “so are you awake now? “. Baffled at the question, I stared blankly at him. Well yea, I wasn’t sleepwalking now was I… but with a quizzing brow and hint of sarcasm I replied “Yes, I guess I am.”

He laughed softly and tightened his grip on my hand while he added

Good!! Now don’t you ever fall asleep again.

We will not sleep again. Today, from now on… You & I! Yes You, Connie. We are part of a new Africa!…

There is a NEW AFRICAN IN THE WORLD!

With a wink, he let go of my hand and walked right out of the conference hall into the lobby leaving me staring at his back and repeating the statement he made… never to forget it, not even in the years that followed.

 

HAPPY BIRTHDAY OSAGYEFO!!!!!! GHANA FOREVER THANKS YOU!!!

osagyefo_dr-_kwame_nkrumah_of_ghana_picture

 

Learn More

Biography

Independence Day Speech

The End of Kwame Nkrumah’s Era

Africa Must Unite

Neo-colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism

 

 

Chapter Two: The Man caught in the Middle

It was night… but more like early morning for me at least.

Even though the skies were dark and littered with a million or what seemed to be a million stars, daybreak still creeped at its edges…threatening to burst out in a brilliant shimmershine dance and disrupt the darkness any moment from now.

Some might have said it was night because it was quiet. Days in Onitsha were often full of yelling, training and fighting and some more fighting..so if it was this quiet, it must have been night. But I knew the calm was deceptive. It was as if the night was keeping secrets from us – keeping tales of some excitement..some danger… some horror that daybreak would bring once it finally burst out. So, I couldn’t trust the night. I just couldn’t when all I felt was this kind of anticipation. The kind that any militant would be weary of.

The moon on the other hand, was up and unusually bright tonight. It looked full, engorged  with all the pulsating brightness it seemed to have absorbed from the sun and to spill back on us. It had enveloped our camp like it was staring straight at us. As if daring us to look back at it.

The moonlight had created an unwelcome brightness that attempted to seize the few hours of sleep many other Biafran militia were desperately trying to hold on to. The receding snores and deep breathing that surrounded me communicated that at least, some of my colleagues had been successful in warding it off. 

“Lucky people” I muttered as I lay restless on the lumpy piece of cloth (sack) I called a bed, staring back at the peeping moonlight. My mind raced with thoughts of my family, my life and how the past few months had completely turned my world upside down…

It had been almost a year since Igbos had been killed (massacred) if we were to be brutally honest in Northern Nigeria as a retaliation for  “taking over commerce” and for  supposedly being the orchestrators of a coup where the premier of Northern Nigeria, Ahmadu Bello and Nigerian Prime Minister Abubakar Tafewa Balewa were assassinated. These brutish killings were led by mostly Nigerian soldiers of Hausa descent and had led to many Igbos escaping en masse to the Eastern province for protection. This incident as well as many other instances of discrimination in the past caused the Eastern Premier Colonel Ojukwu to declare the province an independent state – Biafra.  

biafra

Ain’t she a beauty… our rising sun, Biafra!

Even though, Igbos were not the only ethnic group in the Eastern states, we were the majority and  being Biafrans finally gave us the chance to rule and govern ourselves.

Secession.

I remember the day I heard the proclamation blaring out over our transistor radio. I feel like I could still reach out and touch that ephemeral mist that was that very moment, filled with so many swirling emotions. I was crouching by my grandmother preparing some uha soup with fufu when the broadcast was made. Immediately, my grandmother leapt up excitedly and broke into dancing. She reached out, grabbed my hands and we started singing and twirling in circles. We rushed out into the streets and soon we were joined by many others who were delirious with happiness, dancing in the streets.

What a beautiful day that was.

Or was it?

Well at first, everything seemed normal, even almost surreally perfect. We already had our own doctors, teachers and many other educated people in our Biafra. Then we began operating our own airlines and the atmosphere in the country was serene and energized. Biafrans were not sad or hungry, we were energetic, full of life and productive. Yes! Life sure did feel grand at that moment…

bia plane

We had an airborne defence system… or something along those lines.

bia plane 1

and this one… Almost has you spoiling for a WWII type dogfight, doesn’t it?

 

Then our woes started. The Nigerian government refused to accept our secession and labelled us rebels. In the beginning we didn’t quite understand why this was so, but under all the rhetoric and talk, it finally hit us… we had oil.

Yes!

Oil that was really important to not only Nigeria but our colonial masters and their allies. The Nigerian government under General Gowon blockaded us off from the outside world and cut short our food supplies in attempts to starve us out.

Our own kinsmen.

food car to onitsha destroyed

Now how will my children eat, ei Nigeria… na so you dey.

Just a month ago, I lost my grandmother in an attack on Onitsha and escaped death’s haunting fingers narrowly as our Biafran soldiers fought to hold off the advancing Nigerian army. Even though the Biafran soldiers had succeeded, she was already dead. My nne nne.

My nne nne was all that I had and I had lost her.

I had nothing else. No one else. I felt numb. I wanted justice for the blood. I wanted revenge for not only my nne nne but all the many  other innocents that lost their lives during that invasion. I wanted to fight back. So I joined the Biafran militia. Yes! I, an Igbo woman, a mpako nwaanyị.

Onitsha was a Biafran stronghold and I wanted to help protect it… and show  Gowon what Biafrans were truly made of.

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Trying to fight away the bout of tears that was welling up my chest,threatening to overwhelm me. Tears cascaded down my cheek as I recalled seeing my grandmother’s lifeless body, her still hands… her empty, lifeless eyes. I closed my eyes and willed myself to sleep, trying to rid myself of the painful memories.

I had closed my eyes for what seemed only like a few minutes when I was jolted awake by loud noises in the camp outside. The din was everywhere! It was already bright outside with birds chirping and many people scrambling about and yelling inaudibly.

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Life of a soldier.. sometimes you pose

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…sometimes you mourn

Suddenly, a rush of adrenaline surged through me and I leapt off my cloth bed, pulled on some slacks, boots and t-shirt and rushed outside to see what was going on. I half-expected to be met with armed soldiers, flying bullets, carnage and people screaming, running for their lives. However, the scene I beheld was much different. There was this aura of excitement and anticipation!  Excitement in the middle of a war!?

Still trying to grasp what was happening, I tapped on the shoulder of one of the passing men and asked “What’s going on? Are we under attack ?

He stared back at me in surprise and replied  “Ah ah madam, wey attack una dey talk about? Where una dey?  Na Zik wey dey come here o! Zik dey come wonna camp inside!” and with that he smiled and sped off.

I stood rooted at where he left me still unable to process what i had just heard.

ZIK!?

HERE!?

Struggling to compose myself, I mentally willed my boots to  follow in his direction. It seemed everyone was heading towards the town square. I broke into a fast run, darting in front of a lot of other people and nearly tripping over my half laced boots till I reached the town square.

Looking around me, I realised that it was not only the militia and soldiers that had rushed here but also women, children, chiefs and other locals of Onitsha.

I wasn’t surprised that everybody was here, clamouring to see Zik.

nnamdi-azikiwe

Oh look cameras… gotta give them my good side.

After all Dr. Zik was our first president of Nigeria and a major pillar of Nigeria. Plus, He was an Igbo, also from Onitsha. Despite his academic successes in Lincoln University, his prolific and controversial career as editor for the African Morning Post and later owner of the Zik Group of Newspapers, his political career with NCNC and the creation of the Zikist Movement which was almost cult-like, Dr. Zik had remained a humble and committed nationalist.

He was even said to have influenced the nationalist journey of Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah.  And this amazing man was coming here today.

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Nkrumah: OMG!! Fan boy status!!.. He shook my hand! He totally did.

Nnamdi and Flora Azikiwe

Flora baby, you got on the jewellery I got you for our anniversary?

The thought alone was unreal but when I heard a round of cheers at the entrance of the town square, I knew he was here.  I followed the cheers to see him walking towards the crowd, dressed in a white Isiagu with black trousers and his head covered with a monochrome kufi. Zik was surrounded by a throng of soldiers that were trying desperately to push away the clamouring crowd, also reaching out to touch Dr. Zik.

I stood entranced by his composure, his constant smile and his profuse willingness to reach out into the crowd and shake hands. Yes! This was the amazing Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe.

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How else did I charm my followers if not with these eyes.

 

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When she asks how many yards of political material you were made of.

He reached the centre of the square and suddenly the crowd fell silent. Dr. Zik, scanned the crowd with an sweeping gaze and with that his lips split into a slight smile.

Then, he said  “Hello, people of my beloved Onitsha, ekene  m unu… I greet you”

The crowd responded in unison with Nnộ Dr. Zik” 

Then Dr. Zik continued

I am humbled to be among you today. You this amazing group of Igbos. I admire the bravery you showed during the last invasion and applaud you for your resilience and commitment to Biafra. As many of you know,

He pointed to the soldiers around,

I have been outside Nigeria seeking recognition for Biafra from foreign countries. So far I have been able to garner support from Gabon, Zambia and Haiti.. I believe this recognition is important in our next crucial step, dialogue. This dialogue is the only thing that can truly provide the freedom that Biafra is desperately seeking. I know what I am going to say next might not sit well with most of you, but it must be said because it is the truth…

I understand Biafra’s concerns. I understand the plight of the Igbos. Even I had to escape to Onitsha at the start of the war to avoid numerous attempts on my life. I too, have lost so many dear ones. Many of my relatives and friends.

But my brothers and sisters, War will not liberate Biafra.

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He sighed deeply and continued

Is freedom really all this carnage? I understand the underlying loss of trust we are experiencing with our fellow Nigerians and the Nigerian government but we cannot just cut ourselves off because of these grievances.

We are first and foremost Nigerians, before Biafrans. We got our independence together as a federation and committed ourselves to that federation. 

Do you really believe that secession  will garner better treatment for Igbos? Yes it might make them take us more seriously. And yes, it has shown that we are a force to be reckoned with, but does that mean the other party will stop? No, They are starving us out of our own utopia. We are thriving on virtually nothing. How is that sustainable? Tell me!

With that the crowd began to jeer and shout. Many people began hurling out insults frenetically. Many others were angry and arguing amongst each other.  Others walked away from the square in disgust while chanting the refrains of war songs.

It was a charged atmosphere that seemed to crackle.

However, a few others were deep in thought. Quiet.. and staring at Dr. Zik, like he was the strangest thing to walk the earth.

I was one of those who just stared. Not because I agreed with him but I was confused. Had even Nnamdi Azikiwe lost faith in Biafra? Are we really fighting an endless war?  But again, what had nationalism done for Igbos in the past 8 years?

Had nationalism protected my Nne nne from being slaughtered? Had nationalism protected my family who lost their lives in the Igbo killings up North?

No! Nationalism had failed me both times.

I was angry. Yes! I was angry at Dr. Zik. How dare he!?

How dare he imply that I was fighting for nothing! That I had lost the best years of my life for nothing!  Did he really expect me to  walk back into the arms of a country that betrayed us, that massacred us, that starved us and say hey, forget everything, lets be one again.

And for what reason? PEACE.

Will peace bring back my grandmother? Will peace wash away all the blood they spilled? Will peace make me forget? All peace will do is make me pretend.

Damn PEACE! YES! DAMN IT ALL.

 Just when I had decided that I had heard enough from Dr. Zik and had turned to walk back to my hut,  he added in a strained and somewhat frustrated voice,

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 I once said during our independence that my stiffest assignment had ended and my major life’s work was done…  At that point in time, I had believed that my country was truly free and with that I thought I could rest, but my fellow Biafrans, Is this truly freedom? Surely freedom can’t be bloodshed.

My brothers and sisters, it is better to disintegrate in peace than in pieces.. my people is this what you call peace? 

Peace can’t be seeing many young children slowly suffering and dying of starvation. I have been to other towns in Biafra and the suffering is heart-wrenching. I can’t rest with all this happening. No I surely cannot. I cannot just sit back and watch my people perish all because we felt undervalued by the national government. There must be another way…

This truly cannot be the end…

– His strained voice trailing off.

He turned away to shield a lonely tear that streaked across the expanse of his left cheek.

No one said anything.

We were all in shock at the tiredness and raw emotion in his voice. Zik was actually tearing up.

This great leader of Nigeria… This great messenger of nationalism.. This great pillar of the Igbos was here in Onitsha, standing in the crowd and breaking down.

No one could process this shock. No one dared to speak.

But how could we speak? How could I speak? Any word that even attempted to come out of my lips froze in my mouth out of fear… out of the fear of saying the wrong thing.

So I just stared at him… stuck between reaching out to comfort him and giving him space to experience his pain.

The soldiers however, taking a cue from the situation unfolding and the mixed emotions the crowd was experiencing  rushed towards Zik and escorted him away from the square into a rugged 4 wheel parked nearby.

But we still followed them in silent unison and with eyes fastened on only Zik. 

Desperately trying not to be separated from him, no matter the cost.

Soon the only thing that stood between Zik and us was the glass window of the 4 wheeler he was seated in.

This made the soldiers nervous.

Why? You see, with a loud and angry crowd, their voices and expressions cry out for a fight. They are almost always predictable. But a silent crowd never reveal with their eyes  or voices what they really want. Their eyes never reveal what their voices refuse to say. So you can never be sure if the silence is just deep thought or deadly. That, is what makes you nervous.

So even though they were somewhat protected by the 4 wheeler, the soldiers were still anxious with uncertainty. This uncertainty turned to haste…which turned to sloppiness.

The driver rushed to start the car but the keys slipped from his fingers. Hastily he bent down to search for the keys… and after what seemed like too long, he finally found it.

He tried to start the car… it didn’t respond. He tried again.. No response. Nervously he turned to stare at the crowd whose palms were now flat on the glass window.

His eyes then fixed on me. For what must have been a few seconds, our eyes locked. His full of fear and anxiety… mine, empty. The emptiness must have scared him because right then he turned his head sharply to the wheel and turned the key as hard as he could.. as if willing the car to start with his strength.

After three other false starts, the engine sputtered noisily to life. Then they revved off into the bush road, with Zik’s head still bent down in the back seat.

I stared at the trail of dust that followed the vehicle, stuck at where I was with the words Dr. Zik had just voiced still ringing loudly in my ears.

Though I couldn’t ever understand how, I never truly forgot what he said.

Even though I never once voiced it out and even if I never would have accepted it then..

I knew that on that day…

Zik had been right.

Learn more about Nnamdi

Nnamdi Azikiwe Biography

Nnamdi Azikiwe Video

 

Chapter One: Saving Africa and Full Course Meals

I was nervous.

Not the butterflies-in-my-stomach but thinking-of-the-ocean-will-calm me down kind of nervous, No,not that one. This was a dizzy feeling. the anxiously chomping at my almost non-existent fingernails and quizzing my sanity when I even agreed to this rendezvous with a ship of doubt firmly anchored in my abdomen – kind of nervous.

Yup! that about covers how I felt.

As I strode purposely toward the restaurant, the Restaurant de la Révolution nestled between (Upper Volta House and 1984th street), i was giddy with excitement, almost gliding along the sidewalk in a reverie. I still couldn’t believe it. I was about to meet HIM. My favourite African, the numero uno on my list.  I know I’m Ghanaian so you will automatically assume it should be a Kwame, my numero uno had to be Thomas (Sorry Kwame, you could be second place though)

I tried peering in from across the street to see if Thomas was already there, but I guess the waiter sensed my presence …..and  just then, he pulled the curtains together shut and I was confronted with stark, glaring darkness behind the clear glass windows.

“Don’t be ridiculous girl, it’s just ONE meeting.” I mumbled halfheartedly to reassure myself, totally not convinced still. So I mustered up the courage and finally started to cross over. Just then I heard the blare of sirens and turned to see flashing lights heading my way, I jumped out of it’s way and in a split second I thought that could be Thomas with a police motorcade. “ That’s impossible!” quickly dismissing the thought as fast as it had occurred to me. Thomas is not the showy kind and I was right because it was just an ambulance. Then I turned back towards the entrance of the restaurant, took in a deep breath, breathed a quick sigh of relief and pushed the door open.

Light flooded my vision…and the warmth and richness of human bodies. Wafting aromas assailed my nostrils.

I entered to see the restaurant filled with people, but they were all staring at one corner and listening enraptured to a man speak. Before I heard his voice, I knew that was HIM. It had to be Thomas. I followed their lingering gaze, and there he was. 

  thomas-sankara

My African.

He was speaking passionately about social change and fighting neo-colonialist forces. He said, that rich baritone voice of his reaching a crescendo, assertive yet firmly caressing your ears,

Our country produces enough to feed us all. Alas, for lack of organization, we are forced to beg for food aid. It’s this aid that instills in our spirits the attitude of beggars

in his lovely French accent- a man accustomed to charisma.

I couldn’t take my gaze off him. His voice continued to trail off.

This man.

He who had inspired so many with his humble approach to life, his Pan – Africanism and African unity, his commitment to African values and his candid ability to speak his mind regardless of the ramifications. He really was a vision to behold and everyone in Burkina Faso revered him. Okay, obviously not the corrupt elite and those who were benefitting from neo-colonialism and spoils of a skewed economic system but  at least those that mattered did;  the poor, average and working class Burkinabe. Even Fela agreed that Thomas was an inspiration and made him a friend for life conferring on him this honour by holding audience and inviting him- the only African president to visit the African Shrine in Lagos.

san and fela

Why are you bringing the food now, can’t you see we’re talking… I asked you to wear clothes when we receive visitors naw!

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So Fela, which wife will it be today?  Ah Sankara, this guy… don’t you know about all at once?

Thomas turned in my direction mid-sentence and he smiled… the lingering fire of his passion simmering down in his eyes as he held my gaze. He quickly wrapped up his speech and strode purposefully towards me in a deafening roar of applause. In a few strides he was standing right in front me.

Larger-than-life, then he extended his right hand and said in mellifluous French “Ah you have arrived…now we can eat.” I nodded eagerly, then he guided me to one of the tables, got me seated then followed suit. “Mademoiselle, I hope you’re goodhe enquired again in French. I responded in the affirmative in my halting rustic French and he added “So what exactly would you like to know?

I was so overwhelmed with nervousness that I fumbled to take out my notepad and a pen and mumbled inaudibly in response to his question. He smiled… and encouraged “Go on, ask away.”

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Those eyes though

With that, I took a few deep breaths, heady with excitement and asked the questions I had always longed to ask.

“ I know what the politicians and social commentators everywhere are saying about you. I know about your passion for female empowerment, for effective and accountable leadership, your fight against exclusivity, your promotion of an Africa for Africans and your intolerance of neo-colonialism. But I just want you to give me in a few sentences, what best describes your vision for Burkina Faso and Africans as a whole. Tell me who REALLY is Thomas? ”

He nodded and replied

That’s simple. I believe that Africans are enough. That our values are enough and we can be self-sufficient. We don’t need any external or internal forces trying to convince us that we are any less.

I believe in the power of ideas. Ideas go beyond the death of any man. Remember what Che Guevara said when he was being attacked?- I know you’re here to kill me. Shoot coward, you’re only going to kill a man. This just shows that while revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas. Ideas are eternal. Why else do you think we changed our name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, the land of upright men?

I believe in change by word, by deed and by a revolution of ideas. And who better to cultivate this code of honour and uprightness than the masses. Whenever the masses are mobilized for development, true self-sufficiency is possible.

My vision is quite simple my dear. I want to spread these ideas of self-sufficiency across Burkina Faso and the entire African continent. You do know that he who feeds you, controls you right? Whoever said Africans can’t feed themselves are our true enemies. They are those who want to keep the people in ignorance. You see it’s all in the mind. It’s our mentality that holds us back. We have to recondition our people to accept themselves as they are, to not be ashamed of their real situation, to be satisfied with it and to glory in it, even.

Captain Thomas Sankara leader of Burkina Faso

He paused to let that sink in, the conviction is his eyes so poignant – willing you to believe in every single word he uttered.

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I mean how can you not believe him… Pausing like a boss!

Then he added

That’s why ideas are so powerful. They bring both the mental change necessary for a revolution and the madness to sustain that change. It took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen. We must dare to invent the future. And even if I perish or my blood is spilled during that mission, I want people to remember me as someone whose life has been helpful to humanity. I hope that answers your question…..

winking conspiratorially at me…an act seeming almost charming in itself.

Inviting you to agree with him – seemingly hinting, that of course, we strode around everyday starting revolutions and political movements for the betterment of our people.

“Those were a lot of sentences” I replied, still struggling to put everything down. “With policies such as the day of solidarity for housewives and the replacement of the government’s fleet of Mercedes-Benzes with more economical Renault 5s, I doubt you will ever be forgotten Mr. President.”  I added,  “Especially by those men that now have to do the market shopping and take over household duties on that day. I also doubt that those government officials who lost their ‘luxuries’ might ever forget your pragmatic leadership.  People have already began referring to you as Africa’s Che Guevara. how does that make you feel?

“Africa’s Che Guevara?” He replied,

That’s an honour. Che Guevara taught us we could dare to have confidence in ourselves; confidence in our abilities. He instilled in us the conviction that struggle is our only recourse. He, was a citizen of the free world that together we are in the process of building. This just shows Burkina Faso is on its way to becoming a pillar of the free world. I hope the world is ready for that – that and my red beret, my fashion style i owe it all to Che

– with a soft self-deprecating humour.

He glanced at his watch and added.  “We have been sitting for over 20 minutes and we still haven’t ordered. Honestly when you first asked about this dinner, I thought you were going to ask me about my favourite meal, car model, or all those other ridiculous stuff I usually see in other presidential profiles. But here we are talking about my vision for Burkina Faso. You journalists are full of surprises. Now who knows, If more journalists turn out to be more like you, I might actually consider lifting that ban on free press. Now honestly Mademoiselle, we must eat. You must try the babenda. I assure you, it’s almost as good as my mother’s.

Now shall we order?…

And that what a night that was… the night I dined with Thomas Sankara.

rawlingsandthomassankara

You like berets too? Aren’t they the best things to ever happen to us revolutionaries

P.S.  JJ Rawlings expression here sums up how I felt…

Learn more about Sankara here:

Biography

Video Documentary