August 2013


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Several days ago, I was in Jos, my hometown, out walking in our neighborhood with my Uncle M around 7 in the morning. As we were circling back toward the house, we approached a woman selling kose (bean cakes) by the roadside. My Uncle offered to buy me some for breakfast. I was delighted – they are a sweet childhood food.  As the woman prepared to re-heat the bean cakes and then wrap them up for us, I looked down and noticed a pile of newspapers. On the top was an article about the esteemed Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s memoir of his experience of the Biafran War, There was a Country, complete with three photos: one of him, one of the cover of the book, and another alongside a photo of Professor Wole Soyinka, Nigeria’s Nobel laureate for Literature. Getting my Uncle’s OK. I grabbed the newspaper, lest the woman choose to use this piece of newsprint to put our breakfast in.

Reading the article at home – it was from The Nation and dated Feb 20, 2013 – I discovered it was a piece about a reading of There was a Country hosted by the Rainbow Book Club of Port Harcourt. Port Harcourt has been declared by UNESCO as World Book Capital for 2014. (I’ve not yet read the book yet but was thrilled to see it on sale at Abuja Airport on Monday and picked up a copy). From the account, Achebe’s personal take on the war is controversial. Some feel he’s given Ibos an inflated view of themselves.

I was then even more tickled to read a quote in the article from Mrs. Judy N. Aunty Judy is an American who met her husband at Oxford, attended my parent’s wedding in London in 1959 (!) and moved to Port Harcourt later that year. (She, like my mother, is now an expatriate widow.) She and her husband lived through the war – his law books were burned by the Biafrans and at one point, he spent time in jail. In the piece, she encouraged us to read as many accounts of the Civil War in Nigeria as possible because one person’s account cannot adequately capture the numerous complexities of war.  Wise words from a woman who’s made her home in southern Nigeria for over half a century.

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Just over 55 years ago, the RMS Queen Mary set sail from New York City heading toward Southampton, England. For two of its passengers in tourist class, it would alter the course of their lives, and impact others for generations to come.

Gally Brown-Peterside, a Nigerian student (now deceased), was making his way to England to study law. Seven years earlier, he’d taken another ship, this one from Lagos, via Monrovia, to New Orleans. He was en route to Wiley College, an African American institution of higher learning with ties to the Methodist Church, located in Marshall, Texas. (The film, The Great Debaters, starring Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker was set there, three decades earlier.) Then President of Wiley, Dr. Thomas Winston Cole, had offered a scholarship to the young Nigerian. After several years at Wiley, Gally made his made to Marquette University in Wisconsin and then to the University of Oregon, where he completed a Bsc in political science. He then crossed the country to the east coast where he completed an MA in public administration at American University in Washington, D.C. In the years he’d been away, though initially interested in studying medicine, by this time, Gally had developed an interest in law. Because the Nigerian legal system more closely reflected the British legal system – Nigeria was two years away from independence from Britain at this point – Gally chose to pursue his law degree in the U.K.

Elizabeth Marion James, of Rathfriland, Northern Ireland, was returning on the Queen Mary from a trip to visit her American cousins who were living in New Jersey and Rhode Island. Her only Aunt on her mother’s side had emigrated to the States some years earlier and raised her family there. Elizabeth was traveling with Ena Hampton (now deceased), a colleague of hers at a school they were both teaching at in Belfast. To pass the time, Elizabeth and Ena took up playing table tennis. Neither were particularly sporty, but the Nigerian gentleman they met there seemed have a knack for the game. The three of them soon fell into an extended conversation and continued to enjoy each others’ company for the rest of the trip.

By the time the Queen Mary docked at Southampton, Elizabeth had decided to spend a few extra days in London with this aspiring lawyer. When she returned to Belfast, they began writing letters to each other and a love relationship developed. Eight months later, she returned to London, and married Gally on April 4, 1959. Several years after that, when Gally passed his bar finals in 1962, he and his young family – a daughter (my sister) and another child on the way – set sail for Lagos. Two years after that, when they had settled in Jos, the town of Gally’s birth where he’d opened up a law practice, I was born. Three other children (a girl and two boys eventually followed.)

A few days ago, I was in Jos, visiting my older brother and younger sister who now live there. I stayed in the bedroom I spent most of my childhood in, and one afternoon, I had the privilege and delight of going through a trunk packed with photos and memories from my father’s past. In among his college year books, copies of his degrees, an article about Dr. Cole – who had since become Academic Dean at the Univ of Florida and was about to visit us in Nigeria as a thank you gift from my father – I found a booklet published by the Cunard. The Cunard operated the RMS Queen Mary and had printed a list of all the passengers on its ship that August 20th, 1958. My father had added check marks beside two names: his own and that of Miss Elizabeth M James.

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Yesterday I saw something here in New York, I’ve never seen before, in 20+ years of living here. It was about 11am and I was approaching the northeast corner of 35th and 7th. As I crossed the street, I caught a glimpse of a person crouching in an awkward position in the shadow of a public phone booth. Looking closer, I saw that it was someone’s butt. Then I realized that a man who looked to be homeless was defecating. The sidewalks were packed and people were rushing by. But here in our midst was a person in desperate need.

So many emotions flooded me. I felt like crying but I just kept on walking too. A few paces on, I saw several young well-dressed  men looking behind me and smirking. I felt like screaming at them, at anyone who would listen: why should he have to resort to this? What must it be like not to have a place to go to the bathroom when one needs to go? What have we done to deserve to not have to make that kind of choice?

Seeing the man somewhat obscured by the phone booth suggested, to me, a desire for privacy, or even dignity. Don’t we all want that when we go to relieve ourselves? Shouldn’t that be a basic right of every human being?  What kind of city do we live in where the average apartment in Manhattan costs well in excess of a million dollars and yet there’s a whole cadre of people who have no place to lay their heads and no private facilities to use?

Later that afternoon I had lunch with a leader that I work with. She had recently visited a family in Bed Stuy who had just lost their 17 year old son and  brother to gun violence.  Being  raised in a home without a dad, he’d become a father-figure for his much younger siblings and assumed a role as the man of the house for his mother. His death made no sense; he basically died because he was “in the wrong place at the wrong time”. 

For the second time in a matter of hours, my heart felt tugged at, pulled in all sorts of conflicting directions.

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I want to see redemption in these stories, I want the lives of these men to count for something but as I sit here and think about them, my viewed is obscured.

Beauty from ashes feels beyond my grasp.

Yet I believe in a God who is making all things new. So that hope I must cling to, remaining certain of that which I cannot see.