Three African Vignettes: Nigeria, Benin, Rwanda

Reading time 7 min.

The following three “vignettes” are based on private journal entries written in Nigeria, Benin, and Rwanda between 1999 and 2004. They highlight the everyday magic found in a brief personal encounter, the link between the ancestral and the present in the shadow of historical trauma, and the enduring hope found in African football.

Shelter (Nigeria, 1999)

I’m walking home on the streets of Enugu from an afternoon of volunteer work in the orphanage, where I draw circles on the children’s backs, blow them kisses in the air, sing them Ella Fitzgerald songs. Where the nurses and I play with the children on the concrete floor, the steel cribs surrounding us like baobab trees in a forest. Leaving the orphanage most days, tired yet warmed by the hot sun of the harmattan season, I often hope that the children’s lives will one day be as vast as the plains of Tarangire.

I continue walking home, the children floating in my head, and as quickly as Athena from the head of Zeus, the first unexpected thunderstorm of the season arrives. Raging, drumming, spilling rain. I run into a nearby wooden shack and ask the shopkeeper if he can provide shelter from the storm. He nods his approval.

It’s like a mad dash of heaven outside. I’m soaked but happy. I look at the old Igbo shopkeeper, who’s content to sit in silence. Life has carved deep rivers into the old man’s face and his clothes, worn and tattered, are resolved to hang onto his skin. He never looks at me; instead, he watches the rain and hums to himself softly. I can’t take my eyes off him because he is both regal and a bit weary, and this shack, although not much, is his. He should have been a chief, I think to myself, realizing that he is as much of my shelter as the wooden planks.

He’s selling political newspapers plastered over the walls with bold headlines of dreams for the New Nigeria (the hope that the New is not simply a mask of the Old).

He’s old enough to have lived through a million dead in the Nigerian civil war, to have witnessed Sani Abacha’s wholesale looting of the country, to have sold newspapers about Ken Saro-Wiwa at the gallows, to still have faith in this maddening, vibrant country. I can only imagine his stories, his phantom memories. But I know that on this day, in this storm, he is content with being an unknowable but kind stranger, his memories his own.

Much of the work in my future life will involve sitting in wooden shacks like this one and collecting stories from seemingly ordinary people like the shopkeeper, always aware that there is epic in the domestic. That we each, despite the seeming smallness of our existence, live grand lives, epic lives. The storm passes, sighs, and ends as quickly and as passionately as it began. I leave, shaking the shopkeeper’s hand, “Dalu. Thank you for the shelter.”

* * *

La route des esclaves (Benin, 2002)

I’m in the Vodun town of Ouidah, in Benin, waiting for the guide to accompany me on la route des esclaves. He finally arrives, so eager, so happy. He says I am the first person who has visited in a long time. I look ahead at the red clay earth of “the route of the slaves,” empty, lonely.

We begin the journey at the former European slave fort, where millions of captured Africans from what is now Benin, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Togo were held before being transported to the Americas. After months in the bowels of the slave fort the men, women, and children were sold to European slave traders. Five slaves for one wooden pipe.

There were countless young African women like me, in their once bright and shimmering youth, who walked the 2 ½ mile long route from the fort to the slave ships waiting on the Atlantic’s sorrowful shores. I imagine one young woman walking, shackled, towards the sea. She mournfully watches the children riding on their mothers’ swollen backs.

As I walk in her footsteps, I see the voodoo fetishes hanging off the trees in nearby villages, warding off evil spirits. I see statues of the ancient king of Dahomey whose kingdom was enriched by the trafficking in slaves. I see symbols of the sacred python of the Vodun religion, an embodiment of the gods. The gods, who weep with her as she walks this haunted path.

Along the route, I pass the ancient baobab tree that she circles three times as a symbol of her final farewell to the land of her birth and her nurturing and her future longing. She hopes this simple act of devotion will allow her spirit to return to Africa.

Finally, I reach the sea, the edge of the Atlantic, the waves in all their deep sorrow and memory. It’s here that she boards a ghost ship stained with blood, bound for the Americas. It’s here that I must leave her. I think of her and remind myself not to confuse the futility of the man-made world with the beauty of the lambent, giving earth.

Later, over a somber dinner with friends back in Cotonou where the motorbikes fill the streets like fireflies, we talk about historical trauma, about what is lost that can never be regained. “If I was born in a different time her fate could have been mine,” I tell them, my skin as dark as Fela Kuti’s ‘African Woman,’ my ancestors buried in Agukwu Nri and Enugwu-Ukwu, not far to the east. Only time, which bends, separates me from her, from those men, women, and children of Mandinka of Igbo of Yoruba.

* * *

Bisesero (Rwanda, 2004)

On the road to Kigali, I watch the red orange sun set over the emerald green hills of Gikongoro, the Rwandans on their bicycles dwarfed by the enormous natural beauty surrounding them. I listen to Joni Mitchell’s song “A Little Green,” where she sings that “sometimes there will be sorrow” and remember the genocide survivor I met that morning who graciously let me into her home.

She was only 30-years-old when she lost her husband and two of her three children in the 1994 genocide. Towards the end of our visit, she stares at me for a long time and finally asks, “Are you Rwandan?” “No,” I answer, with nothing to offer her, not even a bag of sugar. “You look just like my sister, who was killed,” she says gently. “They would have taken your nose and your eyes.” When I leave, she places her hands on my shoulders and presses her forehead softly against mine, a sign of friendship.

I think of her again on the road to Kibuye, a town where thousands of Rwandans went on top of Bisesero mountain and fought bravely against the militia who were called in from all corners of the country to kill them. They died fighting to stay alive, throwing sticks and rocks at the militia swarming below. I’ve come to Lake Kivu in Kibuye to write about all that I have learned and all that I still do not understand about justice, reconciliation, forgiveness – with Bisesero mountain at my back, and the spirits of those bravely departed visiting at the shore.

* * *

Not every moment here is weighty and burdened. There are times when I am floating in happiness. Like, when for the first time since the genocide Rwanda appears in the African Cup, the most celebrated sporting event in African football. My flying Rwandan friends and I are gathered around the hotel television set. It is more than just a football game – it is redemption, small healing. When the Rwandan team scores its first and only goal the hotel terrace erupts in deafening cheers echoed throughout Kigali. “Is this being broadcast around the world!?” I ask my Rwandan friend as we jump, like kites, in the air. “I think even in heaven,” he replies.

The Other Afrik  The Other Afrik is an alternative and multi-faceted information source from Afrik-News' panel of experts. Contributions include : opinions, reviews, essays, satires, research, culture and entertainment news, interviews, news, information, info, opinion, africa, african-american, europe, united states, international, caribbean, america, middle east, black, France, U.K.
Chi Mgbako
Chi Mgbako is a Nigerian-American human rights professor, lawyer, and writer based in New York City. A graduate of Harvard Law School and Columbia University, she has conducted human rights fieldwork, advocacy, and teaching in Ghana, Ethiopia, Liberia, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Uganda. She has published in the areas of women’s rights, justice sector reform, and contemporary politics. She is currently clinical associate professor of law at Fordham Law School in New York City where she directs the Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic.
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