I arrived Providence, the capital of the USA's smallest state - Rhode Island on the 1st day of September 2009 after an eventful 6 hours bus ride on the greyhound public bus from New York City. I arrived JFK Airport the previous day from London, and opted to unwind for the night in the hospitable company of an old time friend- Mutiu, who lives in Brooklyn.
My trip to Providence by road was a self choice since I had wanted to take a good view of the American hinterlands. Hinterlands indeed! It was my curiosity to explore how a megacity like New York peters out behind the high rise towers, bridges and buildings. This took me through a transition of small towns such as Stamford, Norwalk, Bridgeport, New Haven, New London and then Providence.
Upon arrival in Providence, activities started in earnest as our cohort; the Watson International Scholars of the Environment (WISE)programme @ Brown University was in top momentum. Series of activities were already lined up to welcome the scholars; all of whom arrived from Africa; fitting each of us into life @ Brown, the university that has the status of Ivy league, and Providence, a city that represents the longest of America’s coastlines but with a population of 200,000 people. One of these activities was an outdoor reception dinner held on Monday, 7th September 2009, and hosted by the Program Manager Laura Sadovnikoff at her residence in Pawtucket.
A good number of personalities attended the dinner including Professor Nancy Jacobs (who is the Director of the Program), her husband Peter, and many others. As the dinner progressed a tall American woman approached me from a corner and to my great astonishment spoke fluent Igbo language (the language of my birth - mother tongue) to me. She greeted: ''Nwannem, ke du’’(Meaning: my brother, how are you?). I did not really believe my ears. She embraced me and said ‘’I bu onye Igbo?’’( Meaning: You are Igbo?).
It then dawned on me that it was not a drama, but that I now have a special session with a woman who identified me as a true Igbo and was out to engage me. That was how the rest of the evening ended for me as we ended up talking and discussing the Igbos in Nigeria, - my people !
She introduced herself as Henrietta, and also her husband - Donald who also accompanied her to the WISE reception. Both of them are professors at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Both Donald and Henrietta are no longer getting younger but rather aging gracefully and were indeed a happy and accomplished pair to meet.I was later told by Laura the evening reception host that Henrietta is her cousin.
Both couples had lived in Nigeria where they both fell in love and eventually got married while back in the States. Henrietta, then Miss Briggs had arrived Nigeria a few years after the Nigerian Independence in 1960 to work as an American Peace Corp Volunteer. She was posted to Azumini village, now in Ndoki in Ukwa East local government area of Abia State.
In unison, both Donald and Henrietta reminiscenced on the good old days that was Igbo land. According to Henrietta she was commonly called ‘’Mboghokwonta’’ by the natives. She so much integrated with the natives that she wore and appeared on the same wrappers and dancing uniforms with them and swam the Azumini River with the natives. She ate ‘’Akpu’’, ‘’ Ugba’’, ‘’Abacha/Jiakpu agworo agwo’’ and other local foods with them.
She told me how natives fetched domestic waters for her, and ran supporting errands for her and how safe and free the Igbo society then was. Then, she freely goes unaccompanied to Aba every week to make purchases as well as other trips to Port Harcourt and Opobo.
Donald on his part, recalled how he had travelled one day and got caught up by night on the way. All he did was to simply walk into the nearest compound and announce to them that he was caught up by the night and needed shelter. The owner of the compound not only provided him with shelter, but also fed him heavily with a dinner of ‘’akpu’’ and ‘’ofe ugha’’ which was washed down with palm wine.
At a point, he had asked about the great market city, Onitsha; the sea port town of Port Harcourt, and the city with the intimidating Cathedral, Owerri. He also recalled how he was greatly feasted by Igbos in Opobo town during one of his visits to the town those days and how he made friends all over Port Harcourt, Owerri, Aba, Onitsha and even Enugu.He inquired if people from all over West Africa still come to Onitsha and Aba markets as they used to those days.
Donald and Henrietta in remembering all the uncommon great features of the Igbo society of days past, did not waste time to remind anybody that bothered to come close to our discussion at the night’s dinner that the Igbos are the greatest Africans; that they have no rivals in Nigeria and that they are indeed a great race with an indomitable spirit of enterprise and hospitality.
However, they bemoaned the effects of the destructive civil war, having left the country at its very outset. Though both couples had visited Nigeria a little after the war, they were desirous to know how the Igbos are faring in Nigeria and how the destructions wrought by the civil war was remedied. They both still have a wish, the wish of visiting Igbo land soon again and visiting Azumini and its most hospitable people.
Three things touched me most from the encounter with these Americans. First was the question by Donald if Ojukwu is still alive, and if there are other great role models in Igbo land that enjoys his kind of followership. Those questions made it dawn on me straight away that the Igbos no longer have a role model. I told him that most Igbo elites are today after their stomach, and not for common interest.
When, he heard what I just muttered, he queried, ‘’You mean that even Igbo leaders steal money needed to develop Igbo land?; I was stuck of words, Donald at this point, became speechless, shaking his head and looking into my eyes at the same time, both eyes getting wet with tears, he removed his gaze and turned it over the burning fire near us. It was obvious that he was disappointed.
Second, Donald and Henrietta revealed to me that their first daughter who was born soon after they returned to the USA from Nigeria was given an Igbo name –Ngozi. Our host Laura corroborated this to me a little later. Ngozi is now happily married and living with her husband. She still retains the name and everybody knows that the name has origin from south-eastern Nigeria.
Third, Henrietta wrote me an e-mail immediately after the dinner. It read thus: ‘’Nwannem, I should really call you Nwa-m, since you could be my son-- it was such a pleasure to meet you last night. Let's stay in touch! I made a little movie of the digitized slides from Azumini and I'll send it with the next transmission. Let me know if it comes through. If your computer can't receive the movie, I'll just send the photo gallery instead. But you would enjoy the movie because it's set to the tune, Joromi--which was very popular in the mid-1960s. Henrietta (aka Mboghokwonta--my name in Azumini)’’
When I opened the attachment, I watched the movie and looked at the over 100 fotos she attached. I could not hold my emotions. I cried for the Igbo nation. We have really lost a lot. I am afraid Igbos may be going into extinction. Yes, extinction worse than those experienced by dinosaurs or even those planned by the Nigerian state while executing the civil war.
The evidence is just there with all these massive looting of public funds in all Igbo states, kidnapping and general insecurity amidst others. It is just telling.