Late one afternoon during those weeks of winter when I did nothing but wait for something to happen, fearing that nothing would, the phone rang as I came out of the bathroom where I had been sitting on the toilet reading the story of the accidental death by bombing of a wealthy Italian communist. I ran across the room where the phone sat on the small table by the sofa, next to the table-lamp.
The caller introduced himself as Jason.
Then, very carefully, he said:
“I’m sorry, but is this Bayo?” He accented my name right; he introduced himself again. I didn’t know any Jason, not here in Angola, and not back in New Haven. Jason was a pastor, based in Mercer, nine miles from Angola. He wanted to speak with me, he said, on behalf of his church.
“I’m a friend of Gene’s from college,” he said. I shifted from the edge of the sofa, reassured. Gene, my landlord.
“I know he and Debbie are in Guatemala,” the pastor continued, “but he encouraged me to call you. The church is planning an event in mid-March about developments around the world, and we have a special session, to focus on the woman in your country who’s on trial for treason.” He paused. I waited.
“I suppose you know about the case?”
“Yes,” I said. “Of course.”
I had thought of writing a short magazine article on the so-called treason trial of Esther Tabki, and promptly contacted my friends in Lagos for materials. However, I’d developed cold feet and hadn’t followed through. Still, just the week before, a pile of newspaper reports about Tabki’s “crimes” and subsequent trial had come in the mail, sent by my friend Showman.
The pastor said, “The reason I’m calling is to ask if you would like to speak on a human rights panel during the event.” Again he paused. I said nothing. I’d learned to be miserly with my enthusiasm.
“The event will last a whole Saturday, with a number of activities …Would you like to join us?”
“Mid-March is three weeks away. Too far for me to be sure I can be here, but if you give me a clearer idea of this event, then perhaps we can talk about it sometime.”
“Tell you what, I would prefer to meet in person, if you have the time. Then I can tell you about the other panelists, and generally introduce the work of the church to you. How does next Wednesday sound?”
We agreed to meet for breakfast at the only Denny’s in town. On that Monday, a package arrived giving details of the event. The other expected panelists were a supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi, who had lived outside Burma for four years, giving lectures; a Nigerian refugee named Tommy; and a Quebecois activist. The panel would be moderated by an African American teacher. Anticipating that I would be curious about a fellow Nigerian, Jason had supplied a few more facts. Tommy had fled Nigeria several months ago to escape religious persecution. He was being cared for by a branch of the Society of Friends in Dearborn, where he lived, while his request for asylum in the U.S. was pending.
As I read through the note I felt my journalist’s antennae twitching. What kind of religious persecution had Tommy fled? How did he make it here and not get stuck in Lomé or Abidjan? Even if I was not excited about breakfast with the pastor, here was a good reason to go. He would surely have more to say.
Pastor Jason was a man in his forties, neat, stocky, of medium height, with a low forehead (or a distinct widow’s peak) that he appeared anxious to hide by throwing his head backwards when he spoke, and so he came across as haughty, even with his charming, copper-rimmed eyeglasses. Denny’s had been full, so we were now at Pete’s Kitchen, half a mile out on the road to Mercer, an equally busy haunt, but with an open door and one vacant table.
“The Nigerian refugee,” I said before taking a bite. “Tell me more about him.”
He waited a few moments, then sat back, staring at the ceiling. A finger poked under his eyeglasses, and he daintily ran the napkin across the edge of his fingers, as if he were filing them.
“His name is Tommy,” he said in a deliberative tone. “We were introduced by a member of my church, and after listening to him I agreed to put him on one of our events.”
Jason paused. Busy with my pancakes, I merely nodded and listened.
“Tommy’s case is interesting. He’s from a family of animists in Western Nigeria and lived under enormous pressure to assume a leadership role in the traditional family structure. Are you familiar with that kind of thing?”
“Hmmm. No,” I said.
“Well, he managed to trick his clan a number of times, but eventually he ran out of luck and had to escape. His pet dog didn’t fare as well. This is a long story. Now his sponsors in Dearborn want to use his ordeal to make the case for asylum on religious grounds and also to draw attention to certain terrible practices. It’s a case of two birds with one stone. His charm and clarity impress me. He knows what he wants, and judging from what he told me, he deserves to get it. I’ll be interested in what you think after you’ve met him.”
Then he added, as an afterthought:
“He already knows about you.”
He might have read suspicion on my face, for he added:
“As he does about the other prospective panelists.”
This time a nod was enough.
Running another napkin over his fingers, Jason said:
“Listen, Bayo. This is a volunteer effort on our part, the church and our collaborators, but we’re able to pay a token honorarium to speakers. I understand that you’re unable to speak for free.”
“Yes, that’s the case.” I grinned and added, “Thanks.”
“Your newspaper was banned by the dictatorship, right? How did you make it to the States?”
“Well, I was awarded a journalism fellowship to intern with a newspaper in Connecticut, and a month after I arrived, we were proscribed. It’s not impossible for me to return, but I’m advised to wait it out for a while.”
Jason continued to nod. When he sensed I was done talking, he sighed and said:
“So much uncertainty. But you’re coping quite well.”
“Now that all I have to do is sit in the house all day . . .”
He laughed. “House-sitting is fun! And if you love reading, Debbie’s library is stunning.”
We—Alain the Quebecois, Jason, Earl the teacher, and I—sat in a little room adjacent to the venue of our panel, waiting for Tommy and Te Win, the Burmese activist, on her way from Grand Rapids. Jason was talking about the subtleties of driving to Mercer from Grand Rapids when a man in a capacious white agbada swept in, followed by an elegant woman.
“Hello, Tommy,” Jason said and rose to meet him, extending a hand. But Tommy, with the gesture of a bat looking to perch, spread the arms of his agbada and gave the other man a raucous embrace: “Good to see you, good to see you,” his accent well practiced for someone who had been living in the country for only five months. It took a while before he released Jason from that embrace, and then only to greet everyone else: handshakes for Alain and Earl, and for me, something totally perplexing.
“You must be Bayo,” he said as he flew to me. He rocked me back and forth as though we were old friends. I felt uncomfortable, but let myself be hugged.
“Good to meet a fellow Nigerian!” he bellowed. “Bawo ni?” Freeing me, he pirouetted toward the crowd:
“That means How are you? And the reply is Daadaa ni! That is, if you’re from the same tribe, as Bayo and myself are from the Yoruba tribe. But if not, you can say Fine. Or Not bad or I dey. That is Broken, our pidgin English.”
We all stood and watched. The man was a performer, his control of the stage so immediate and total that, even as I winced from his casual use of the word tribe, I sensed it didn’t matter to anyone listening. He was saying each word very clearly, tracing emphasis with his forefinger. I remembered what Jason said about Tommy’s charm.
Others had resumed their seats; I did likewise, prudently choosing a spot with a good view of Tommy’s profile. He was shorter than me but, being so ebullient and dramatic, seemed far more present than anyone else in the room. His agbada was made of satin, with an embroidery of blue thread around the K-shaped neckline, and olive-colored frills along the broad arms. His cap, tipped rightward for style, matched the dress in tricolor. In my indigo blazer, black jeans, and polo shirt, I did not compare. I turned to my watch. We were still expecting Te Win, the fourth panelist.
It was as though everyone, including the panelists, had come to listen only to Tommy, and this became clear the moment he rose to his feet. In the program he was listed as the second speaker, but Earl, the moderator, quickly sensing the man’s gifts for drawing attention, had changed the order, putting him last. We all—especially I—stayed scrupulously to the topic, the treason trial of Tabki, presenting the facts as we knew them. If I sounded partisan, it was in my warning that the woman would be found guilty and most likely executed unless the whole world acted swiftly. She had the free legal support of the country’s activist lawyers, I noted, but so had the Ogoni activists. Te Win said the same thing: the nature of usurpers, she said, was unvarying in the face of genuine challenge. Then she recited a poem from memory. All I remembered of it afterward was that every whore starts out as a virgin. After wondering self-deprecatingly what he, an aging white male from Quebec, was doing in our midst, Alain spoke of what happened when he was working as an interpreter during a meeting in Montreal in ’69, and how the experience shaped his life as a political activist. I was hearing about it for the first time: African American delegates had shut down an academic conference to protest the presence and power of “white salesmen of black culture.” Unforgettable phrase, Alain chuckled.
When it was Tommy’s turn, the packed hall appeared to sway to the breeze sent forth by his agbada. I noticed him rummaging in his bag, taking out items and slipping them under the huge gown. Rising to his feet with a song—the other panelists had spoken sitting down—he danced to the center of the room. From beneath the commodious dress he pulled a conga drum the size of a tambourine, and I watched, amazed, as he beat out a tune, which steadily increased in tempo until his bare hands on the drum became one with the applause rising from the audience. Then he stopped, and the moment the clapping ceased I turned on my tape recorder, placing it on the floor close to where he stood. This was news. He began to speak in a recitative tone:
“My name is Thomas Otolorin Oguntomilowo, a refugee from religious persecution from Iresa-Adu in Osun State, Nigeria. My name is Tommy, son of Sunday Adigun Oguntomilowo, grandson of Ajibola Ogunrinu Oguntomilowo, great-grandson of Odewale Akanbi Oguntomilowo, husband of seventy, father of four hundred, a famous warrior from the tribal wars of the precolonial era, who, according to legend, turned into a fly and ascended to the sun above the flame and smoke of a thousand gunshots.”
He paused and beat a quick tune with his fingers, in the manner of a professional drummer acknowledging a patron.
“My father, Sunday Adigun, was given the name because our family members worshiped the Sun god, and we are also worshipers of Ogun, the god of iron and war. My grandfather, Ajibola Ogunrinu, was a convert, and the only way he would accept to be baptized was if the missionaries allowed him to pay homage to the Sun god in name. They agreed.
“What does the name mean? you ask. Oguntomilowo. OGUN-TOMI-LOWO. It means Ogun, god of iron, is enough for me, as a family occupation. It comes from a hunters’ chant: Ogun is enough for me, I need not farm; I need not make paths; I need not hunt for slaves. The worship of Ogun is the trade of our family. Beginning from the famous warrior Odewale, husband of seventy, father of four hundred. In Africa, family trade goes from father to son, from one generation to the next. Odewale passed the worship of Ogun down to Ajibola, who passed it down to Sunday, who said he would pass it down to Thomas, the man standing before you. Well, Sunday, my father, died fourteen years ago. That year was 1984. He collapsed while standing in a queue, what Americans call a line. To change his money for the new naira notes. The military government of our country had introduced the new notes, and my father went to the bank with his old money. Anyway, he fell down and died. They said it was cardiac arrest. Five years ago, at the end of the nine-year mourning for an Ogun priest, our family turned to his first son, Thomas, the man standing before you. They wanted me to take up the position of new priest of Ogun. But I had accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior; I had become Born Again. I had become Tommy, from my name Thomas. It is also from Tomi, taken from our family name, as a way of appeasing them.”
Tommy paused once more, appearing satisfied with the effect of his story so far, but also somehow burdened by what he wanted to say. This made me increasingly uncomfortable.
“My main opposition to worshipping Ogun was something that my late father, Sunday, did with pride in his lifetime. I’m not ashamed to say it in public because I’m a new man, Born Again. It was one of the duties of the priest to eat the meat of a favorite dog sacrificed to the god. This ritual had been with the family from time immemo—”
Unified cries of horror, an instantaneous bomb of a sound, shot from the audience, and one or two from our side of the room reacted likewise. Tommy was forced to pause again. I listened, avoiding eye contact with anyone. It was clear that the noise was not hostile, or if it was, the hostility was not directed at Tommy. The more I listened and watched, the more obvious the passion became: it was sympathy. The audience felt for Tommy; their hearts went out to him. Earl turned to me, eyes animated with questions or worries. I didn’t know what to say, but I think I shook my head, and rather strongly. Rising, I went to remove my tape recorder. It appeared that Tommy was done.
But, no, he had resumed his speech.
He stretched out his hands, palms turned down in a gesture of calming.
“I am sorry, but it is not my intention to upset you,” he said. “I myself have been traumatized. But it is important, for the sake of all of us, and the religion we share, to give you the full details. My father and grandfather ate dog meat, the way people here eat pig meat. They called it ‘Ogun’s grass-cutter.’ Roasted or boiled, it was what the tradition demanded.”
Now I was scribbling, and continued to shake my head, unwilling to put the tape recorder back, but not turning it off either. Questions assailed me: Has this fellow been coached to speak like this? Am I being set up, an unwitting accomplice in a grand design?
Someone tugged at my elbow and pushed a folded scrap of paper in front of me. I paused to open it:
“Hey man, don’t knock a brother’s hustle!”
Looking over where the note had come from, I beheld Earl’s eyes still lively with worries. He nodded pointedly. I got his meaning, but couldn’t understand at first why he’d written to me. I must have been shaking my head vigorously, making my disapproval known.
Tommy dropped on a knee, his face turned to the ceiling, an almost tearful benediction in his tone.
“For me, a Born Again Christian, this was no longer a tradition to believe in. I had tried to appease them by taking the family name, shortening it, making it modern. But my uncles and aunts and other family members wanted more. Last August, before the festival of Ogun in our town, it became unbearable. Our family members were determined to put into practice what they had been planning for five years. They not only wanted to make me a priest by force, they wanted to kill Riro, my dog—my best friend—and use his meat for the ceremony. I will save you the details, but the long and short of it is that Riro, my best friend, went missing. And that is another reason why I stand here before you today. I am delivered from the ways of superstition and idol worshiping, but Riro, my dog, my best friend, is still missing. I am hopeful that he will be found. What I’m saying is, help save Riro!”
He whipped a placard out of his pocket, held it up, and turned 360 degrees. It said the same thing.
The hall was quiet. I looked up and saw that a number of people were shedding tears. Tommy lowered the placard, gathered the folds of his dress, and took a bow. Then an ovation rose to its feet and clamored across the room while Tommy remained in the pose of an appreciative performer. The applause was loud and long; I had to turn off the tape recorder and resume my scribbling. Gradually, scattered voices broke into the noise, picking up the thread of the speaker’s final plea in a sustained chant:
“Help save Riro. Help save Riro.”
Tommy’s turn had taken more than half the duration of the panel, and I wondered if we had time for questions. Jason walked over to Earl and they consulted briefly, and then Earl spoke:
“Thank you, Mr. Oguntommy. You may return to your seat.”
Rising, Tommy said, “Thank you, but that name will soon change!”
“All right,” Earl said. “Our last speaker has told a touching and heartrending story of courage and self-sacrifice in the face of insurmountable odds. It is my belief that the story will reverberate far beyond this room, so I crave your indulgence to take only questions relating to the treason trial. You will be able to talk directly to the last speaker after the panel.”
The room turned raucous with protestations. Hands were up, grasping for the microphone. People spilled over the room, advancing toward the table of panelists. Earl’s plea seemed fated to drown. In the ensuing flood, I paddled out, into the cold air of late winter, to smoke a cigarette.
Te Win was speaking when I returned; obviously Earl had had his way. She was talking about the strength that political activists in her country drew from Buddhism, and she ended by turning to Tommy:
“Do you think the animist religion of your people can serve the same kind of purpose? We know that the woman on trial for treason took verses from traditional songs and mixed them with her public speeches.”
“A song is different,” Tommy replied. “People sing all the time, that’s good. But eating dogs is bad, and worshiping idols, things that cannot speak, that’s worse. I look forward to that day when I can truly call them my people. For today, I recognize only Jesus Christ.”
Someone asked him:
“How can you be sure your dog is still alive?”
I watched Earl balk, but Tommy was more than pleased.
“It is against tradition to kill a dog in that circumstance. The dog meat is meant for the new priest, and since the dog is his own, killing the dog and consuming its flesh is a way for him to show the impartiality of priesthood. I was supposed to have several dogs and choose a favorite among them, but I’m not like that. The ritual will fail if the dog is killed and the priest is nowhere to feed on it. So I am hopeful. They are just hiding Riro.”
Another hand was up, and the speaker grabbed the microphone before Earl could protest:
“Have you considered getting another dog? Since you can’t return to your country, is it practical to try to rescue this dog?”
Tommy was animated:
“Through international outcry! Maximum publicity will be enough to embarrass them!”
Earl stood up at once, clearly exasperated, the pitch of his voice rising above Tommy’s declaration.
“Thank you very much. I’m told we’re behind time, and we will now move to the reception hall.”
At the reception, a crowd mobbed Tommy. He sat on a chair and held court. Earl and Cindy stood by him. I was turning the spigot to fill a plastic cup with lemonade when Earl walked over.
“What d’you think of that?” he asked in a tone so sly he had to repeat the question. I shook my head, smiling, unsure what to say.
“I was, like, this is weird!” he said, bending conspiratorially. “And you were shaking your head so coolly, man!” He had filled his plate: cheese, crackers, grapes, and boiled peppers.
“Thanks for heeding my note, though.”
I sensed he wanted to talk, and having filled my cup, I followed him to a pair of seats across a room divider, where we could still see Tommy’s admirers surrounding him.
I was intrigued by Earl’s warmth, which expressed itself in his easy laughs, his eyes cunning or cynical. He was darker than Tommy or me, but there was something shrewd about him, the way he spoke. His careful enunciation created an effect, a particular blending of sound and skin color that, I sense, people seize on in telling other blacks from black Americans.
“I don’t want to be presumptuous, brother, but at a point in our lives in this country, all black people need a lesson on how white liberals behave,” he said. My ears were tuned; this was exactly what I’d been struggling with outside as I puffed on my cigarette.
“There was a time, just like day before yesterday, when black people thought of themselves as living in a white man’s world. People had to get by, they had to hustle, more so if you lived in a big city. Detroit. New York. Philadelphia. Black people would say, ‘Never knock another Negro’s hustle—that’s just what the man wants.’ The moment I saw that dude weaving round the room like a butterfly, I said to myself, That’s a brother looking to get ahead. The guy needs asylum in this country, and believes this story will bring well-meaning, God-fearing Americans to his cause. And hey, man, it worked!”
The crowd around Tommy had not thinned; a slow line of people wishing to speak to him bent past a row of chairs. I took a gulp of my punch and listened. Earl bit on a jalapeño.
“It’s still a white man’s world, but the white man can be fooled. We’re no longer Negroes, we’re brothers and sisters—but we’re still in want of our breaks.”
I was quiet long enough for a mule to till forty acres. Something else was on my mind, so clear it couldn’t be called a question. I wasn’t interested in who made a break or got broken, and I wasn’t public-spirited about anything—only I imagined a future with people who, living under a different cultural climate, might be genuinely curious about Ogun, although I knew little and cared less about the gods than Tommy, whose knowledge I held suspect. Earl, a high-school teacher of history, would understand this all too easily.
Jason came toward us with Tommy and Cindy in tow.
“Hi, Bayo. I’m sorry there wasn’t time to field many questions, but the audience liked what you had to say, I think. Cindy has to take Tommy back to Dearborn, but I’m wondering if you’re free for a relaxed meeting in the coming weeks.”
Looking to Earl for inspiration, I hesitated. “You don’t have to decide right away. Earl might want to join us too. I’m just eager that you and Tommy get to talk at length.”
Handshakes were being exchanged, so I extended a hand to Tommy. He ignored it and, as we walked out, pulled me into another smothering hug.” Earl and I got into Jason’s car. It was only five o’clock, but the sky was dark and the day felt cold and lonely.
Round the corner from the parking lot, at the intersection leading to the city center, a small crowd of people had gathered. Although the car was headed that way, Jason and Earl didn’t seem to notice. A few people were huddled together against the cold, chanting and waving placards. As we turned at the intersection, I caught the briefest glance at one of them, PETA for Riro, as the car picked up speed and carried us into the twilight.
Akin Adesokan, born in Nigeria, is the author of the novel Roots in the Sky. He is assistant professor of comparative literature at Indiana University, Bloomington. (updated 10/2010)