A lot of characters make so much noise about fleeing Nigeria and going abroad in search of the so-called greener pastures.
Me, I am totally different from the Japa crew. I have sworn to remain here with the people. Yes, some of us must remain with the people to do battle with the satanic oppressors.
It’s while yet another friend was preaching the gospel to me to flee overseas that I remembered when back in time, in my twenties, I was appointed a Distinguished Visitor at the Graduate School of Journalism, University of Western Ontario, Canada.
I remember travelling to Canada, and putting a call through to my great friend, the legendary South African poet Dennis Brutus who was then the head of the Black Studies Department of the University of Pittsburgh, USA.
Brutus immediately invited me over to the US to deliver some lectures to his literature class and students.
As I had only a single-entry visa into Canada, it was obvious I could not possibly travel out of Canada and be allowed back in.
The celebrated Zimbabwean journalist Geoff Nyarota who was with me in Canada wondered why I needed a visa in the first place to get into Canada when as a fellow Commonwealth citizen he had not travelled with a visa from Zimbabwe.
I simply told Geoff that the Nigerian was the exception to every rule, and that the Commonwealth was not common for Nigerians.
I travelled out of my London-Ontario base in Canada to Toronto to process the American visa. Naturally, the American Consulate in Toronto refused to grant the visa as I had only a single-entry Canadian visa.
The suspicion of course was that I may have planned to migrate permanently to the coveted United States.
Well, I pointedly told the white American visa officer that I was only going to America to give some knowledge to his people, and swore I would make him reverse his decision.
I went back to my Primrose Hotel lodge in downtown Toronto and put a call to my hosts in The Graduate School of Journalism, University of Western Ontario.
The Dean, Professor Peter Desbarats, advised me to extend my stay at the hotel for another week while he made necessary contacts to reverse the visa refusal.
I called Dennis Brutus who threatened to take his protest to the American Congress!
I then called the top editors of Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper and magazine, John Cruickshank and Peggy Wente, whom I had earlier interacted with.
In no time at all, things started happening. The American Consulate in Toronto got more protest letters and fax messages than even their huge offices could contain.
The American Consulate had the good grace to ask me to come back and take the visa!
It’s noteworthy that a black man attended to me when I got back to the Consulate, and he made pleasant apologies while granting me a multiple-entry American visa.
Curiously, when I flew into the United States in a plane named Canadian Partner I did not have to pass through the international wing of the Pittsburgh Airport.
To that extent, I did not even need the American visa in the first place; it was like flying from Ikeja to Calabar: no Customs, no Immigration, nothing. I simply walked into America without even setting eyes on the people Dennis Brutus had dispatched to the international wing of the airport to receive me!
I settled into Ramala Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh after the suspicious hotel staff had called for the confirmation of Dennis Brutus and cross-checked his credit card.
The taxi man who came to pick me up the next morning happened to be a fellow Nigerian stranded in the US!
My lecture at the University of Pittsburgh’s Centre for Black Education and Development dwelt on Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s novel, Devil on the Cross, featuring the heroine Jacinta Wariinga.
After the lecture I helped Brutus to run his office. I sorted out his mail, tearing up the useless letters of fellows asking for odd favours, and filing the relevant ones for his later attention.
Brutus told me how he unwittingly used to tear up cheques sent to him without actually opening the letters!
He would only get to learn much later that he had torn a cheque following further inquiries by the sender.
On the many books regularly sent to him by diverse authors, Brutus said he would ask the authors if they wanted “nice noises” from him or real critiques.
His pet project then was the Union of the Writers of the African Peoples (UWAP), and he appointed me as its rep in Canada and Nigeria.
Our walks round the campus took us through the bar and the restaurant, the library, the conference centre hosting the Russian-American “Chittaqua at Pitt” international seminar, and the many gardens where Brutus poetically analysed the flowers, and the bookshop.
It was at the bookshop that I fell in love with a dictionary fatter than an encyclopedia– and I insisted that Brutus should buy it for me.
“That’s not how to ask for a favour,” said the astonished Brutus.
“But I want the dictionary just the same,” I maintained.
That was how I became the proud owner of Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, which set Brutus back by almost 100 dollars!
The book was so heavy that the fire which consumed my library in Lagos after my return to Nigeria could only char a handful of its pages!
When I was travelling back to Canada from the US, my single-entry visa from Nigeria was noticed by the Canadian immigration officer who chatted with me genially on the subject of literature and then changed the visa status to multiple-entry with his biro!
Yes, I have been back in Nigeria ever since, and have been back to America on occasions, but I always return to Nigeria to be with the people.
- Uzor Maxim Uzoatu is renowned poet, journalist and author