FIRST PERSON ‘My father was kidnapped in Nigeria’
When her father was taken hostage, award-winning novelist CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE was thrown into a surreal 72 hours that changed her and her family’s lives forever
MY FATHER WAS kidnapped in Nigeria on a Saturday morning in early May. My brother called to tell me, and suddenly there was not enough breathable air in the world. My father is 83 years old. A small, calm, contented man, with a quietly mischievous humour and a luminous faith in God, his beautiful dark skin unlined, his hair in sparse silvery tufts, his life shaped by that stoic, digni ed responsibility of being an Igbo rst son.
He got his doctoral degree at Berkeley in the 1960s, on a scholarship; became Nigeria’s rst professor of statistics; raised six children and many relatives; and taught at the University of Nigeria for 50 years. Now he makes fun of himself, at how slowly he climbs the stairs, how he forgets his cellphone. He talks often of his childhood, his words tender with wisdom.
On the morning he was kidnapped, he was in the back seat of his car, his driver at the wheel, on a lonely stretch between Nsukka, the university town where he lives, and Abba, our ancestral hometown. My parents always call each other when either travels alone. This
AND THERE WAS MY OWN SAD GUILT: HE WAS TARGETED BECAUSE OF ME
time, he didn’t call. My mother called him and his phone was switched o . Hour after hour, she called and it remained o . Later, her phone rang, and although it was my father’s number calling, a stranger said, ‘We have your husband.’
Kidnappings are not uncommon in southeastern Nigeria and, unlike similar incidents in the Niger Delta, where foreigners are targeted, here it is wealthy or prominent locals. Still, the number of abductions has declined in the past few years, which perhaps is why my reaction, in the aftermath of my shock, was surprise.
My close-knit family banded together and held vigil by our phones. The kidnappers said they would call back, but they did not. We waited. The desire to urge time forward numbed and ate my soul. My mother took her phone with her everywhere; she heard it ringing when it wasn’t. The waiting was unbearable. I imagined my father in a diabetic coma. I imagined his octogenarian heart collapsing.
‘How can they do this violence to a man who would not kill an ant?’ my mother lamented. My sister said, ‘Daddy will be ne because he is a righteous man.’ Ordinarily, I would never use ‘righteous’ in a non-pejorative way. But something shifted in my perception of language. The veneer of irony fell away. It felt true. Later, I repeated it to myself. My father would be ne because he was a ‘righteous man’.
I understood then the hush that surrounds kidnappings in Nigeria, why families often said little even after it was over. We felt paranoid. We did not know if going public would jeopardise my father’s life, if the neighbours were complicit, if another member of the family might be kidnapped as well.
‘Is my husband alive?’ my mother asked, when the kidnappers nally called back, and her voice broke. ‘Shut up ’ the male voice said. My mother called him ‘my son’. Sometimes, she said ‘sir’. Anything not to antagonise him while she begged and pleaded, about my father being ill, about the ransom being too high. How do you bargain for the life of your husband?
‘If you don’t give us what we want, you will never see his dead body,’ the voice said. My paternal grandfather died in a refugee camp during the Nigeria-Biafra war and his anonymous death, his unknown grave, has haunted my father’s life. Those words – ‘You will never see his dead body’ – shook us all. Kidnapping’s ugly psychological melodrama works because it trades on the most precious of human emotions: love. They put my father on the phone, and his voice was a low shadow of itself. ‘Give them what they want,’ he said. ‘I will not survive if I stay here longer.’ It had been three days but it felt like weeks.
Friends called to donate toward the ransom. It felt surreal. Did it ever feel real to anybody in such a situation, I wondered? The scramble to raise the money in one day. The menacingly heavy bag of cash. My brother dropping it o in a wooded area. Late that night, my father was taken to a clearing and set free.
While his blood sugar and pressure were checked, my father kept reassuring us that he was ne, thanking us over and over for doing all we could. This is what he knows how to be – the protector, the father – and he slipped into his role almost as a defense. But there were cracks in his spirit. A drag in his gait. A bruise on his back.
‘They asked me to climb into the boot of their car,’ he said. ‘I was going to do so, but one of them picked me up and threw me inside. Threw. The boot was full of things and I hit my head on something. They drove fast. The road was very bumpy.’
I imagined this grace- lled man crumpled inside the rear of a rusty car. My rage overwhelmed my relief – that he suffered such an indignity to his body and mind. And yet he engaged them in conversation. ‘I tried to reach their human side,’ he said. ‘I told them I was worried about my wife.’
With my father’s release, we all cried, as though it was over. But one thing had ended and another begun. I constantly straddled panic; I was sleepless, unfocused, jumpy, fearful that something else had gone wrong. And there was my own sad guilt: he was targeted because of me. ‘Ask your daughter, the writer, to bring the money,’ the kidnappers told him, because to appear in newspapers in Nigeria, is to be assumed wealthy.
But ours was a dance of disappointment with the authorities. We had reported the kidnapping immediately, and the rst shock soon followed: security offcials asked us to pay for anti-kidnap tracking equipment; a large amount, enough to rent a two-bedroom at in Lagos for a year. This, despite my being privileged enough to get personal reassurances from officials at the highest levels.
How, I wondered, did other families in similar situations cope? Federal authorities told us they needed authorisation from the capital, Abuja, which was our responsibility to get. We made endless phone calls, helpless and frustrated. It was as though with my father’s ransomed release, the crime itself had disappeared. To encounter that underbelly, to discover the hollowness beneath government proclamations of security, was jarring.
Now my father smiles and jokes, even of the kidnapping. But he jerks awake from his naps at the sound of a blender or a lawn mower, his eyes darting about. He recounts, in the middle of a meal, apropos of nothing, a detail about the mosquito- lled room where he was kept. My greatest sadness is that he will never forget.
Chimamanda with her mother, Grace, and father, James