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

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - @Chi­ma­man­daSays

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


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

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