Life Abroad

A Curious Christmas Gift

“that the City may be Just
and humankind be kind.”
Derek Walcott, Eulogy for W.H. Auden

This is a very difficult piece for me to write. To write about the dead, or the dying, isn’t an exciting thing at all, especially when such deaths are of the dream-shattering sort. Tributes, yes, but usually for a full life, and with a sense of solidarity and continuity with the memory of the dead.

How does one write about a life barely begun, about someone not personally known, given the kind of circumstance in which the death of Damilola Taylor occurred in London late last month? Does one take the path of the Nigerian government which, through Chief Bola Ajibola, the High Commissioner to England, has prayed God ‘to give his family the fortitude to bear the loss’? This typically Nigerian prayer doesn’t sit well with me; it sounds as if it’s lifted off The Guardian obituary pages, emptied of all passion. Does one race the incident, or lumpenise it, or globalise it? Does one look for blame or for culprits, needle the police or sift through Tony Blair’s statements for whiffs of insincerity?

Since I was informed of the tragic death of the ten-year-old Nigerian kid some two weeks ago, I’ve agonized about the negative imports of the news, having barely internalized reports of similar tragedies involving Nigerians in the same country. I’ve wondered whether there are certain forces at work, whether Nigerians are in some class of trouble wherever found, whether these are no more than routine incidents in the great metropolis that is London, only hitting a rough spot in me because they happen to my kind. Having gone through several reports of Damilola’s murder, in British and American newspapers, and interviewed London-based acquaintances, I’ve come to some conclusions on which to develop a scriptible idea.

Damilola Taylor was returning home in the evening of Monday, November 27, after computer classes in a library near his home in the North Peckham Estate in south London. He was accosted by unknown people who stabbed him in the leg, then ran away, while he struggled to get home or help. He found no help, although several people obviously walked past him, and because the knife-stab hit a femoral artery in his limb, he eventually bled to death in a stairwell some 200 yards from home where his mother, Gloria, and an aunt, Dorcas Fayemi, awaited his return. The boy had complained of bullying at school; his mother had even lodged a complaint with the principal. Reports say he wrote some names down and left this in his locker; there is hope that the list would help the police track down useful suspects.

Nine days before Damilola’s death, another Nigerian, 17-year-old Shola Agora was also stabbed to death in another housing project in Peckham. Some five weeks before that, in Birmingham, a Nigerian medical student, Patricia Longe, was found dead in her flat, ostensibly a suicide case. Forensic experts determined that she had swallowed quicklime and this, for lack of evidence, was put down to the depressions she was allegedly going through with the preparations for her medical examinations. Her boyfriend, Andrew Gardner, was arraigned for murder but let off because he got lawyers good enough to take his case.

Of these three deaths, Damilola’s has caused the greatest shock for some reasons. He was terribly young to have died such a painful, sinister death. He was only stabbed, and in the leg, and in the open street. Some people certainly saw him in pains but chose to look the other way-the worst example of the inhuman ‘walk-on-by’ culture in these parts where individualism is practised to the letter. But there are other reasons for the outrage, all linked to the fact that in the last analysis, human life is a worthy cause, and it has meaning only on this planet earth.

The North Peckham Estate where the Taylor family lived and where Damilola was killed has reputation as harbouring the third-largest crime rate in London. (I remember reading a Ben Okri interview several years ago, in which he spoke wistfully of his nursery years in England, and with some nostalgia wished he were in the sort of gangs now rampant in Peckham.) The estate is made up of five separate housing areas, encompassing fifty blocks and 1,449 flats. It’s much smaller than our own Festac or any of the Low Cost Housing schemes built by the Lateef Jakande administration in Lagos.

It certainly has more efficient facilities than the middle-class tenements of Surulere and Yaba, but there is the end of its pride. When you see a To-Let ad on the property pages of Nigerian newspapers gushing about ‘luxury penthouses’ in Peckham, that is the reality-an area of darkness no politician in search of vote would ever visit without adequate protection. The council flats in the Peckham estate are officially uninhabitable. They are dangerous; because only desperately poor people live there, official attention is nil. Crime soars. No one really bothers to interfere in squabbles between residents for fear of personal safety. To get a better sense of the degree of neglect, imagine the Ilasan Estate on the way to Lekki in Lagos, now residence to the Maroko evictees, who are better off because an incurable feeling of solidarity would draw attention to a case of two-fighting. That is the Peckham reality that cost Damilola his dear life.

Of course, two days after the brutal killing of the innocent boy, officials moved into action. Demolition work began in a redevelopment plan that is estimated to cost £269 million. This has been in the works all along; the tragedy seems to have merely jump-started it. By April 2001 most of the buildings, as old as Nigeria’s independence, are sure to go. But will the mean-spirited children who display a flick-knife at the slightest excuse also be demolished?

I can’t help imagining the mental state of Damilola since his arrival in London in September. On the average, even an adult leaving Lagos for Britain or the US feels a certain sense of relief, at once a result of the natural exhilaration at an impending adventure and of gratitude for a break from the hell-of-a-life that people go through in Nigeria. Family members have spoken of his smile and of his verve. This is perhaps a way of speaking well of the dead, but as a former ten-year-old who also once arrived at a new place, I believe the boy must have been happy to be in London. He was maybe too young to hate Nigeria, but young enough to know the deliciousness and freedom of a new experience. His older siblings were born in London and as every Nigerian knows, they have the right someday to British citizenship. Damilola, born in Lagos in 1989, was at best a visitor to that inheritance. Yet, he didn’t mind-after all, aren’t we all visitors to this inheritance called life? Then he met bullies and as with most kids, his faith shook.

There has been talk of the tragedy as signifying the tension between the African and the Caribbean immigrants in London. A local politician with ties to Nigeria, Lola Ayorinde, has spoken to this fear: “Nigerian people are not popular in this area because they try to fit in and do well”, she told The Sunday Telegraph two weeks ago. “The West Indian community likes to pretend there is racism everywhere and black people are being held back. Anyone who doesn’t subscribe to that point of view suddenly becomes a target.” This point of view has been attacked by those who argue that to speak of tension between blacks would divert attention from the real danger: white racism. I’ve also heard that these fatal attacks on Nigerians are a way of telling them to stay at home.

Not living in London, I can’t speak with much conviction about the African-Caribbean tension. But my friends in London say it’s real. I believe it’s been there for a long while and, like all kinds of hatred, will be around for much longer yet. But this is the wrong reason for telling Nigerians to stay at home. What home? It is a silly thing to say; you don’t even say that to refugees from a war-how much more improbable for people who deliberately travelled! I have some opinions as to where the real problem lies. It’s in the pauperization of a great number of people, in London as in Lagos, and in the official neglect that characterizes life in Peckham, Brixton and where else Nigerians and other immigrants (and even Britons) live. It’s also reflected in the ‘walk-on-by’ attitude, a way of life that doesn’t encourage people to look out for others. Whether the victim is a Vietnamese or a Romanian or a Welsh, the British government has the duty to make its cities just, and its humankind kind. And to bring the boy’s killer(s) to justice in this year of the imminent freedom of the killers of James Bulger.

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