From Fraser Ottanelli:
Seventy miles west of Asaba, on the road to Lagos, lies Benin City. It is a bustling city of over one million, the capital of Edo State. Unfortunately, in the midst of chaotic trafic and sprawling urbanization, very little remains of what once was, along with Timbuktu, one of the great West African kingdoms.
The origins of the city date back at least to the 11th century, the thriving city-state had expanded into an empire within four centuries. Benin City flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries, built on a slave trade and the sale of tropical products to the Portuguese and the Dutch. European travelers described it as a well-planned city with magnificent buildings and an outer permiter and internal quarters delineated by massive wall structures. Estimates place the total length of the wall to over 3,000 miles (longer than the Great Wall of China.) In addition to its impressive constructions, Benin was also known for its “bronzes.” These statues portrayed animals (such as leopards and crocodiles), human heads, especially those of the Oba (king) and his family, and smaller statues of his entourage. Initially made of carved ivory and iron, following contact with Portuguese merchants local craftsmen shifted to alloys of brass and other metals.
In early 1897 a large British expeditionary force forcibly occupied and then razed Benin City to the ground. The Oba was forcibly exiled, and almost all the “Benin Bronzes” were taken by colonial authorities and shipped out of the country; most are on display in museums in Britain and elsewhere. The tragic consequence of this action is that only a handful of these beautiful artifacts are preserved in Benin.
In spite of these even
ts the skills required for casting were never lost, but were passed on from generation to generation. Today a vibrant community of craftsmen, using traditional techniques, continues to produce marvelous objects which stand as testimony to this ancient culture. And the Oba has returned to power, and still exerts considerable influence on regional affairs.
Our hosts in Benin City, Dr. Louis Odogwu and his Italian-born wife Marcella, took us on a tour of of one of the old workshops. There we were shown the elaborate process through which this old art is kept alive.
From Liz Bird:
One of the most visible aspects of Nigeria is the pervasiveness of religious imagery throughout every facet of life. Churches, whether massive evangelical structures or tiny, decrepit store fronts, are everywhere, and every event includes prayers and invocations to Jesus. Walls are plastered with poster invitations to revival events and prayer meetings. But perhaps even more striking is the appeal to God or Jesus in the most mundane, everyday aspects of life. Business names reflect this: “the most blessed laundry,” “God’s own car repair,” or ”Bless the Lord barbing.”
Some of the most colorful representations are found on vehicles, especially the cargo trucks (or “lorries,” using British parlance) whose owners paint biblical scenes and slogans on the rear of the vehicles. As we’ve driven back and forth to Benin, we have enjoyed spotting and photographing these expressions of everyday faith. These collages reflect some examples we managed to capture.
From Liz Bird:
Monday was our last day in Asaba before leaving for Benin City, where we will spend the night, and then on for a series of meetings in Lagos.
We started the day with a formal visit to the Palace of the Asagba (traditional ruler) of Asaba, Dr. Joseph Chike Edozien. The Asagba had approved our exhibit panels in May, and had requested that we make two sets – a small one for display in his palace library, and the large one for public viewing. Both sets of panels were to be delivered to him for installation. Unfortunately, His Royal Majesty was unavoidably out of the country, so was unable to attend the Oct. 7 event, or receive us personally. However, he had left instructions with his chief of protocol and other community leaders, many of whom we have met before, and we were given a warm welcome.
After the traditional kola nut ceremony, we formally handed over the exhibits and stands, and we left with a promise to send us news when they are installed.
Our next stop was the Mungo Park House Museum. This impressive 1880s building once housed the headquarters of the Royal Niger Company, which represented British colonial rule in the territory. It carries the name of an early Scottish explorer of the Niger, although Mungo Park was never actually in Asaba. It is now the official museum of Delta State, owned by the National Commission on Museums and Monuments.
During our last visit, we had learned that staff at the museum are trying to provide training for local youth in computer skills, but they have no resources to do so effectively. With help from USF IT Director Michael Pearce and his staff, we were able to secure some older USF laptops, and were happy to donate them to help the computer program get started. The museum staff were delighted!
The structure, unfortunately, is in an alarming state of dilapidation, and the curator is struggling to get by. Resources are desperately needed not only to repair the building, but also to provide some kind of infrastructure to allow it to offer programs, create educational programming, and become the community resource the town needs. The curator told us that although important artifacts and materials are stored, there simply is no money to create exhibits. While the building itself is of great historical significance, Nigeria has not been able to make cultural heritage preservation a high priority.
We’re convinced that a true museum of Asaba history and culture is needed, and could be an economic asset to the people. And perhaps there would be no better place to showcase Nigerian culture than a building that stands as a monument to the colonialism that worked to stifle that culture. But at this point, the prospects for the future don’t look good.
From Liz Bird:
The purpose of this month’s trip back to Asaba (it’s sometimes hard to believe this is our fifth visit!) was to participate in the third October 7 commemoration, which marks the worst day of killing in the 1967 massacres. This time, we were bringing the final version of the memorial exhibit, on which we’ve been working since our trip earlier this year.
Our exhibit takes the form of 11 large (79 inches x 32 inches) panels, which tell the story of the rampage that left so many dead 45 years ago. Printed on heavy duty vinyl, they were mounted on portable metal stands, which we had carried with us from Tampa. Eventually they will be displayed in a permanent site in Asaba – for this special event, we erected them at the back of a community hall, where about 200 people came in procession after a memorial service at the largest mass grave site, Ogbe-Osawa.
The events at the hall included speeches, led by our friend Chief Louis Odogwu, head of the Asaba Development Union, and the showing of a short video we compiled from our interviews and research. There were a few scares as everyone struggled with the a/v equipment, but all worked out, and after the video we were asked to say a few words about our three years of research.
As we heard the appreciative comments from so many people, we were sure the work – not to mention the struggle to carry all the panels, stands, and other materials! — had all been worthwhile. We reconnected with many people we’d met before, and we were especially happy to see a significant number of younger people in attendance, and avidly reading the panels.
From Fraser Ottanelli:
Traveling to Asaba is never routine. This time, changes began when Delta cancelled its non-stop flight to Lagos and re-routed us through Paris. This added several hours (and many miles) to our trip. However the change in itinerary also offered us spectacular views of the Sahara desert.
At Murtala Muhamed airport, we were met by our friend Ify Uraih, who took us off to the hotel and arranged dinner as guests at the annual meeting of the National Institute of Marketing of Nigeria, which was being held in a hall nearby. We were able to meet with dignitaries, business people, and academics, and explain to them about our university and its global reach. Some talked about partnerships in the future!
The next morning we negotiated the familiar (and always exciting) hustle and bustle of the domestic flights terminal. While we had hoped to hop on the flight to Asaba at the last moment we were booked on a plane to Benin City. After a four-hour delay we finally settled down for a 30-minute flight. At the airport a driver met us with a large truck. Once out of Benin we traveled the 100+ miles to Asaba on a well-maintained road. To our surprise, gone were the multiple police and military road block we had experienced in the past. The only moment of concern came when our driver spotted three cars behind us flashing their lights as if they wanted us to stop. To be on the safe side he sped up and, after several miles, pulled up in front of a police station to let them go by and put a safe distance between us. We were relieved and impressed.
Arriving in Asaba means coming back to familiar sites. The only change we noticed was the new luxury car dealership on the road to Onitsha – in all likelihood the product of the new wealth coming into town since it became state capital. The big shock, however, came when we first came into view of the River Niger. During all our previous trips we had looked down from the tall bank to a slow moving, brownish body of water with scores of small islands–some large enough to sustain crops—separating us from the opposite bank. Now instead the river is in flood stage; the strong current and the high water have covered over the islands and swept away scores of buildings in low-lying areas along the town’s waterfront. We hear accounts of significant devastation further down river in the Delta. I look outside and it is still raining.
While we were hoping to add video here, it seems that the speed of our connection won’t allow it, so we’re including a couple of photos taken from about the same spot — one showing the river as we saw it in May, and another showing it in flood today.
From Liz Bird
Having completed more than 50 interviews in addition to extensive archival research, we now have a very clear picture of what happened in Asaba in 1967. Nevertheless, we continue to learn details of individual experiences during the terrifying days of that October.
Last night, for instance, we completed three more interviews, all of which gave us poignant personal stories. One man, who was 11 or 12 at the time, told of how when the Federal troops arrived, all the males in his household hid in the crawlspace over the ceiling, as soldiers came from house to house dragging out men and boys. His mother decided to make a run for it, taking the family out of town. To protect him, she dressed him in women’s clothing, with two oranges positioned as “breasts,” and the family fled. On the outskirts of town, his oldest brother decided to go back, against the pleas of his mother. The family never saw him again.
One theme we have heard quite often is that not all the occupiers were aggressors. Another interviewee told a hair-raising story of how as a young man he escaped death twice because of the intervention of soldiers. The first time, he was stopped by some troops, stripped, robbed, and told to lie in a ditch. He was certain he was about to die, when an officer arrived, and ordered the soldiers to let him go. A little later, he heard that people were gathering at the Asaba police station, and set out there. On the way, he met two young soldiers, who told him to turn back and run. As we heard from other witnesses, the police station became one of several killing fields, with up to 200 men shot to death there. These accounts offer a message of hope – that among those who mindlessly participate in violence, there are people who will stand up for what is right. In the language of post-conflict resolution, these are “upstanders,” and it was good to hear that they were in Asaba among the bloodshed.
It has been quite a challenge to distill the multiple, personal accounts, as well as information from such sources as relief agency reports and government documents, to create the 11 panels that make up the exhibit. While we can’t show the completed project here yet, we can share the title panel. Featured on it are two striking images we only recently obtained. The photos were shot by a young Times (London) correspondent about 10 days after the massacres, and show a street devastated by shelling, as well as a view across the Niger to Onitsha, which was under bombardment from federal troops.
We spoke to the correspondent, Bill Norris, and tracked down the roll of film he shot, now in the Times photo archive. We were able to use several of these shots – as far as we know, the only existing photos taken shortly after the Federal troops occupied Asaba. Most were never published.
From Fraser Ottanelli:
Hidden from view on a little side street between the bustling Nnebisi Road and the Niger River, are two adjoining reminders of British colonial presence in Asaba. The Expatriate Graveyard is the resting place of missionaries and colonial workers that came to Asaba as agents of British rule. The majority of the names on the graves have been bleached away by the sun. A few of the more imposing markers are still legible and provide brief biographical information on men who probably succumbed to yellow fever or malaria.
Next to the well-kept graveyard stand the Lander Brothers’ Anchorage monument and museum, built in memory of Richard and John Lander who anchored at about this spot of the River Niger during an expedition in 1830.
Born in Cornwall, the son of a local innkeeper, Richard Lander began his exploration of West Africa as an assistant to the Scottish explorer Hugh Clapperton in 1825. Lander was the only European to survive this ill-fated expedition and returned to Britain in 1828. Two years later he was back in the southeast part of present-day Nigeria, this time accompanied by his brother, John. The two men led an expedition that began in Bussa, the former capital of the Borgu region in northern Nigeria, and headed downstream to trace the course of the Niger River to the sea. The Lander Brothers are credited with the discovery of the mouth of the River Niger. This led to the opening of this part of Nigeria to British trade and colonization.
In 1832 Richard Landis returned for a third expedition, financed by a group of Liverpudlian merchants who planed to establish trading settlements at the junction of the Niger and Benue rivers. This time, however, most members succumbed to fever and Richard died as the result of injuries he sustained during an attack by the local population.
Panels along the wall of the museum tell the story of the Landers’ journey. At the center of the room, is a full-size replica of one of the boats used by the explorers. The boat was used by an expedition in 2004, in which people from Britain, including some descendants of the Landers, retraced the 19th century voyage. They also founded the museum, which has a restaurant and information center. Across the entrance to the museum sit six abandoned vans, vestiges of a failed business venture that hoped to turn the exploits of the Lander Brothers into a major tourist destination. These rusting vehicles seem like an appropriate symbol of Nigeria’s conflicted relationship with its colonial past.