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The International Writers Magazine: Lifestories

Mene's Song
Dike Okoro

Port Harcourt had been restless for weeks. Reporters from Europe and the U.S. thronged the international airport at Alu, just a few miles from the notorious Catch-Fire prison yard where the renowned environmentalist and fiction writer, Mene, languished in detention. He had been arrested, charged for treason, and locked up for exposing the military boys unreported acts of genocide committed in his village. Despite his wealth of ideas and fame worldwide, Mene had barely escaped the last genocide that drew an unforgettable bedlam across the West African country and a litany of criticisms from Washington DC and London.

Horrors typified his nights in detention. But for the roach that kept him awake occasionally, the resounding silence was mind shattering. He often pretended he smoked pipe and imagined himself holding his woman while they both rocked to the sultry voice of Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson’s highlife music at a bar. But such moments of nostalgia were cut short by the warden’s spikes that echoed down the hall during late night rounds. Then Mene had nothing but lonely teardrops for consolation while his back remained glued to the cold floor. At other nights when the heat got to him, he changed position quickly to ensure he had a good sleep. Such was the daily routine he rigorously underwent to keep mind and body together. As for nights when it rained, he stayed up late, scrolled the ceiling with his stares, and imagined the innumerable letters he wrote and the things he said to augment the distressed voices he had deposited in the psyche of the khaki boys who roamed the streets and guzzled their ambitions in bars where they prided themselves in expensive imports of name brand cars, ghosts bank accounts in Switzerland and the US, while they ran the affairs of a country so blest whilst many of its bright minds, university graduates included, milled about jobless.

Mene felt reassured each time he successfully smuggled a letter to his good friend and writing pal, Sipho, a radical and in-your-face journalist twice nominated for the renowned Pulitzer prize for journalism, who lived in faraway Houston, Texas. Both writers had struck a friendship while in attendance at a PEN International Conference in Los Angeles, several years ago. Back then the only thing Mene had in mind was his open rejection of all Apartheid stood for in Sipho’s homeland, South Africa. But Mene’s outright opposition to such a disturbing system of government was boosted by the swift transition that occurred years later. Sipho’s country changed from its old ways overnight and embraced promising times, despite the residues of apartheid that still floated about in major cities and in the affairs of its government.

But the liberated spirit also suffered the persecution of detention. The life of a prisoner was the last thing Mene had envisaged for himself in a country he had always bragged to the world in print about the limitless potentials of the natural resources of its Niger Delta region. Daily he stared the prison wall in the face and took within his forest of pain what wars he could endure. Wars that broke men, left them in tears, denied them freedom in cuffs, and left them to choke with emotional outbursts at night when they sought consolation in the stars and held back tears to hide shame. Oh yes, Mene smelt every bit of those wars like the rest of the prisoners. Yet he relished the breaks he got during the day, when sunrays whisked through doors opened by the wardens at the end of the hallway. Then he strutted about briskly and wondered, or sat in bed and comforted himself with the torn and dusty copies of Ngugi’s Detained: A Prison Diary and Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground. Such reads kept his sanity intact. When solitude set in, he rubbed his face against the prison doors and held the cold iron dividers firmly. At such times he also enjoyed the solidarity of detention as fellow prisoners sang from their cells, "Since e-morning e-yo. We never eat o, e-yo." Their guttural voices gave him hope, the kind he imagined possible even as he remained separated from the society and family he cherished unconditionally. Occasionally when a prisoner delivered a salvo of farts, Mene joined in the congratulatory chorus, "Well done o! Well done o!"

But time’s cycle of betrayal cornered him five weeks into his detention. Behind closed doors and amid the specter of a heated debate, Mene’s execution by hanging was mandated by the president, a pot-bellied army General whose distaste for writers had never been in doubt. "Smoke the bastard! I don’t care if America breathes down my neck or if the British instigate our expulsion from the Commonwealth," he lashed. "They’ll always come back to trade on oil with us. Enough for the writing bastard! Let’s see how he’s going to conjure more provocative words to fuel his delight when the rope is around his neck," he added.

The aftermath of the presidential mandate sent jitters down the spine of reporters and educators. Fears of a mass riot in Port Harcourt, birthplace and homeland of the detained activist and writer, twirled about. Schools were closed. Students abandoned their rooms in university campuses and dashed for their homes. All calls to the president from Washington DC and London were not returned. Mene’s fate had been decided, and the night of his execution assaulted him with a series of foreshadowing occurrences. He returned from manual labor that evening to discover his books had been stolen. His attempt to make a formal complaint was rejected. The roach that kept him hopeful like a burning lamp was a no show. The warden who took bribes from him to deliver his written notes to his journalist pal was conspicuously missing in action. Distressed, Mene sat on the cement floor of his cell, drew both knees close to his chest, paper on his knees, stump of pencil between his wet fingers, and laboriously printed his last written words:
Even in the hours
When the call for verse
Cheated the singer,
The cry for the homeland
Remained his song.

© Dike Okoro September 2007>

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