In memory of Ken Saro-Wiwa

He was a short man, five-two or so, no taller than I am. Straightaway I mistrusted him.

“My family and I are coming from Rwanda.” He would not meet my eye. He swept away imaginary dust from the seat I offered, waved off my offer of coffee, snorted when I said then how about tea. His feet dangled down from the big plastic clinic chair the same way mine did: like a child’s.

I had not seen a Rwandan that short. Not that I had a large sample to compare—maybe twenty Rwandans had streamed into Greenglass after the genocide, with their children and their adopted children and any little ones they could grab up and pass off as their children, and they were all tall, even the Hutus in mixed marriages. Greenglass has been taking in refugees since the Vietnamese boat people: Lebanese, Somalis, Kurds, Cambodians, Croatians, Bosnians. The interfaith council gets them here, and then God help them. Last year a Kosovar kid slashed five black girls in the Greenglass Middle School lunchroom with a razor blade. We’ve had our share of suicides.

I took out a legal pad and wrote down all the business you record about people whose lives have been ripped from them—not that I believed for a minute that this man was Rwandan. I would have staked my job on it. But I played along, told him that so far we’d had good luck with judges moving things along quickly. His was a very late request but we’d see what we could do. I could have one of the attorneys interview him tomorrow, and meanwhile he might think about any kind of trauma that would help account for the delay. That was going farther than I was supposed to go.

He wouldn’t look at me—he turned his torso almost to a right angle—but when I said he should bring all of his papers when he came back, all of them, he swung around and stared hard, straight at me.

“We are not coming from Rwanda.”

“Well, how long did you think it was going to be before somebody figured that out?” I didn’t usually speak to the clients that way, but then, the clients didn’t usually treat me this way, either.

He matched any evil eye my ex-husband ever cast my way and lifted his chin. “We are coming from Nigeria.”

“Why didn’t you say so in the first place?”

“Because I have heard that the lawyers speak only to Rwandans. Because I am not telling my private business to any busybody.”

I drew my own chin up, offended that he expected me to confuse one suffering African for another. “Mr. Okapu, I am not a busybody. I am the case manager. I compile the information the attorneys will need to interview you.” And I slashed through Rwanda, rather dramatically I admit, and wrote Nigeria in block letters big enough for him to read upside down. Then I affected a businesslike tone to indicate how uninterested I was in his private business.

“Perhaps you would be good enough to tell me the basis for your claim.”

A minute passed, but I did not so much as tap my pen. Finally he said: “Doctor Okapu.”

“Dr. Okapu, perhaps you would be good enough….”

“Write that I was helping Ken Saro-Wiwa.”

The little man might as well have slapped me. I could not write a word.

“That is spelled—”

“Yes, actually, I know how it’s spelled.” I knew how it was spelled because for a long time, around the time of my divorce, I thought I had killed Ken Saro-Wiwa. I was part of an urgent-action network—the do-gooders, my husband Frank called us—that sent telegrams and letters for political prisoners around the world. The bulletins asking me to beg for Saro-Wiwa’s life came thick and fast, and though usually I answered execution appeals like those the night they arrived, these I piled up by the computer with all the unanswered mail. Around that time I couldn’t concentrate on anything but my plans to put ground glass in Frank’s granola or to lob a hand grenade into his girlfriend’s condo. I drifted off to take two-hour naps and showers while I plotted revenge. In the morning I woke dizzy with guilt—I had to write about that guy, that Sorro-whatsis, but by then I was running late for work.

I never did write a letter, not one, never lifted a hand to phone in a telegram, because I was falling apart, because I was so humiliated those days after my husband betrayed me that I could barely dress myself, much less save someone. The Efficiency Queen, Frank used to call me. But I, who had recently been so competent, so on top of our three sons’ flights back and forth from college and grad school and the dry cleaning and the lectures and the dinner parties—not to mention the urgent appeals—I, the Efficiency Queen, let the dirty linen pile high and the unanswered envelopes flutter to the floor.

And one morning not long after they sentenced him, I opened the paper and saw that they’d executed Ken Saro-Wiwa. How could that be, so soon? I let out a howl I can still hear ringing in my own ears. I’d done it. I’d let him die.

Maybe you know who Saro-Wiwa is, though I can’t say anybody I’ve told the story to the last couple of years remembers. He was a big deal in Nigerian TV, a writer, the bulletins said, and he’d been organizing the Ogoni people to stop Shell and the other oil companies from fouling up their tribal lands. The Nigerian government cooked up conspiracy charges against him and threw him in prison but everybody figured they wouldn’t really execute a famous person like that, a guy who preached nonviolence. Then, while the whole world drifted off, they hanged him.

So now I was the one who couldn’t meet the little man’s eyes. “Are you Ogoni?” I was practically whispering.

He must have gone back to staring at the wall, because that was what he was doing when I finally had the courage to look.

“What a fascinating guy!” Cornelia said as soon as the door clicked behind him. She had recently arrived in Greenglass from New York, and I was still surprised to hear her breathing the enthusiasms of the Midwest. Already she’d ingratiated herself, learned to parrot the local accent. The powers that be had decided that even though there was no more money for poverty law there was money enough to hire Cornelia part-time to help me manage cases I could handle perfectly well on my own.

“What did you think was so fascinating about him?” I strained for civility through the doorway. The space was so tiny—Cornelia and Dawn, the secretary, sat right outside my office—that we didn’t even need to raise our voices. In fact, I had to concentrate on holding my voice down, to keep the contempt out. It wasn’t even Cornelia’s fault. I hated her because she was in her twenties, because she was blond and lush, because she wore low-cut clingy blouses so we could all see her perfect plummy breasts when she leaned over. I hated her most of all because she’d married an old slob who dumped his wife to take up with her. He’d been some official in the first Clinton administration, and now he’d accepted an endowed chair in our poly sci department, because out here in the middle of nowhere they would pay him kazillions of dollars and he could hide from the Scorned Woman. Cornelia was perfectly pleasant—she tried really, really hard—and that made me hate her even more. She said awesome. In the Midwest, she picked up super.

“He was so secretive. Want to fill me in?” As if she hadn’t already heard every word.

“I’ll let Ted know,” I said.

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