Certainly, you must have thumbed through the review articles of this book in literary magazines. According to Times Magazine’s highly acclaimed review “African influence in Western classical music” is one of the greatest musical research books published in last 50 years. As with any finest research work, elevating from its touchdown domain, this book appeals to the entire course of human culture. Spy girls popularized this book excerpting this wonder quote “Music makes me feel like worm” from the book to the extent that every street busker invariably ad-libs. When doyenne Mary Benham Flowood enunciated those lines for the book, I was composing, letter by letter in the typewriter. You might have noticed my name on the credit page. I claim this book as the greatest accomplishment of my 20 odd turbulent year life. My biological mother eloped with her then beau, out of Nigeria. After their happy marriage, venturing into successful laundry business, when they domiciled in London with their 4 more children, I turned as an expendable burden to their family. Albeit had been in despair to divest every tie with the family, throughout my upbringing, I lingered till completion my schooling. Upon schooling over, packing most everything, ran away to stay along with my spinster friend. My unquenchable passion for language rolled me to learn the type writing process. Soon sulking away from the earlier misfortune periods, I settled as a proud type writing assistant.
Didn’t it ring the bell, when I mention Mary Bensam name? You must have little knowledge about African politics. In the history of Nigeria, an immortal photograph has a special place. You must be aware of eminent political leader Devid Kwame Abacha. In common parlance, not only in Nigeria, in whole Africa he was referred as Pure-Soul Abacha. He was always considered to be a parallel political figure of Mahatma Gandhi. That picture was taken when, he was dandling a white child in a perky mood. Background filled with curlicue clouds in gradient sky, her frock swirled, tress straightened as arrow, she was frozen in the air. Both of their eyes inundated with shine and effervescence. This photo was captured with eternal love instead of flash, wrote a writer in an article.
That sprier munchkin in the picture was Mary Benham. Her father Edward Bensam Flowood, an Anglican communion priest came as a missionary to Africa, later settled in Nigeria. As a goodwill visiting guest of his father, one lambent evening, during their walk in a flush meadows park, when Abacha was cuddling her, veteran photographer John Graham Willmann shot that photo. This photo was published first time in daily “Logas Times” heaving a huge public furor, sweeping entire Nigeria, published in every other major magazine around the world, stealing the heart of millions, eventually made her a global child icon. This public response must have left a great impression on Mary’s psyche more than anyone else, immediately after completion of her studies, she entered into Abacha’s residence “The house of Christ” as a disciple and soon became Abacha’s primary serving acolyte. She appeared alongside with Abacha , in most of his thereafter photographs.
Abacha lived in an ascetic hut , following Christian simplicity diligently in every aspect of his life. Setting himself as an extreme example, he called entire nation to follow the ethos of personal austerity and never failed to insist this principle to each one visited him. He was born in southern Nigeria to a major cowherd-man community called Yoruba. Abacha was sold to chattel slavery when he had a little faculty of memory. Should you not have, I highly recommend, to read his famous autobiography “I experienced Christ” . There are very few books interacts directly with our atman such as this book. When white racism was at its lugubrious pinnacle, toiling through the white slave drivers unimaginable forced fiendish bone-weary work, Abacha emerged as a pristine clean soul. He learned reading and writing with the help of charcoal on the walls of stable. Once he collected a purged old Bible of his master’s, bursting into tears, he sank his teeth completely in reading as though he found a treasure. He kept on reading those divine quotes and recited the grasped wordings beating his brain out, over and over in his mind. Once he etched the bible wordings wholly to his heart, he never read any other book, in his life. If I say his political gumption, worldly knowledge, oration capabilities were groomed just by Bible wordings, you will be awed.
Shortly after his 20th birthday, Abacha released himself from enslavement with the money he earned eking out during slavery. Immediately, he joined Catholic Church, volunteered himself for Jesuit training. Soon he devoted himself to missionary work among the Housa community of North Nigeria. You might be aware that Nigeria is a country, consist of more than 225 different ethnic groups. Throughout the history, amidst ceaseless inter-communal wars, 2 big empires, and 27 small kingdoms ruled Nigeria. There were four prominent ethnic group Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, Fulani. All these groups had deep enmity rooted , to the extent that ,they pound the flesh at the sight of each other. Until Frederick Lugard, exerting his military strength and political expertise, instituted an integrated union, amalgamating fragmented provinces, Nigeria was never a single nation. In very short time, Abacha's charisma and assiduous charity activities gained popularity in public. Stirring the Nigerian people beings to the core, Abacha obtained love and affection invariably among all the intensely incensing ethnic groups and consecrated as pure soul Abacha. Those were incredulous moments of the world history, reassures belief in tall terms like compassion, human wisdom, in the era when whole Europe was burning in war . Some section of people even believed that he had miraculous healing capabilities which cured severe physical ailments.
Slowly all radical ethnic groups, shedding the hatred, mended together in the name of Abacha. They venerated him as a saintly spiritual leader. Soon he became the religious symbol of Nigerian people. He was the central figure of nascent Nigerian national identity. Under the tutelage of Abacha, league of leaders, Fulani leader Abubakkar Thafawa , Yoruba ethnic group’s Avalova Obafemi, Scion of Igbo community Azikiwe, Nnamdi and Efik representative Hogan Ekpo joined hand together formed a political organization called National Alliance party . Later renamed as Nigerian Peoples Congress party with well-defined non-retaliatory philosophy, a singular force called people for the independent movement against the suppression of the British colonial rule. Abacha claimed his struggle was not Black’s racist war against white racists instead peasants, hunters, workers, fishermen’s peaceful revolution against British supremacy. His quote “A devil for devil makes the whole world devil” rarely missed in publication of all the major western magazines. That surreal photograph of love was believed to be the inception of this sublime dream for peace, not only for Nigeria, for all other colonies around the world.
As though came alive from that very same photograph, Abacha and Mary Bensam repaired to Nigeria, camping in the remote villages for several months, met with people. They curated independence campaign amidst Nigerian public in the forecourts of Churches, Marketplaces and community halls. A vast concourse of people, pushing against each other, ecstatically got a glimpse of Abacha and Bensam. There were occurrences of the stampede, just to have a tactile sense of both. Later another photo gained prominence, in which benign Abacha was taking cherubic Mary under his wings. These photos embellished the homes of millions of Nigerian households. I myself had seen those photos, in her memorabilia collection. In the age of 47, Mary did not betray me as she still sustained her adult years beauty. The foremost reason for her elegance was, she remained unmarried. There was something unfathomable mystery buried in her attractive insouciant face.
When I first met her in London, She lived alone in a huge mansion, at Fo street. A menage of a butler, 5 chamber servants, and 2 cook maids served her. Mary never allowed any of these assistants to stay along with her. Her usual day filled with listening music from her huge collection of 40,000 music plates. Her other main hobby was making her presence in every other musical event around the city, with the entourage of 2 maids, in her Volkswagen car . Occasionally African minstrel artist harped for her in person. She seldom had time for any other activity. Mary had a strong liking for Africans. Barring a maid and a cook, all of her servants are Africans. From my observation, I was the only soul with whom she talks oftentimes, although the topic was strictly focused on my writing work.
International news reporters and African journalists were swarming incessantly, on the heels of Mary, yet no one could interlope into Mary’s privacy. Immediately after the demise of Abacha, Mary returned back to London, forsaking Nigeria. Upon expiry of her Aunty Nancy Christina Flowood, she inherited a hefty fortune. This could be the reason of her permanent stay in London. It was strange that in these 30 years, as though in a fugue state, Mary never spoke a word about Abacha. When Nigerian government decided to commemorate Abacha’s Birthday as a National festival day, even after a persistent invitation by then president Acikivi Namsti, to attend a ceremony where she was to be awarded as a noble ambassador, she was uninflected in her denial. The place where she spent good whole 18 years of her life, the place where her parents buried and their memorial structure erected, she never intended to visit, raised eyebrows of lot many.
I must throw some light on the proceeded political events. In 1947, the British government decided to dissolve colonial rule and install an interim Democratic co-alliance government, as a first step towards forming full self-governance Nigeria. Tensions soared up among all ethnic groups, a power struggle ensued between major ethnic groups, as a result, halcyon days bygone. With no clear mandate to transfer power, in 1954 British government, passed a referendum in a lurch, which granted permission to each state to become independent on their wish. Northern Nigeria comprised of major Housa and Fulani ethnic groups. Southern parts are dominated by Igbo ethnic groups. Each group had its representative political parties. Thus far they co-worked as a single National party, Nigerian National Congress party. That political amity collapsed. The buried bitterness which was groomed during British’s earlier divide and conquer policy, dredging up monstrously, ravaged near a million civilians lives in riots and chaos. The Independence which Nigeria acquired in the 1960s was celebrated amidst the pool of bloodshed.
The very same Abacha who was sanctified as a symbol of ethnic unity, all of a sudden, turned as an untoward senile burden to the boiling nation. As arm struggle intensified, achieving complete military victory over opposite groups was the only ultimate solution forced upon all ethnic groups. Naturally, Abacha's pleading to disarm and engage in a peace process looked as askance and opposed by jingoistic conspiracy rhetorics by all the politicians turned military leaders, in chorus. Islamic Hausa groups, after slaughtering around 40 thousand Christian Igbo innocent public in a group sponsored riot known as “The week of long spears”, swore oath to establish an independent Biafra government, launched a military campaign. Nigerian army and security force comprised Christian majority of Hausa, Fulani members, every time tension escalated, state-sponsored terrorism was unleashed over the other ethnic group civilians. Dead youth’s corpse lying in the roadside, became a common sight. Abacha saw his dream of peace, capsizing, front of his own eyes. “Resurrected Jesus Christ’s body, dead and rotting in the riots,” wrote Abacha in his daily column. But this labyrinth of crisis never deterred him. He was a strong believer of his inner spiritual strength. By clutching cross tightly around his chest, he traveled to the Imo province along with his apostles, which was the epicenter of gruesome massacres and rub his nose in the fury of Yoruba major ethnic group by visiting Ogan province. Everywhere he went, local civilians were hostile towards him, remonstrated him by throwing rotten eggs and cow dungs. In some places, they even pelted stones at them. As to many one’s surprise, the arsons, riots slowly abated in 3 weeks.
At this crucial juncture, Independent African Daily published a gossipy news, that Mary was Abacha’s significant other. This canard did not cause any row instead everyone’s initial reaction was mixed . But we garden variety human choose devil over god, as we look every news through our base mind’s execrable glass.This cause celebres wavered in air for a much more proceeded months. At last, decided to blow the lid off , Avlo Obebemi visited House of Christ where Abacha lived at that time. In his initial inquiry with servants , he found that Abacha has been asking Mary to sleep with him in nights. Petulant Obebemi swearing invectives, gatecrashed Abacha’s room. Loud altercation voice of Obafemi, resounded for a long time.
After the departure of irascible Obafemi, on that same day, during evening prayer, Abacha delivered few words, which put Catholic church and Nigerian public in permanent addle. To protect himself from the barreling attacks of Satan which he received in the form of ignoble thoughts, he conducted an experiment, in which he prevailed upon Mary whom at that time in the age of his granddaughter, to sleep daily along with him in his bed. According to Abacha’, virtuous purity of Mary spindling around his heart, formed an impregnable shield , with that he withstood so many virulent personal political storms of his life. But, in cold reality, the sight of innocent people died in conflict befuddled Abacha. He was not able to curtail the violence, penetrating the hearts of rioters with his moxie. He had suspicion over the veracity of much proclaimed pure-soul sobriquet consecrated by millions of people across the globe. He slowly lost belief in his inner soul strength. His struggle exasperated day by day, with these thoughts ceaselessly swirling him in days and nights. Every day, brimming with tears, genuflecting in front of Jesus statue, he implored to resurrect the purity of Jesus Christ from his deep.
One capital day, he undertook an anomaly in his usual experiment of Christ vs Lucifer. On that day, after Mary was in deep slumber, leaving no cloth in his frame , approaching closer than ever towards her, he slept entwining around her body. On that moment when realized that, his body aroused to the warmness of woman body at the age of 72, he had a nervous meltdown. By shouting Jesus Christ name, disgorging the assembly, he scampered out and sprinted fast in the street. “I have lost it, I lost my purity in that moment” realizing himself nothing but a mere worm, a minuscule, a particle, in the middle of the millions the stars in the galaxy, wailed Abacha. Assemblage women invariably spat in disgust upon learning about what happened. Men group though, elicited a subdued chuckle, turning their back. Without looking at anyone’s eyes, Abacha “Do not call me high-soul do not venerate me, I am an ordinary human. since I accepted your consecration, I am lower than everyone. ” He was lurching back to his room like a lifeless person as per the verbatim of the people who were present during that extreme event. Mary was sitting motionless in the middle of assembly like a statue with a drooped head.
Ababa was assassinated at the footsteps of sacred heart Cathedral in capital city Logas, by an Yoruba youth on 1957 January 13. The photograph of dead body of Abacha, as though pleading succor , with the spread arm, appearing like Jesus’s cross pose, rattled the hearts of millions of people across the globe. Thousands of people attended Abacha’s funeral , broken to core. Many of them committed suicide upon hearing the demise news. The very last word he uttered “Oh Jesus” melted every Christian who learned about that. The assassin committed suicide by shooting himself. Paparazzi Benjamin Dupling Jr. captured the moment, tall towers of Cathedral , footsteps and cross symbol clearly visible in the background, sagely face of Abacha in the front. From that moment onwards, Abacha regained back to his pure soul image indelibly.
The murderer Salamon Shakari was indeed a redeemer from heaven. Hardship fastings and lone ostracism Abacha imposed on himself, turned himfeathery thin as butterfly. He was already at the door of the death. Barring few women, most of the earlier visitors renounced his prayer sessions. Pale looking, eyes rolled in, with tears streaming down his eyes, penancing Abacha, was truly a poor soul. Not a day passed in Nigeria, without publicing of vitriol aspersion articles casting Abacha and Mary. As though relieved from shackle , every common people gathered in street corner, celebrated the fall of Abacha with smutty , harem jokes. “Mary Mary , twerk your private soul” a colloquial lascivious ditty was most renowned in the Shongai language. Upon the death of Abacha, these acrimonious hoo-ha reactions, tapered of like blasted sea foam disappears in a sudden downpour. Guilty filled people fervently recommenced to venerate Abacha, more than ever. Moreover, Yoruba ethnic leader Awalovo Obefemi put all his chips in post facto undertaking and made sure many more good old days photos of him along with Abacha kept on publishing. In his efforts of re-establishing of Abacha’s fallen image, he succeeded more than his expectation.
You must have construed by now, the reason behind relentless pursuing of journalists . Mary never spilled any information about that mysterious incident . She died at the age of 51 when she was at the peak of her career as a renowned music researcher and author. Once I was confabulating with her, on the possibility of her return to Nigeria, in a spur of moment, I asked Mary on about that day. Much to my surprise, she replied “ I believe, in future, you will become a good novelist. I can share that you as only you can understand”.
“ You never forgave Abacha for revealing that closed room incident in front of all the assemblage? Didn't you? !!” I asked.
“ No , not that. When he undressed, came closer to me, I was wide awake. Without protest, I waited on his next move. When he ran out deranged, I instinctively simpered in dark.”
“I was not sure about the energy thrived deep within me at that moment. But one thing was certain, I was the one who smoothly segued him to that place, I did that without my conscious. ” Mary smiled. “In fact, I knew how it happened. But did not want to accept even to me. When he ran out, I felt like, pulling with a thread tied to my tiny finger, I caused a monumental stone tower, cave in. I felt like, I was the most powerful person on the earth, who can make mountains fly just by blowing ”
“It is unbelievable that you accepted this to yourself” I replied.
“Yah, Once I accepted that. I lost all the weights suppressed me. I felt levitated. Like Abacha mentioned, my eyes too brimmed with water. I felt like a worm amidst the millions of stars in the galaxy. But I was on top of the world, in foremost happiest state of my life. Poor Abacha, really a nice person” sighed Mary.
After Mary’s death, I wrote a novel based on her story. I was awarded commonwealth woman writer’s golden swan for my novel. I altered the story a great deal, especially changed the backdrop completely. I desired to spend a part of my award money to the place where Mahatma Gandhi born, a beautiful country on earth with simple people. The land of Gandhi looked just as I imagined.
1] John Graham Willmann - British Photographer and Anglican Church Jesuit
2] “Logas Times” oldest News Daily of Nigeria, published 1830 onwards, initially owned by British
3] ‘ I Experimented Christ! ‘ Devid Kwame Abacha . Biography .Oxford University Press 1951
4] Frederick John Dealtry Lugard, (1858-1945), a British soldier, mercenary, explorer of Africa and pioneer in establishing British colonial rule in Nigeria, he was the first Governor-General of Nigeria [1912-1919]
5] Yoruba , Ibo Southern Ethnic groups; Hausa, Fulani Northern Ethnic groups
6] Sir Abubakar Tafawa (1912-1966), First Prime minister of Nigeria (1960-1966) . Azikiwe, Nnamdi (1904- ), First president of Nigeria (1963-66). Awolowo, Obafemi (1909-87), Ruler of Western Nigeria during [1954-1959]
7] Republic of Biafra. was a secessionist state in eastern Nigeria proclaimed in 1968 by Igbo people; Military campaign was suppressed in 1970s, reintegrated into Nigeria
8] The Independent African - Pro-Leftist commercial daily
9] Benjamin Dupling Jr. - A paparazzi, later worked for Times Magazine