My Name is Moyo, Part 6: I bear witness to the shadow of the gallows

Close-up photo of a small monkey with rust-colored fur around its face.

Charles J Sharp / Wikimedia Commons

In the tradition of one of the greatest storytellers and historians America has ever produced, Alex Haley, I continue this series retracing my life, by popular demand…  

My mother was born in Germany in 1939, the year the war broke out. She once told me she remembered American soldiers handing out chocolates to her in 1945 as they liberated Hanover where her wealthy family lived.   

She was worldly. By the time she was 16, she had already traveled over the majority of Europe. Fast forward to when I came along, and both her library and art collection were extensive. She had prints from the greatest artists that had lived over the last 500 years: a Rubens, all the Dutch masters, a famous Madonna (Virgin Mary), and what seemed like every other artistic depiction of the faith of the Europeans.   

But none of this saved her from anti-German sentiment when she moved to Nigeria to be with my father, who she met in England. He was a Nigerian customs officer at the time and every Nigerian called her despicable names like “Hitler,” “Nazi,” “German,” or “White woman.”  

I probably understood this dynamic earlier, but I have a very clear memory of being about12 years old and asking “Mamma, what’s with this jibe?” It really hurt me to witness how my mother was treated and to feel that harsh judgment from our community.  

She told me then that Nigerians’ perception of Germans were shallowly influenced by the sale of World War II movies to Nigeria from Britain. Any German was called “Hitler.” I’ll never forget it.   

However, as I’ve written about previously, there were a lot of wonderful things about growing up where I did. One of them was our pet monkey, Rusty.  

Dad went on to become an engineer. And in the late ‘70s, he was asked to do some work where Africa’s two greatest rivers meet, the Niger and the Benue. While there, he was approached by some boys with this tiny monkey, no more than two feet tall. It had a rusty face that looked almost human and reminded Dad of Fela Kuti’s “Monkey Banana” record. “I’ll take it home to Moyo,” he thought.  

Coincidentally it was this monkey that got me close to Fela’s son, Femi Kuti. Fela was a musician and human rights activist adored by many (except for those in power at the time) and his birth place is now a national landmark. Femi is his eldest son and a world-renowned musician in his own right. Back then, it didn’t take me and Femi long to compose a song for the monkey. “Rusty konkle, konkle little Rusty!”   

He was a star. Everyone in our community called him, “Obo la gi do-,” (monkey that can jump). Rusty’s tricks were hanging off the roof by his tail, dancing, and walking. He also clicked his tongue as a warning sign of danger, something I still do when I am around wildlife like squirrels, etc. Even the local paper had a story about the German woman who had a monkey that was the talk of the town.  

Mum was an arts and crafts teacher at a Lebanese community school, the only school in the whole country that taught Caucasians at the time. She taught the likes of presidents’ children, including the only president on Nigerian currency today, Murtala Mohammed.  

One day when she came home from teaching, our monkey was missing. She asked the neighbors if they had seen anything and one of them said Rusty was stolen by a hunter down the street who put him in a bag and was going to cook him for supper!  

Mum ran,, hailed a taxi, and sped to the house the neighbor described. It was at the entrance of the forest. The way she told it, the hunter had cut patches in poor Rusty and was about to drop him in the pot. Cannibalism, I call it.  

“No, not my favorite son Moyo’s pet monkey!” she yelled. “Give him back!”  

The hunter pulled his gun, but Mum batted it out his hand with her handbag. She rescued Rusty and cuddled him with tears in her eyes. She called her friends at the German embassy and located a vet, as there were only a few in the country at the time.  

The vet told Mum that Rusty was about dead. “How much?” was all she said. The vet said Rusty would need 14 bandages, crutches, antibiotics, and surgery. In today’s currency, she paid about $20,000 (rougly 1.5 million Nigerian naira). For the next three months, she bathed, cuddled, and nursed Rusty back to health. Every day she found him after work and rocked him in her lap, saying “You’ll make it, Rusty, just hold on.”   

I’ll never forget seeing that kind of love and dedication. Nevertheless, I was deeply affected by what had happened. My grades and relationships suffered. Not that I connected these things at the time.  

Decades later, while working on “The Green Bandit” truck disposing of declassified documents here in D.C., my boss said I had 20 boxes with thousands of files to pick up from the veterans department. Highly sensitive material. “Take them to the shredders and don’t leave till every document is shredded,” he said.   

However, they hadn’t told the VA security we were coming. When I got there with my co-worker, security trained their guns on us on the loading dock. It was all I could do to pull out the letter I was told to give them for clearance to move the boxes.  That satisfied the security folks whilst I thanked God for my life being saved.   

I proceeded to open the boxes to make sure there were no flammable materials or poisons inside. They were full of applications for post-traumatic stress disorder benefits. This was not shocking, until I saw the multitude of causes listed as possibly contributing to this condition. Sights and sounds, feeling deprecation, cultural identity, memory contradictions, witnessing horrific acts…   

I was stunned. PTSD didn’t necessarily have to be shell shock?  

Some of the things I read on those lists described exactly what I’d been feeling throughout my life. From seeing my mother being called Hitler at a young age to my pet being cut open and almost cooked alive, to navigating homelessness, to be wrongfully imprisoned, to having a gun trained on me that very day. Those traumas and others affected me. My memories are still constantly battling my cultural identity.   

And those feelings spiral. I’ve always been physically, emotionally, and spiritually sound. But when doubts or deficiencies in those areas came into play, it led me to further question myself and develop an inferiority complex.  But now, by happenstance, I had learned it was okay to admit that. And you could get help.  

To be continued. Next time I will be looking at my work with Voice of America, “The Black President,” Fela Kuti, moving in opposite my home, and the FBI citizenship academy.  

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