ouldn’t it be weird, if not shocking, to travel to a small village in Europe, in any given European country, wander the streets and surrounding areas, and find that there are forgotten graves, of a forgotten, dark part of the history of that country, and that all the graves belonged to non-Europeans, Africans? I think there would be quite an outcry among both the inhabitants of the village and its visitors.
Where am I going with this? Well, during my last travel to Nigeria, I visited a small coastal village looking for more information about the Women’s War of 1929. Apart from unexpectedly coming across a colonial building that is said to have been inhabited by Lord Frederik Lugard, we also passed a prison in the area. We started talking to the guards posted outside and ended up being escorted by a machine-gun-carrying man who said he would show us forgotten graves that are almost a century old.
Even though the guards’ habit of loosely carrying loaded weapons made me a little uncomfortable, my curiosity and obsession with discovering history overruled the fear and we followed the man behind the tall walls of the prison.
At first, all I saw was thick, deep green, typically West African vegetation and palm trees, and while I had been admiring the colour and diversity of the vegetation in southern Nigeria, I thought to myself, that I did not follow a stranger with a gun just to see more of that. Turns out that the said graves had been so neglected that the thick bush had taken the forgotten stones back into custody, and so, the only way to the gravestones was through the bush.
I grabbed the hand of my guide and stepped deep into the beautiful, deep green, scratchy, prickly, tingly southern vegetation.
Even though the gravestones were not far into the bush, just a few steps in, we had already almost lost sight of the prison and the footpath we came from. The plants and trees grew so high and thick that I had to stop and take a minute, I heard the birds singing and the insects buzzing, and when I looked up, I saw the start of a beautiful sunset. It was awe-inspiring. It was beautiful.
A gentle nudge from my guide reminded me that I had to keep going, that we were on a mission. We marched a bit further into the thick growth, until we had reached the forgotten graves.
For some reason, I had completely missed out on a shocking fact until now: the bodies in these graves were all white and belonged to British colonialists, who had come to Nigeria to steal, subdue and enslave!
Had it not been for the prison guard sternly looking down on me with his gun dangling around his neck, I think I would have sunk to my knees in shock. I hesitantly asked him: ‘Where are the graves of the Nigerians of the period, please?’ He all but laughed at my question, which I then realised was kind of redundant – of course they wouldn’t bury blacks! I knew that, but I had never seen that.
History books and texts just don’t compare to historical facts and artefacts.
On our way out of the bush, we passed a few more graves along the footpath, but, to be honest, they have become a blur in my memory, because all the way back to the prison, I felt dizzy and disoriented. Reality had hit me harder than ever before in my life.
For over two decades, I had been hearing and learning about slavery in a European school, safely removed from the carnage that people who looked just like me had caused on the great African continent. My school books had already processed reality into manageable prose that could be consumed at my leisure.
Never before had I stood in front of the audacity and cruelty of the people that I descend from. I just couldn’t believe or process what I saw, so I am going to leave it with you right here. For a moment, just imagine this: The only graves, which are witnesses of proper burials, last respects paid, bodies laid to rest, are occupied by white bodies, in the midst of a land that belongs to and is inhabited by black bodies.
White hegemony and oppression had caused for these Africans to be stripped of their humanity, to be oppressed on their own land, to be denied proper burials, to be deported to the far ends of the world, to be forced into a life of slavery, humiliation, and unimaginable degradation – but still, the graves of these white people have been neglected but untouched, unharmed, unaltered. All seems to have been forgotten, if not forgiven – but unjustly so.