The writing life: A mission to Texas
WRITING the biography of a famous Nigerian politician can be a nerve-wracking experience. It can also be fun. Part of the challenges of this onerous task includes last minute cancelled appointments, unanswered phone calls, delay in responses to text messages and emails, difficult interviewees and surprisingly, funding issues. Five years and three books down the road, I can write another book on my experience as a commissioned chronicler of the lives of the famous and the rich. A good friend of mine noted for his cynical view of politics and politicians has suggested a title, Villains and Victors: In the Footsteps of Fame and Fraud.
As a politician myself, I am very sympathetic to my colleagues’ espirit de corps, they call it. I know where the shoe pinches them. Apart from busy and sometimes unexpected appointments as well as unfounded and unprovoked attacks from detractors, politicians are also prone to occasional ego massages, exaggerated claims of near invincibility as well as an uncanny optimism which critics have likened to appropriate skills for gambling. No wonder, many of them fail to exit the political scene at the appropriate time thus corroborating …… famous saying that ‘’All political lives unless cut off at a happy juncture end in failure’’.
In the course of my self-imposed profession, I have had to put up with a lot of hassles. From a last minute cancelled appointment in far away Katsina, to a scary air flight to Yola, an interview conducted in the middle of a campaign rally in Enugu as well as an angry wife in Port Harcourt who had protested my interviewing one of her husband’s numerous girlfriends! This is apart from the fact that the job takes you away from family and friends and turns you into an anti-social animal who is always cocooned in his writing world.
On the other hand, I had also had some good moments. Apart from interviewing and dining with the high and mighty in the land, my assignments have also taken me to places such as Ghana, the U.K., and the U.S. apart from several Nigerian cities where I made countless and invaluable friends. However, nothing in the business surpasses the exhilaration of the writing itself. Hunched over my laptop in the twilight or wee-hours of the day, I enjoy the thrill of piecing together the fragments of other people’s stories, drilling into their beings like a surgeon working in the innards of a patient. I am also a historian of some sort for every biography is unique in its own way and the art of researching and writing it, a historical journey.
As much as I respect my subjects’ right to set boundaries for their stories, I am no spin-doctor and will not embellish facts. Rather, I believe in ‘evidence based’ biographies where friends and foes alike will be interviewed so that a balanced view of the subject will be presented for posterity and history to judge. Thankfully, my current subject, a good friend of mine and a very popular politician (his opponents call him controversial) share the same views. Not only did he give me the leeway to interview people from all shades of political divide, he even went as far as suggesting names of some of his perceived political opponents for interviews.
During the course of working with him, I saw him as a brilliant, gregarious, hardworking and down to earth politician. Unfortunately, many of his critics don’t see him in that light. As far as they are concerned, he is an unschooled, arrogant and violent man who should be avoided like a fresh case of Ebola.
‘’Why do your opponents hate you so much?” I asked my subject one day after I had finished interviewing several of his family members and constituents who had eulogised him as a good husband, father and leader. “Envy,” my friend, a writer’s delight with his effusive mannerisms had replied, his eyes dancing with delight. ‘’They are yet to come to terms with the fact that at my relatively young age, I have achieved so much in my political career but I don’t grudge them. It is all God’s doing,” he added.
Then one day out of the blues he called me, “My brother, please get ready to travel. We are going to the U.S. The university I attended wants to honour me. Since these people said I didn’t go to school, I want you to come and witness and record the event”.
And so it was that together with a few of his aides, I accompanied my subject to Houston, Texas. It will be my second trip outside the country on the biography, having visited another country a few months earlier to interview some of my subject’s colleagues and friends.
It was not a really good time to travel abroad because of the worldwide hysteria over the Ebola scourge which had cast Nigeria and a few other West African countries in bad light. Luckily for us, just two days before our trip, Nigeria was officially declared Ebola free by the World Health Organisation. Even at that, some of my U.S.-based friends were against the timing of the trip. “Even with the WHO clearance, you might still be embarrassed since the whole Ebola matter is currently driven not by scientific evidence-based ideas but by hysteria, anxiety and liberal doses of homophobia, xenophobia and possibly racism,” they cautioned.
However, as we landed at George Bush International Airport in Houston Texas, on that overcast Thursday morning, the warm and smooth immigration reception was an indication that the matter of the Ebola pandemic would not be counted against us.
It was my first visit to Texas and I was immediately captivated by the beauty and grandeur of Houston, a city named after former General Sam Houston, who was president of the then Republic of Texas. Houston was founded in 1836 on land near the banks of Buffalo Bayou (now known as Allen’s Landing) and incorporated as a city on June 5, 1837. It is the most populous city in Texas, and the fourth most populous city in the United States. In the mid-twentieth century, Houston became the home of the Texas Medical Centre—the world’s largest concentration of healthcare and research institutions—and NASA’s Johnson Space Centre, where the Mission Control Centre is located.
The award ceremony from one of the most famous universities in Texas took place the following day at the Westin Galleria Hotel, 5060 West Alabama – Houston, Texas 77056. Basking in the euphoria of the moment, my subject who was the only non-American among the six alumni who were honoured was the cynosure of all eyes. And when he was asked to respond on behalf of the other recipients, he took his time to thank the university authorities and his former teachers for the honour done him. The ceremony was then followed by a dizzying array of activities such as photographic sessions, toasts and impromptu speeches.
This generous spectacle continued the next day, which was our last day in Houston with a breakfast, lunch and dinner events sponsored by friends, Nigerian organizations in Houston as well as the university. All through the activities, my subject kept reminding me to note everything. ‘’They said I have criminal records in the U.S. but you can see how I am being treated like a star. They said I didn’t go to school, yet I am being honoured by my alma Mata,” he reminded me for the umpteenth time.
Towards evening, we did a quick tour of the university facilities before proceeding to the airport for our departure to Nigeria. And as we waited for our flight, I took up my subject on the litany of allegations against him, especially those that came up during the course of my interviews and some from my internet research. He tackled the issues with the mastery of a professional boxer blocking some punches, throwing some back at his detractors, deflecting others and sometimes weaving his way out of trouble. All the while, his trademark smile never left his youthful face as he occasionally sipped his hot tea, which he was using to nurse a minor cold.