Out of Africa

In a small office off the Southwest Freeway, an editor carries on his crusade against public corruption and press censorship in his native Nigeria and other African countries

 …The cock that crows in the morning belongs to one household but his voice is the property of the neighborhood. -- Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah

"There are those who wonder if gold could rust, what will iron do?" Chido Nwangwu said, smiling softly as he spoke. "If we are going to have these kinds of complications in … the electoral process in Florida, imagine what will happen in a place like Lesotho, or even in Nigeria."

Nwangwu was speaking live to CNN senior analyst Jeff Greenfield, 12 days after the presidential election. The network wanted Nwangwu to give an "overseas" perspective. Curiously, the man donning the traditional regalia of the Igbo people of Nigeria was not in a faraway African city but in Houston, his adopted home and the headquarters of his growing media company.

Rice professor Bongmba says Nwangwu makes it clear that Africans in some ways stand in the way of their own progress.
Deron Neblett
Rice professor Bongmba says Nwangwu makes it clear that Africans in some ways stand in the way of their own progress.

Greenfield asked whether, for Africans, the Florida fiasco gave the impression of instability. America's fine, Nwangwu suggested. What Africans were worried about was the likely president-elect.

"Africans are concerned that Governor Bush of our state here in Texas stated emphatically -- ill-advisedly, I will suggest -- that Africa does not count in his area of priority," he said in his courtly baritone. "That is a major area of concern for our people."

Deliberative and calm, the performance was pure Nwangwu. Since arriving in the United States a decade ago, the 38-year-old founder and publisher of USAfrica has made it his quest to get people thinking about Africa. By covering that continent and Africans living in the United States, and circulating his newspaper in both places and on-line, he aims to debunk stereotypes about his homeland while, at the same time, taking a hard look at the problems holding it back.

"He brings out the richness of African culture, African pride, African intellectual heritage," says Elias Bongmba, an assistant professor of religion at Rice University and native of Cameroon. "Yet he always is very clear to articulate that in a lot of ways we Africans stand in our way of maximizing that potential."

Even as he fielded questions on CNN, Nwangwu's probing intellect and laid-back style betrayed few clues about his improbable journey, one that brought him from southeastern Nigeria to Houston -- and a place at the table of global punditry.

Home, to Nwangwu, is now quintessential middle-class Americana -- a one-story brick house on an orderly street of identical dwellings in west Houston. The interior bears the markings of a self-professed technophile on the go. Computer and financial magazines lie scattered beside an open laptop. A large television silently carries MSNBC. Pictures of Nwangwu and his wife cover the walls.

"I have a scar here, which I can show you," Nwangwu says, springing to his feet in his living room. He raises the loose pin-striped leg of his gray woko suit just over his kneecap to reveal the inch-long reminder of an early wound.

"You see this thing?" he asks. "My older brother Blessing, if not for him I wouldn't be alive, just as hundreds of thousands of other Igbo kids."

He was only three on that sunny afternoon in 1967, too young to understand the civil war ripping apart Nigeria. He and his brother were walking home when a military jet roared overhead and began dropping bombs.

"Blessing held me like a bag of beans, and he was just running. Just running!" he says, putting his whole body into the description of the frantic dash. "Running for safety because of these murderous mercenaries….The plane was just all over the place."

The terrified boys scampered, fell hard to the ground and struggled on to the shelter of their nearby Anglican church, where they nursed their nasty scrapes and waited out the attack.

Calm returned to Aba, their city of more than 225,000. But the experience burned in Nwangwu's mind. "What was that thing that almost killed me?" he desperately wanted to know.

Answers are hard to come by in a country where nine different generals have hijacked the government since it gained independence from Great Britain in 1960, spawning violence and perpetual uncertainty. The population is a combustible mix of Muslims and Christians and more than 250 ethnic groups, the largest of which are Hausa, Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo (also spelled "Ibo").

Nwangwu grew up in the heart of Igbo country, the third of seven children born to a successful produce examiner for a multinational company. The family's English-style home stood out among the low-slung buildings of downtown Aba. Portions of the house were rented out as distribution centers for several regional newspapers and magazines, giving Nwangwu exposure to his future profession from an early age.

An animated, Aristotle-quoting raconteur whose beaming face and expressive hands fill the room, Nwangwu insists that understanding his origins is key to grasping who he is. The Igbo of his hometown are Christian, cosmopolitan and fiercely capitalistic, he says. Picking up a wooden elephant from his coffee table, he explains, "This is the symbol of the town I grew up in. This represents Aba: resilience, endurance. If any city in Africa can borrow the slang 'Don't mess with Texas,' it's 'Don't mess with Aba.' "

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