In the Republic of Apology sorry can buy you anything. Can pay for anything.
Those were the opening lines of your book on apology. When your editor Zach first read it, he said that etymologically-speaking “sorry” and “apology” were not neighbours. Apology was a statement of excuse, something put up in defence against accusations. That was how ancient Greeks understood it. Sorry, on the other hand, came from Middle English and expressed sympathy and a feeling of soreness or sorrowfulness. The operational form of the contemporary regime of apology, said Zach, had returned to the original meaning of the word.
There wasn’t a return to an ancient meaning, you said. People have always used apologies to make excuses for wrongdoing.
You told Zach that in your Igbo mother tongue there was no word for apology. The word approximating sorry was ndo, which expressed empathy; to let one know that one was not alone in one’s pain or suffering. A word of embrace. The closest word to apology was mgbahara—forgiveness—a word entreating a victim (even if dead) to wrestle to let go of the injury inflicted on them.
The dead are dead. They cannot forgive a crime, said Zach.
Maybe. But then, there are cultural practices of apology and forgiveness shaping lives and relationships.
Only recently, your friend told you about his son’s experience at school. When he finished telling it, he asked you: Have I done the right thing to bring my boy to Canada?
You thought so hard about your friend’s question after you heard the story. And about his boy. So hard that there was no life left in your imagination of the story, save for an alienating speculation.
As your friend told it: His boy—a very buoyant chap of seven —was abused at school. By his playmates. They called him several things—monkey, monster, ugly, poo face, black, dull, Africa—in reference to his appearance.
The teacher called your friend. Told him that some kids in school abused his son. They did not know what they were saying, the teacher said afterwards; they’re just kids.
The boy who had been abused knew what was said to him. He knew, because he choked when he reported the incident to his dad.
But the next day the boys who didn’t know what they had said brought cards to school. Their parents made them write, colour, and scribble hearts on cards. A gesture. Of apology.
The teacher supervised the ceremony. Made sure the apology gifts were properly transferred. The boy who was abused took the apology cards. Quietly. That’s all he could do.
Throughout that day, as the teacher reported to your friend, his boy sat quietly in his corner. Staring into an open book. He needs to make some effort to play with the others, the teacher remarked.
Back at home his dad asked about school. The boy didn’t have the language. To explain what he felt. What he experienced. Fine, was all he could say. Fine.
In the days to come, school will be a place he doesn’t want to be. Where he feels vulnerable, unsure of himself. School will terrify him. He will learn that school is a dangerous place for kids like him. School is the first site of his violation. Where he lost his innocence as a child.
Some days later. The same kids who didn’t know what they had done would abuse the boy again. This time, they practiced something they most likely saw on the TV, or on the internet. One put an arm around his neck. Another was about to place a knee on him when a teacher intervened. The boy’s dad would receive yet another call from the school. It was from the principal this time. She said it must be something to do with the boy not fitting in, or about some personal quarrels with the other kids. I’ve been in this school for nearly 20 years, the principal argued, and I could vouch that the kids were only being kids. Nothing beyond that.
On impulse, after hearing the story, you set out searching for a special gift. Worthy of the boy who’d been so abused.
You checked Amazon. A gift for a kid who’s been racially abused at school. The search offered toddler tablets. And love cards. And fairy angel dolls.
You searched Google and found articles titled: Books to Teach White Children and Teens How to Undo Racism and White Supremacy; How To Talk To Kids About Racism And Violence.
There was nothing for a child who’s been racially abused.
One title sounded interesting: Racism Is A Health Issue: How It Affects Kids, What Parents Can Do. You clicked to read the article. It said to talk openly about race and help your child to be a positive change in the world.
You laughed. There was nothing, after all, for a child who’s been racially abused.
Then it dawned on you: what exactly would a gift do for this boy?
A few weeks after you sent your manuscript to Zach, he called, sounding excited. Over drinks, Zach said, I couldn’t help myself. Your manuscript inspired me to write a story set in your Republic of Apology. His story is about a man who personifies all the apology paraphernalia celebrated in the Republic. He apologises for everything; he greets apology, jokes apology, weeps apology. Step on his feet while on a bus and he apologises with a smile. Yet, it turns out, this man is a serial killer. Gentle in his approach and always full of apologies to his victims even while killing them. I am so, so sorry that I have to kill you, he always says to them, it’s probably no fault of yours, eh. I can’t help it. I do not hate the fact you’re an aberration of nature, a bloody faggot, eh. But I have to say I am sorry it has to end like this, eh. His last words to his victims were always: You do not deserve to die.
Zach was excited about his story. You asked him what the point was, exactly, about a serial killer who apologised to his victims.
The hollowness of it all, he replied.
You told him about an event you recently attended where the prime minister delivered an impassioned apology speech to Indigenous peoples. One man in the audience stood up and screamed at the top of his voice just when the prime minister had finished talking: We got our apology! We got our apology! The man wasn’t far from where you sat. You could see that he was crying as he screamed, almost losing his voice. You weren’t sure whether he was crying because of the prime minister’s speech or whether his We got our apology was meant as sarcasm. One way or another, you said, there must certainly be something in an apology that is more than hollow.
In the Republic of Apology where apology solves injustice, Zach said, it’s all the currency there is. Its government is run by an army of well-trained experts on best practices in apology delivery. Every matter of injustice has its own practised apology performance. Apologies for colonisation, for genocide, for police shootings, for mass shootings in mosques, for racism, for inequality and discrimination, for a lack of diversity, for looking the other way while a serial killer slaughtered gay men for years. You see, you named this country appropriately.
You reminded Zach that your story was entirely about Nigeria and not fiction.
When you first met Zach some years ago, he’d introduced himself cheerfully as a gay white settler man with a conscience. Your meeting was probably a thing of fate put in motion by the kinds of lies only refuge-seekers know too well.
Every refugee knows that the most effective key to the gate of refuge is a nasty, dark story, so unimaginably horrifying that all the gatekeeper wants to do upon hearing it is to let them in—if only to be free of the story’s gripping horror. Such stories require careful work because they are always competing with several others. One needs to craft a perfect atrocity that is both convincing and competitive at the highest possible level anywhere. It’s a sophisticated art form that refuge-seekers have developed in response to a world that pretends to be moved only when barraged by horrible stories. A world of voyeurs. Where lies are celebrated.
So, you armed yourself with a nasty, gay story. And to God be the glory: Nigeria officially criminalised gay marriage and practices just when you were smoothing out the rough edges of your visa story.
When you arrived in Canada and needed to bolster your gay story, you visited a gay club in Winnipeg called Wayfarers. The first time you visited the club you met Zach. Zach looked like the proper gay stereotype: hair dyed a mix of gold and red, wearing tight-fitting pants, blowing smoke endlessly—smoke that disappeared almost as quickly as it appeared.
Zach had a good laugh the first time he tried to kiss you. You must’ve acted weirdly because he said, You’ve never done this shit before. By this shit he probably meant that you’d never kissed a gay man.
After you had confessed your visa story and said you weren’t even gay at all, Zach disagreed. Give yourself a chance and you’ll see we’re all queer right down here, he said touching his chest. Zach was the only one you ever told your visa story was a lie. Somehow you knew you could trust him.
You remained good friends and went out regularly together to drink with a group of writers that Zach introduced you to. Zach was a writer and editor for a literary magazine.
COVID-19 took Zach before he could complete editing your manuscript. Such a pity, because the epilogue you excluded from the copy you sent to him was your heartfelt apology for the lie that brought you two together. You intended it as a joke. Only, the joke was capriciously turned on you—an apology epilogue to the man who didn’t live to read it.
Zach died a few weeks before news began breaking about newly discovered bodies—thousands of them—Indigenous children hidden in unmarked graves. The country was sitting on piles of Indigenous corpses, corpses that refused to remain dead and silent, now forcing their way out of their anonymised graves into public consciousness. Discoveries sparking campaigns for apology.
A week after Zach died, Solo summoned a group of writer friends to his house to celebrate Zach’s life.
Solo was the first to bring up the subject of apology that afternoon. About the pope’s refusal to apologise to Indigenous peoples.
What’s the deal with not apologising? asked Efe, a jolly fellow, the only non-writer of the group. He liked talking about books and always said talking was his own writing. The pope should just say sorry and be done with it.
Afraid of legal wars against the church most likely , said Tim, the most successful writer of the lot: four novels, two poetry collections. His latest novel—As Flies—won a national award. Zach used to joke that the reason Tim’s book won the award was because Shakespeare was in the title and that folks didn’t know Tim wasn’t exactly a straight guy.
There’s also the part about the Catholic Church’s image and reputation, you added.
Oh, come on. Image? Reputation? Give me a break, man! said Solo.
Isn’t it funny, asked Nella, who was a one time poet laureate of Halifax, that a religious institution founded on contrition and confession is having a most difficult time doing those very things?
I think the whole apology business is pointless. What has saying sorry got to do with genocide? So what if the pope says sorry? asked Arthur who taught African literature in the university. It was a similar thing in the case of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda: the Catholic Church refused to apologise for the historical role it played in radicalising the Hutu against the Tutsi, the role of its priests and nuns in genocide, and the fact that thousands of people were slaughtered inside the church buildings and compounds where they sought refuge.
Arthur had a theory about apology that sounded so much like what Zach would say: The whole apology question is a grand distraction. There’s a guidebook for it: first, refuse to apologise and make your refusal felt so that the narrative shifts to your refusal to apologise—it’s called the grand scheme. Second, maintain a practised silence over the subject and allow yourself to be heckled, publicly excoriated and fried, anything to give people a sense that they’re fighting a noble cause against injustice—the complication. Finally, hold a public apology, well-staged and performed, acknowledging wrong in the vaguest of terms. It has to be solemn too, the kind of performance that journalists would summarise as follows: This or that institution or government finally acknowledged wrongdoing and apologised, but members of the affected community said that more needs to be done. That’s cathartic justice. You can’t arrive at it immediately. You first need to bait people into a useless chase for an apology. Make apology the sole goal.
Solo raised a glass.
You refused the cynicism of Arthur’s theory. Isn’t there something more to an apology, though? you asked.
And what might that be? asked Arthur.
Efe told a strange story he called his own apology story, which left everyone both bemused and in disbelief.
Efe got on a bus one wintry afternoon in February just before COVID entered public consciousness. There were no available seats, so he stood in the aisle. Thinking about the interview he just had. The manager asked if he had experience with meat. For some reason, he went blank. It was a job to offload and store meat in freezers. What possible experience could a former bank manager use to work as a meat packer? So, he told the manager the first thing that came to mind, about a time in Nigeria he visited farms to get his family’s fresh meat and how he stored the meat properly in several refrigerators that cost him a lot to power and maintain because of the regular power outages in Nigeria. He had digressed so far in his story about Nigeria’s failings that he didn’t remember the question he was asked. The manager thanked him for his time and said they would give him a call when they reached a decision.
That would be his ninth interview since arriving in Winnipeg in 2019. Maybe his desperation was getting the better of him, given that he had a 2-year-old daughter, and his wife was seven months pregnant. The problem wasn’t a lack of fight; it was fight that had propelled him to leave his managerial position in a reputable bank in Nigeria and migrate his family to Canada in the first place, the fight to secure a better future for his family. He had told anyone he talked to about his plans to leave Nigeria. His decision seemed even more right when a few months after he left the bank sacked a couple of top managers.
Yet it’d been nine months, and he was unable to secure a decent job in Canada save for a casual position in a care home where he put in a few hours a week and earned hourly minimum wage.
Efe was in his thoughts when the woman standing beside him said, Excuse me, I’m so sorry about that. The woman had mistakenly stepped on his feet. With a smile, he replied that it was nothing. Only then, a guy sitting just beside where Efe stood in the aisle called out to the woman.
Hey, Kathy, I didn’t know it was you.
Oh, Jake. It is you.
You look exhausted, Jake said.
Yeah. Long hours at work. Just returning from a night shift. Jake offered his seat to her, but she declined. I’m getting off soon, anyway. She thanked him.
Then he said, you need to take some rest. It’s people like that who should be doing that kind of work; Jake gazed and pointed at Efe as he told Kathy this. People like that was referring to Efe.
Efe said that Jake’s voice was loud. Loud enough that the two people seated directly in front of Jake’s row turned to look and immediately averted their gaze when they met Efe’s. Efe felt an uneasy silence descend onto the bus.
You asked him what Kathy’s response was when Jake said that. Efe didn’t remember whether Kathy said anything in reply or not. He couldn’t see her face either. He only remembered that she made her way towards the front exit. It was an awkward moment. Efe said nothing in reply to Jake. Instead, he edged himself to the rear exit to leave because the next stop was his. But it felt as though he was leaving because of what Jake had said: People like that.
In this moment, you imagined that Efe was walking down the street when he left the bus, weighed down by a feeling that several eyes were on him—whether real or imagined—when a voice called out, Excuse me, please. He turned and it was Kathy from the bus.
I wanted to apologise for what happened back there, she said.
Efe said nothing. Only nodded.
It was very rude what he said about you, and I am really, really sorry. Her eyes were misty with apology. Efe felt sorry for her, even though the awkward feeling from the bus had stayed with him.
When finally, he opened his mouth to talk, he surprised even himself. If there is a job opening at your workplace, he said, I wouldn’t mind at all.
You imagined that the woman’s eyes expanded, probably out of surprise at what she heard. For a brief moment, she must’ve appeared astounded. She took Efe’s contact.
The following day Efe got a call from Kathy’s manager.
Folks praised Efe for his down-to-earthness, even though some agreed they couldn’t imagine themselves doing the same thing. Arthur said the story revealed a harsh condition of abjection: a situation that cripples a man’s ability to freely express his outrage by forcing him to be grateful for his own abuse. You thought Efe’s story highlighted something you’d learnt about apology: it takes away vitality and utility from pain and grief.
When you told Zach about your Uncle K and the diaries and letters you were digging into for your book, Zach said, Oh man, you’re fucked for life.
You had just returned from a trip to your birth city of Enugu to visit with your cousin Nwaora who lost her father. She had asked you to visit as soon as possible. You once lived with Nwaora’s family and developed a close bond with her. You became estranged from her recently deceased father—your mother’s younger brother—several years ago when you ran away from the family unannounced.
He died of a heart attack, Nwaora had said over the phone. During your visit, she told you that just when she said heart attack her mind went to the time in the past when you both waged a war over which phrase was the right one between heart attack and cardiac arrest. Strangely, that was the same memory that stirred in your mind. You’d always known that the bond you both shared was deep and unique. There used to be a time when you could swear you loved her more than life. You wrote several poems about your forbidden feelings even though you never talked about them. The closest you came to sharing your feelings out loud was a time when you granted yourself license to dream in a poem you called “Incest.” When she read the poem and asked what it was about, you replied, nothing.
I asked you to visit, said Nwaora, because I wanted you to see this. She passed a bulky folder to you. In it there were several letters, some handwritten and others typewritten. There were also diaries. I have been so confused since he died and I wanted to talk to someone I can trust. She was staring directly at you as she talked as though searching for something reassuring in your eyes. Something about her was exceedingly grave.
What’s this all about? you asked.
To tell you the truth, he was bedridden for several months due to a stroke. During that time, he lay inside that room uttering strange things. One evening he became strangely sober and called me to say there was something very important he wanted me to do for the sake of everyone. That was when he showed me where to find this folder of his letters and diaries.
Nwaora began to cry. You hugged her to console her. But when she said Uncle K was responsible for your own mother’s death, you released her, instinctively.
I don’t know what to do, she said. He did so many horrible things, so many unthinkable things. He said I should gather my sisters and some elders from the village and go to the graves of people he killed and to the families of those whose bodies were never found to apologise. He said it was the only way to free us from the evil he had committed.
Later that evening when you rose to leave, Nwaora insisted that you must keep her father’s letters and diaries—she called them his confessions. You’re a writer, she said. Some things in those materials are the stuff of writing. You deserve to have them. She held your hand for a while, used it to touch her forehead, and asked you to go.
In popular Nigerian imagination, Uncle K would be regarded as a money ritualist—someone who used human beings to make money. In Nollywood films, the trope of money ritual has birthed its own genre. Beginning with Living in Bondage released in 1992, such films present money ritual as a practice of using juju and occult powers to make human victims to vomit raw cash (usually US dollars) in some secret rooms in a wealthy man’s house.
But, based on his diaries, Uncle K was a human farmer. He cultivated, harvested, and sold human body parts. Many of these body parts were choice organs collected from poor Nigerians, processed, packaged, and smuggled out to countries in Asia and the Middle East where folks from different parts of the world but mostly from Asia, Europe and North America went to replace their own broken body parts.
When you were 7, Uncle K took your mother on a drive. You were playing football in the street when one of your aunties came to get you. She couldn’t look you in the eye. She said your mother asked her to get you. Later, they told you she died in a road accident and that you would from then on live in Uncle K’s house. You were not allowed to see your mother’s body in the coffin where she was sealed up during her burial. All those years you lived with Uncle K, it was possible he was indeed raising you for your organs. When at 15, you ran away from his house abandoning your schooling and joined a migrant group of labourers heading to Lagos, you thought you betrayed a generous benefactor.
Uncle K seemed to have planned an elaborate and intimate ending to his own story: a death-bed confession, a ritual of apology, a sombre burial awash with shudder and disbelief. His children forever shadowed by his crimes. The man was a monster. You couldn’t understand why he chose to document his crimes in detail.
Weeks later, when Nwaora, her sisters, and a few elders in the village who agreed to join knelt at your mother’s grave to apologise for Uncle K’s crimes, you were with them. The ritual was a simple one: apologise to the dead in acknowledgement of the injustice done to them. One of the elders said a moving oration opening with: This is the kind of abominable crime for which the land wipes out the lineage of a whole family… He ended by saying that Uncle K must not be buried anywhere near the family compound. It was decided to bury him in the village Catholic church’s cemetery some three miles away.
Somewhere in the beginning of your book manuscript, you wrote: In the Republic of Apology we knelt side by side, children of the monster and his victims, to beg the dead to forgive the dead so that we the living may get a second chance of life. In the only edited draft Zach shared with you he had recommended deleting what he called a gratuitous sentiment of a sentence, or changing it to: In the Republic of Apology we live by a ritual of seeking forgiveness from the dead for the sake of the dead.