In this stirring short story written for D255: Environmental Humanities and Global Health, Princess Anene-Maidoh (MALD ’22) paints a compelling picture of the legacies of love, loss, and homeland in the context of exploitative development, environmental degradation, climate change, and slow violence.
The Extinction Will Be Televised
7 May 2022
I grew up on the land of my mother. And her mother. And her mother’s mother. Alaanuri. My people have lived here from the very beginning. We have lived and grown and eaten and laughed and cried and died. And then we are reborn and do it all over again. Before she crossed over to the other side, my mother would tell me stories about what our village looked like when she was young. She sang songs to me about blossoming flowers, and trees that bore fruit. She would tell stories about her youth and how she would run across green fields playing silly games with her friends. She wrote poems about how they would watch the sun set over beautiful landscapes. She was nineteen when the first trucks came. They bulldozed into our lives pregnant with destruction and empty promises of modernization.
At that time my mother had just met my father. He was only three years her senior but he behaved far beyond his years. She liked to joke that he considered himself a 70-year-old elder. He loved my mother with all of his being and wanted to give her the world. My father Amadi, bought into Venin Inc.’s illusions of grandeur and renewal. Their plan was to drill and drill and drill until they struck liquid gold. They promised that a percentage of the profit would be reinvested into the Alaanuri community. What a sham. Today my village is nothing like the land my mother grew up in. Soot has poisoned our skies and crude oil our rivers. I have no beautiful landscapes, no fields to frolic in, and no trees to pluck fruit from. Our days are grey and our nights are red with fire and smoke. What was once my mother’s paradise is now my hellscape.
Every night before I go to bed I think about Venin and how much they have stolen from me. They took my home. They took my parents. My twenty four years have been a succession of what ifs.
The first day of August is always so difficult for me. Mama’s birthday. I now live alone in the humble house we once shared. I miss her sweet smile and her soothing voice. Things were very difficult at the end but I miss taking care of her. She was so weak that In a way she became my child and I her mother. The poor woman was ill for so long that she was almost happy to die. I just wish I had more time with her. She was too young.
For a long time we did not know what ailed her. She wouldn’t stop coughing blood, she got never-ending headaches, chest pain, shortness of breath, the whole nine yards. On top of all this, she couldn’t eat. She was just skin and bones when she died. Every other week, I would take her to the only hospital in our village and they never had an answer for us. Just pain medication prescriptions and recommendations of rest. What rest? How could she rest in that condition?
It was not until the Dibia (traditional Igbo healer) from the neighboring village came to see her that we had a prognosis. He said her own land, the one she grew up in and loved so dearly was slowly killing her. She was suffering from climate change. Venin and their poison killed my mother. Looking back, it makes all the sense that the hospital never gave us a diagnosis. They are sponsored by the poison itself. Being wonderfully magnanimous, Venin set up a hospital in our village to help address the health concerns they claim are genetic to my people. Their penchant for lying is only surpassed by their ability to exploit. These diseases are not genetic. Nobody died of climate change before they showed up.
I get so angry when I think about it but not today. Today is Mama’s day. I have to honor her memory with joy. On my way to work, I whistled her favorite songs and thought about the many ways I could celebrate her today. My Chinenye (Igbo name meaning “God gives”). Delivered to her parents by God himself. My Mama.
“When will you agree to run away with me?” Chiwetel smiled his usual sly smile. “I’m not going anywhere with you,” I said smiling back at him.
“Chioma please tell Dumebi that I’m very serious about marrying her,” he said to our coworker. “Please leave me out of it,” she smiled shaking her head.
We work at the factory together weaving Akwete (hand-woven Igbo textile) and preparing them to be shipped off to the West where white people buy them for ten times our pay.
“Dumebi there’s nothing left for us here. If we move to Aba there are better jobs and its less toxic there. We could get married. You know we’d make strong beautiful babies.” “I don’t want your babies,” I laughed avoiding his gaze. We liked to joke around a lot but I knew he was serious. I knew he would drop everything for me in a second.
“You know I’ll take care of you. If you change your mind you know where to find me.” It’s not that I hadn’t given his offer a second thought. There really is not much left for me in Alaanuri. I have no family, don’t really have any friends, and waking up here everyday reminds me of everything I’ve lost. I am not in love with Chiwetel but I know he would make a good husband. A good father even. He works very hard and he would be kind to me. Our children would want for nothing. I may not love him but I like him well enough to leave with him.
Despite all of this, I know I will never leave. I can’t leave my home. I can’t leave my mother behind. I want to die where she died. I want to be buried where she was buried. As difficult as life has become in Alaanuri, leaving would feel like the ultimate betrayal. I invited Chiwetel to my house later that night to celebrate my mother. We sat in the plastic chairs on the verandah. Just like I would do with Mama before she got too sick to leave her bed. We drank palm wine and laughed about our bosses and silly work stories. After one too many glasses of palm wine the laughter turned sour and I started to cry. It’s funny that even after four years, I am nowhere close to the end of my grief. I don’t know if it will ever be over. Chiwetel wrapped me up in a hug. He reminded me of his offer and I finally told him why I couldn’t leave. “But don’t you think your mother would want you to be happy?”
I had no answer for him. We sat in silence for what seemed like forever. I told him it was getting late and maybe he should leave. He kissed me before he left. I felt nothing. The first day of August is always so difficult for me.
Two weeks later on my way back from the market, I ran into the anti-Venin protests. A group of Alaanuri indigenes who had gotten tired of Venin’s exploitation of our people. They’d been organizing for about two years now with little success. Nobody cared enough to pay attention to us. That’s why I never really bothered to join them. What was the point? I had enough disappointment in my life. Each protest typically had a main focus. One day would be about how Venin had poisoned our water, another would be about the advent of inexplicable illnesses. Like the one that took my mother. Today’s matter was new to me.
“This program is a big insult to the Alaanuri community,” Oge yelled into her megaphone in the middle of the market square. She was one of the leaders of the movement. I remember what she told me at Mama’s burial.
“Venin did this. They can’t keep getting away with it.”
Here she was today fighting the same fight with very little progress.
“Venin has done nothing but cause pain to our community. Now they say they are doing humanitarian work? A big slap to all of our faces! We deserve reparations not fake charity work,” she said. “Not only do they want to kill us all off, but they want to televise it too.” Apparently Venin had a new talk show where their CEO Andrew Green interviewed members of our community about all the good things they were doing for us. A snakish PR move. “They know the opposition is growing stronger. They see that people are listening to us so they result to these stupid tactics. We must keep fighting.”
The whole thing was exhausting. I had no fight left in me.
At work the next day, I noticed everyone avoiding Chioma’s station. No one would look at her. They just whispered to each other with frowns on their faces. I sat with her at our lunch break to figure out what was happening. She looked up from her food surprised to see me there. “Oh you haven’t disowned me like the rest?” she asked
“What are you talking about? Why is everybody acting so strange today? “You mean why is everybody acting strange towards me,” she said picking at her food. “What happened?”
“I’m guessing you don’t watch TV.”
“No, not really my thing.”
She looked at me. She seemed so defeated.
“I was on Venin’s TV show.”
“I know. I know. But trust me it was not something I was very happy to do. My skin was crawling the whole time I was there.”
“Then why did you do it?”
“Look people can judge me if they want to but I have a dead husband and two small children to feed. They offered me a lot of money to do that interview.”
There was silence between us.
“But what happens when the money runs out?” I finally asked.
“Then I will tell more lies for them if they’ll have me again!”
Tears filled her eyes. Who was I to judge Chioma. We were all struggling so much. In her position, who knows what I would have done. I reached for her hand on the table and gave it a squeeze.
“I will never disown you,” I said.
She smiled at me through her tears.
“They were so awful. They made me say such awful things,” she choked up “My husband will never forgive me. The CEO, he brought up my husband and made me say how much they had helped him when he was ill”
“Dumebi I was so embarrassed. We never agreed to talk about my husband. I said I could talk about anything but he was off limits. When we went live they ignored everything I had said. They were all looking at me and smiling. It took so much to not breakdown there and then.” “Chioma I am so sorry.”
I walked around the table and gave her a hug. She was in so much pain.
I don’t know if it was because my heart was so heavy from our interaction, or because I’d been doing a lot of painful reflecting lately but later that night I had a nightmare about my father. I stopped having those years ago but life sometimes, finds a way of reminding us of the things that we try to forget. It was always the same dream. My mother was making dinner for my father in the kitchen. She was seven months pregnant with me. She was expecting him to come home anytime now. A Venin representative knocks at the door and she answers. He tells her that my father has died. He tells her that they valued his work very much and that she will be given what they called a ‘grief package’ to financially support her in her loss. My mother drops to the ground. The shock grips her and she is fully silent at first but then it lets go and the screaming begins. Loud and painful screeching. The screams are so loud that they usually wake me up. I woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat from Mama’s screams.
My father worked for Venin when they first came to Alaanuri. The white expats ‘delegated’ and all the indigenous people did the dirty dangerous work. My father burned to death from an explosion on the rig. He always said he wanted to make some money so he could treat my mother like a queen. He ended up leaving her with nothing. Heartbreaking. I never knew him. I never got to be held by him. I would never hear this laugh. Mama said he had the loudest laugh. I sat up in my bed catching my breath from the nightmare. I suddenly felt an inexplicable strength well up within me. Maybe I had some fight left in me after all.
“Thank you for coming in to speak with us today Dumebi,” Elizabeth said handing me a Styrofoam cup of water. “We would absolutely love to have you on the show.” I was in the belly of the beast. Venin headquarters. A huge building with bland white walls and stainless steel furniture. I felt like a beast being led to the slaughter.
“Thank you for having me,” I squeaked. I could barely look at her. She was Andrew Green’s publicist and one of the producers of the show.
“So it’ll be a thirty minute segment and we’ll just talk about how Venin has helped you and your community. Of course you will be compensated for your time. Is there anything that stands out to you that you’d like to talk about?”
I looked around her office. She had a photo of her children on her desk. They looked so happy. “I lost my mother a few years ago and the hospital was really helpful when she was sick” Her eyes lit up.
“Oh that’s amazing! We can definitely talk about that. And so sorry for your loss,” she said. There was no light behind her eyes. “At Venin, we really care about the Alaanuri community and we just want to highlight all the good work we’ve been doing.”
I had Chiwetel over the night before the interview. The night before my 25th birthday. I told him I would be going on the show. He did not approve. If he knew my actual plans he wouldn’t have let me leave my house. We drank palm wine on the verandah again. I really did like spending time with him. We laughed about work like we usually did. A last hurrah.
“I don’t know why you want to go on that show. I mean I know it’s not the money.” “It’s not the money Chiwetel.”
“Then what is it?”
“You know me, I just want to get Venin’s good word out there,” I said laughing. He wasn’t laughing.
“What are you hiding?”
“I’m not hiding anything.”
“I worry about you sometimes,” he looked so earnest.
“You worry too much about me. Thank you,” I held his hand. “Let’s go inside.” Before it all came crashing down I wanted to feel something good. I knew I’d never experience the love my parents shared but this was close enough. I let Chiwetel hold me and touch me and kiss me and love me.
“Happy Birthday. I love you,” he whispered to me. He was holding me close. He thought I was asleep and couldn’t hear him. But I heard him. I was gone by morning.
Science tells us that the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain in charge of decision making) is fully developed at 25. I went into that interview knowing what decision I was going to make. I have no regrets.
“So just like we went over earlier, when we go live, Mr. Green will ask you about what Venin means to you and how we’ve helped your community. You can talk about your mother and your job at the textile factory,” Elizabeth said. She tucked her hair behind her ear. Her nails were perfectly manicured. A bloody red.
“I’ve got it. Thank you,” I said smiling. I sat next to Mr. Green waiting for the interview to start. I felt a little nervous but as soon as the cameras started rolling, I felt so sure of myself. The way one feels when they know that they’re doing the right thing.
“Dumebi it’s so great to have you on today.” Mr. Green said. It was the first time that morning he had made eye contact with me.
“It’s a pleasure to be here.”
“At Venin we pride ourselves on giving back to the Alaanuri community. We run many programs within the village that give people access to livelihoods, healthcare, and education amongst other things. Dumebi you are one of the many people that have benefited from these programs.”
“Yes. I am so thankful to Venin.”
“Let’s talk about your job. You work at the ModCo textile factory which is actually a sister company of Venin’s”
“Yes I have been very fortunate. When I lost my mother I had no money. ModCo opened its doors to me when I needed it the most.”
“That’s amazing. And so sorry to hear that about your mother. How did she die?” “Well Venin of course.”
Mr. Green’s face turned a little pink.
“Yes you mean the hospital that Venin sponsors in the village helped her a lot during her illness right?”
“No don’t be silly,” I laughed. “I mean that Venin killed my mother.
If Mr. Green’s face was pink before, it was now the darkest shade of red.
“All that Venin has done to the Alaanuri community is steal from us and kill us. You have poisoned our land and our water. We don’t want you here anymore.”
“Why are we still live?! Go to commercial!” Mr. Green barked orders at the cameramen and the producers. He turned to yell at me but immediately went white with shock. He had seen the gun. I shot him twice in his right leg. Elizabeth screamed.
“Somebody call an ambulance!” she knelt by his side crying.
Before I could have a second thought I was tackled to the floor by security. What a birthday.
The warden led me out of my cell. I wondered who had come to see me. I hadn’t gotten that many visitors since I got arrested.
I turned the corner and saw Chiwetel sitting and waiting for me. Of course it was Chiwetel. He smiled at me. He always smiled. Even when things were painful.
“Dumebi, how have you been?” he asked.
“What do you think?”
He was silent. He looked so sad.
“I’m sorry that was rude.”
“You look well.”
We were silent again.
“Why did you have to go crazy and get locked up. I miss you,” he said.
I smiled a little.
“I know you hate Venin but I never thought you’d do anything about it. At least nothing like this.”
“I had nothing left to live for. I thought the cause was worthy enough to sacrifice myself for.” “You had me,” he looked sad again.
“I know. I hope I still do.”
“Well at least you got people talking. Oge says the international community is finally paying attention. They had to denounce you though.”
“Green seems to be slowly recovering.”
“I should have aimed for his heart.”
We laughed together again. It’s hard to admit to myself but I missed laughing with him. At the end of the visit I was walked back to my small cell. Just me my bed and my toilet. Has my life turned out the way I thought it would? No. Would I have done something else if I could turn back time? No. I sit on my bed and think of Mama. My sweet sweet Mama. She comes to me in my dreams sometimes. She sings to me. Her beautiful voice is enough to keep me going. I lost my chance to leave with Chiwetel but at least I will be buried on my mother’s land. My land.
I stood up from my bed and went to throw up. It was the second time that morning. I’d been throwing up a lot lately. Was I sick? I didn’t feel sick but something was off. Then I remembered I hadn’t bled in months.
“Oh my God!”