February is Black History Month in the United States and Canada. As is my custom, I’ll devote most of this month to highlight the enduring but often ignored trans-continental affinities between Black America and Africa and to celebrate known and unknown people who are central to the sustenance of the sometimes strained but nonetheless abiding kinship between Black Africa and its historic diaspora in the Americas.
Permit me to start the series with a tribute to my father-in-law by the name of Mr. Edwin Chukwumezie Erinne who has been married to a charming, good-natured, and kind-hearted Black American woman for nearly 44 years—and who also celebrated his 78th birthday yesterday. He is by far one of the brightest, kindest, pleasantest, least prejudiced, and most principled people anyone can ever wish to know.
He met his Black American wife by the name of Mrs. Cecilia Crump Erinne in 1975 when he came to Utah State University to study for a master’s degree in engineering where she also was studying for a master’s degree in mathematics. They fell in love and decided to get married in 1977 after completing their degrees.
Mrs. Erinne’s father wasn’t opposed to her getting married to a Nigerian, but he insisted that she first visit Mr. Erinne’s home in Nigeria and determine if she could live there. So, she visited New Bussa, the headquarters of Borgu Local Government Area in former Kwara State before it was ceded to Niger State in the 1990s, where Mr. Erinne worked as an agricultural engineer at the National Institute for Freshwater Fisheries Research.
She loved the serenity of the town and the easy disposition of its people. And, of course, the fact that her future husband was the same person in his home as he was in America convinced her she was making the right choice. They got married in 1978 in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and she relocated to Nigeria thereafter.
She taught mathematics at Borgu Secondary School, rose to become the school’s first (and only) female principal, and retired in 2004 as a director at the Niger State Ministry of Education. She trained generations of doctors, engineers, scientists, professors, and other professionals some of whom have become senators, members of the House of Representatives, and permanent secretaries.
She is now so Nigerian that even Black Americans in her home state of Mississippi who didn’t know her when she grew up there call her “that African woman”!
I’m from the Kwara State side of Borgu, and several people from my hometown and social circles who attended Borgu Secondary School used to talk about an exemplary Igbo-Black American couple in New Bussa whom I did not in my wildest dream think I would ever meet. But by a quirk of circumstances, they are now my parents-in-law!
I first met Mr. Erinne and his wife in 2012, one year after dating their daughter, Maureen, a former PhD student at the university where I teach. She was introduced to me by her former elementary school classmate in New Bussa by the name of Mohammed Dahiru Aminu.
Mr. Erinne took a liking to me the very first day he met me. He said he knew me in New Bussa (it turned out he was mistaking me for a cousin of mine) even though I’ve never visited the town. Out of politeness—and, frankly, intimidation—I didn’t dispute what he said. We now laugh over it.
The more I interact with Mr. Erinne, the more I understand why my mother-in-law would leave her comfort zone in America and relocate to a sleepy, mid-sized Nigerian town to live with him and give birth to all six of her children, except the last one, in Nigeria.
Mr. Erinne was born in Okija in what is now Anambra State around February 1944. His family name, Erinne, is the corruption of the Igbo word Ehilinne (which translates as contentment) by Christian missionaries with whom his father worked.
The Erinne family’s relatively early exposure to western education has earned them several claims to fame in Anambra and Igbo land. For instance, the late Chief Phoebe Chiadi Ajayi-Obe (nee Erinne), Nigeria’s second female Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and Eastern Nigeria’s first female SAN, is Mr. Erinne’s older sister. His late older brother, Dan Erinne, is Nnewi South’s first graduate, and another older brother, Ben Erinne, is the first lawyer in Ihiala local government, which was carved out of Nnewi South.
He is also one of the first sets of engineers to be trained at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and was commissioner of agriculture in Anambra State after retiring as Deputy Director from the Federal Civil Service.
In spite of his profound cultural insertion and pride in his Igbo culture, he is a deeply cosmopolitan and broad-minded person who respects and accepts people who are different from him. There is no part of Borgu he hasn’t travelled to. His open-mindedness, benevolence, and immersion in Borgu culture caused him to be beloved in New Bussa and beyond.
When I went to seek his daughter’s hand in marriage in 2013, three years after losing my first wife in a car accident, he didn’t show the slightest prejudice against me. He was warm, welcoming, and comforting.
This was no surprise because some of his best friends, who are now like family members to him, are northern Muslims from Borgu. For instance, a few months after meeting him, he told me one of his best friends is Alhaji Isa Ibrahim Bio, who was Nigeria’s Minister of Transportation and later Sports during the Yar’adua/Jonathan administration, and that their children relate to each other as if they were biological cousins.
Well, Alhaji Isa is married to my cousin, Hajia Jummai! He was pleasantly shocked to know that—in addition to other unexpected connections— and this discovery has so strengthened the bond that binds us that he now feels like my own biological father, although he chooses to mock me as “Alhaji ba Makkah” (an Alhaji who hasn’t gone to Mecca!).
It’s also interesting that people who found out that my father-in-law is Igbo used to say my criticism of the Buhari regime was inspired by connubial solidarity with the Igbo when, in fact, my Mr. Erinne was a passionate Buhari supporter until 2018! We used to disagree respectfully over Buhari.
Mr. Erinne is fiercely loyal, unquestionably protective, and brutally honest. He would never say behind someone’s back what he can’t say to his face. But in his brutal honesty, he is also thoughtful and compassionate.
The first State Security Service (SSS) officer from my hometown, who died a few years ago, benefited from Mr. Erinne’s brutal honesty and benevolence. After his teacher training education in New Bussa, his path fortuitously crossed with Mr. Erinne’s. He wanted Mr. Erinne to help him get a job in a federal establishment, but he just had a Grade II certificate.
Mr. Erinne told him with that qualification, he would perpetually be a low-level worker. He encouraged him to earn a high education qualification and paid for his education quietly. I knew the story but had no idea whom my hometown man’s benefactor was. It was during one of our lengthy conversations that I serendipitously discovered that he was that “kind Igbo man” I’d heard of who took the responsibility to fund the higher education of a total stranger.
One of Mr. Erinne’s distinct qualities is his extraordinarily capacious and retentive memory. He doesn’t seem to forget anything, including phone numbers. He types people’s phone numbers from memory and has little use for a phonebook! Maybe that’s why he is such a mathematical genius.
Each time I connect his wife with some of her past students from my part of Borgu and the wife has trouble recalling them, he remembers them with remarkable fidelity, especially if they had ever visited the family. I’ve never known anyone in their late 70s whose brain has remained as alert and as fecund as his.
He is also a tough, resilient soul who has defied death in multiple, mysterious ways. He has been involved in accidents in Nigeria in which only he survived. His relocation to the United States in 2007 was unplanned. He and his wife merely came on a flying visit to see his parents-in-law—and their six children who live here—and had planned to return to Nigeria.
But he was diagnosed with a life-threatening medical condition, which he didn’t know he had, and which would have killed him if he hadn’t come here. His diagnosis compelled him to settle in America and acquire a U.S. citizenship, which he had resisted acquiring.
On multiple occasions, he has had health crises that caused us to give up on him, but he would bounce back up like nothing happened. The last crisis he survived stretched everyone’s optimism to its elastic limit. When he survived it, we decided to celebrate his life while he was alive, but COVID flared up and he requested that we cancel our plans.
Please join me to honor this remarkable man whose life has been spent building bridges across cultures within Nigeria and between Nigeria and the Black Diaspora.