My introduction to Catholic priests and churches in Nigeria and Africa began with meeting Donna in Ottawa during the CUSO orientation that we had before flying to Nigeria. Donna had just completed her two year CUSO journey in Keffi and was in Ottawa for a few days when we newbies were “in training”. I was being posted close to Keffi and Donna wrote several letters for me to take to some people that she had known in Keffi partly as an introduction for me. One letter was to Fr. Michael McPartland who was at a small village just north of Keffi called Gitata.
When I arrived in Keffi , searching for a place to stay as my school was not ready to receive me at that point, I scouted out the local Catholic Church and rectory. As it turned out, Fr. Michael happened to be visiting just at the time I dropped by. I gave him the letter from Donna and Fr. Sandy of Keffi went out to find someone with whom I could stay for a few days while my school accommodation was sorted out. I didn’t spend much time with Fr. Michael but enough that we had some good conversation together. I got to know Fr. Sandy and Fr. Gregory better in later visits.
I got a letter from my mother about six or seven months after I had arrived in Nigeria telling me that a visiting priest had come to their parish and it was announced that this priest was currently stationed in Nigeria. Mom went up to him after mass and told him that I was also in Nigeria. It turned out that it was the very same Fr. Michael McPartland that I had met only once and he told my mother that yes, he knew who I was. Mom was thrilled with the connection.
When I met Stella in Ottawa and we become friends there, I was embarking on a friendship that had a shared religious heritage. I had had no friends prior to this point in my life with which I had that similarity and could use it as a bond in a friendship. Perhaps this was one of the reasons that we found a bond with each other. Though we never discussed it at length, we had an implicit understanding of our mutual heritage. In the two major trips that we took together there was an unspoken familiarity between us that stemmed from this heritage.
When I finally arrived in Nasarawa, I was introduced to Fr. Liam O’Conner by Dave and Bonnie Thompson who were from Edmonton Alberta.
They were in their second year at the Gov’t Teacher’s College in Nasarawa, north from me on the other side of town. Dave, Bonnie and their two young daughters Kara and Sonya became good friends of mine during my first year. Fr. Liam was often at their place and was a favourite visitor of the two girls. Though the Thompsons didn’t attend the Catholic Church, there was a good friendship between the priest and this family.
Liam was a diocesan priest and had asked his bishop if he could spend some time at a mission in the developing world. This was how he wound up in Nasarawa for almost four years. He had some months somewhere else in Northern Nigeria (I don’t remember where) learning Hausa and how to cope with the life and the congregation he would be leading.
Liam was a short and very wiry fellow. He kept his hair trimmed close to the back and sides of his head with a bit of a tuft on the top. He had thick bushy eyebrows and an unruly beard. I arrived at the Thompson’s one day to see Sonya, the younger girl, sitting on Liam’s lap and putting a thin braid into the font of his beard. She seemed to be having fun and Liam seemed to be enjoying the touch of a warm human hand, and especially a child’s, of which he probably didn’t get much. He wore a t-shirt and shorts and sandals as his normal non-priestly garb but he had a crucifix on a cord around his neck much of the time. His eyes were bright and intelligent and he had a sum total of six teeth still mounted in his jaws which was a testament to the proverbial poor British dental care.
I was introduced to “Granny’s Chop House” in Nasarawa town by the Thompsons. Fr. Liam came with us upon occasion and it was at one of these times that Sonya made the remark about Liam’s lack of teeth. “Chop” was pounded yam with either egusi (melon seed) soup or okra soup. Usually a small bit of beef or two was included with the soup. Liam had difficulty chewing the tough beef and declined it or gave his piece to one of the kids. Both Sonya and her older sister Kara seemed to delight in bugging Liam about his molar deficiency.
I determined from Liam where his church and rectory were located in Nasarawa and began attending Sunday Mass there within the first few weeks of my residency in Nasarawa. The church was up through the town and located at the southeastern edge of it. I had to walk from my school, through the town and over to the church a distance of perhaps 2 kms. When I got my motorbike it was an easy jaunt on a Sunday morning.
The church was a circular structure that had a roughly poured concrete floor that was perhaps 15 meters in diameter. There was a low concrete wall around the perimeter with a couple of breaks in it that served as access to the interior. Several large wooden poles were placed around the circumference that held a roof pole structure up that was then thatched with grass. During the rainy season this was fairly waterproof but not entirely. During the dry and hot season the roof provided much appreciated shade. The walls were open above the low concrete edge wall and the roof so any breeze blowing by would keep the congregation relatively cool.
Mass was conducted in Hausa and English. Fr. Liam could speak some Hausa but was not very confident in his ability. He understood Hausa much better. He read parts of the mass in Hausa and other parts in English. His homilies were delivered in English with his Catechist translating into Hausa one or two sentences or ideas at a time. Fr. Liam had a habit of listening to the translation and then nodding when the Catechist was finished as if to tell us, “Yes, that is what I said in English.” I asked him specifically about the translating and he told me that his Catechist did a good job of translating so I can only assume that Fr. Liam’s understanding of spoken Hausa was good.
Liam was pleased that I came to mass as he told me the congregation liked it when a Baturi (foreigner or white person) came. It gave them confidence that they were not just a small Catholic congregation in a predominantly Muslim area.
There were other Christian churches in the area but the Catholic congregation was definitely the largest. The secretary of my school, John, was also Catholic and came to church regularly. He also attended daily mass as often as he could. I was at weekday mass a few times during my years in Nasarawa and John was there as well. John was a tall and very handsome young man. He always had a wonderful smile on his face. We never were more than fellow staff members as I had little to do with school administration but we appreciated each other’s presence.
Fr. Liam’s rectory was a small house close to the church. Though electric power existed in the town and at the two schools, NEPA had not made it out to the corner of town at which the church was located. Liam made do with kerosene for cooking and light for the first two years that he was there.
I visited him at his house a few times; the first couple of occasions were in the later afternoon when I was finished classes. He seemed invariably to be taking a good siesta when I arrived so I had to time my subsequent visits at other hours of the day.
Fr. Liam had a problem with snakes in his house. I don’t know what it was about where he lived but on many occasions a large cobra would enter his house and he would have a walking stick handy to smash it on the head. I don’t know how many he killed but he was quite used to it and I heard about “another cobra” quite regularly.
I can only surmise that since one of the two rivers flowing through Nasarawa was close to his rectory that was why there were so many snakes. They would be looking for prey that was going to and coming from the river.
The close friendship that the Thompsons had with Fr. Liam was extended to the other Canadian family at the Teacher’s college. Dale and Dominique Hardy and their two small boys, David and Justin, were also part of celebrations that included Liam, and when I arrived in Nasarawa, myself as well. Dave had a small multi-passenger van that he used for errands around the town and some holiday excursions with his family. He and Dale used it to drive to Jos to deal with Ministry of Education bureaucratic nonsense as well. One Saturday afternoon ten of us piled into Dave’s van and drove a distance away from Nasarawa to the foot of two small hills east of the town. The Thompsons called them “The Bra Hills” as they sort of resembled a brassiere lying cups up. We went for a hike to the top of one of these hills just as anyone in Canada might do for a family outing. I was still new in the country and was VERY wary of the presence of poisonous snakes. The rest of the crew were already old timers as they had already survived a year of Nigeria. Liam and Dave and Dale had long and stout walking and snake sticks in their hands but seemed confident that they would be able to deal with any potential serpents. I was used to hiking in rattlesnake country in the Southern Okanagan Valley in BC but at least the species that I was used to would generally give out a warning rattle as you approached then. The cobras and mambas and vipers that were indigenous to this area gave you no such warning. The hike was a pleasant and uneventful walk to the top of the hill. A jumble of large rocks with cavities beneath them at the top again gave me pause to be wary of potential snakes but we saw none.
Both the Thompsons and the Hardys left Nasarawa in May 1982 before the end of the school year. They wanted to get back to Canada in time to apply for teaching positions for September of that year. Liam invited the whole crew to his house for a bonfire celebration as a send-off for the two families.
We enjoyed beer and groundnuts (peanuts) and song. The children had “minerals” (soft drinks) which was Coca Cola, Sprite or Fanta as formulated and bottled in Nigeria. As the evening progressed and it was about time to conclude our final time as a small Baturi community, Liam suggested that we link arms around the fire and dance while singing Auld Lang Syne. It was a rather moving experience.
During Fr. Liam’s third year in Nasarawa he finally got electric power. Besides having electric light in his house, the first thing that he did was purchase a refrigerator. Liam didn’t eat much. He mostly survived on beer and cigarettes and there was not much food in his new fridge. However, the upper half was a freezer and Liam loaded it with a couple dozen bottles of beer. He kept the temperature at just the right point so that the alcohol in the beer would prevent it from freezing. Visiting Liam and receiving a beer from him was actually a treat in Physics. He would hand you a bottle of beer, a glass, and a bottle opener, and you would proceed to open and pour your own beer. As you opened the beer and reduced the internal pressure of the liquid, ice crystals would begin to form in it. As you attempted to pour out the beer, further crystals would form at the neck and mouth of the bottle as any flaw in the glass would be a nucleation point. Generally the bottle neck would clog with newly formed ice crystals and you would need to wait a bit for them to melt in the ambient heat of the surrounding air before you could actually get any beer in your glass. This made for a very cold and refreshing drink of beer. Liam was ecstatic at finally having electric power and especially a fridge for his beer.
Liam was not alone in his life style of beer and cigarettes. Most the Catholic priests that I had occasion to share conversation and fellowship with were of the same cloth. All of the ones that I knew were also from the United Kingdom. Two of the ones that I knew in Keffi smoked and drank beer as Liam did. One didn’t smoke but did drink beer with the same gusto. Stella also had a Fr. Sandy close to her post that she became friends with. I met this Fr. Sandy one evening myself and a bottle of beer and a cloud of cigarette smoke were his companions as well. I had a pleasant gab with this Fr. Sandy while sitting outside a bush bar near Stella’s home. I don’t remember much of our conversation but he did give me an anecdote. He had met a young lady from Canada a year or so prior to our gab. She had been introduced to him and was very friendly, holding out her hand for a handshake with an introduction of, “Hi, I’m Randy!” Fr. Sandy was taken aback as in the UK ‘randy’ meant the same as horny in Canada. I knew that but I let him complete his anecdote and have his chuckle.
There were many brands of cigarettes available in Nigeria. Marlboro plus Benson and Hedges and also Craven A are three that I remember. There were also specifically Nigerian brands. The one that I specifically remember is Mars.
Liam smoked these. They were HORRIBLE and STANK. But they were CHEAP. I think that is why he smoked that particular brand.
Liam told me many stories of his various experiences in Nigeria. Soon after he arrived he applied for a Driver’s licence. I went through the same process so I know what he experienced. During the “test” you were asked to identify many road signs that were roughly painted on a large board. Most Nigerian drivers of any stripe simply ignored the signs when they were driving but this was part of the process. Liam told him that he identified everything and answered all the oral questions and when that was finished the examiner drew a large black circle through the entire page on which he had been making note. “What the hell?” thought Liam, “What does he need now?” The examiner began writing up a driver’s licence and said to Liam, “You can drive anything you want to Father!”
Being from the UK, Liam was also used to driving on the left. He told me that switching to a left-hand drive vehicle and then driving on the right was not difficult for him. However, he was once in a bank for a lengthy time and probably came out a bit confused. He went to the right side of his pickup truck and got it and looked at the dash board. “Someone’s nicked me steering wheel!” he exclaimed to himself and then realized his error. He was chuckling about this mightily when he told me.
When I was told that Noreen McCaffrey was going to be posted at the Teacher’s College up the road from me I was also asked if I could write her a letter to welcome and introduce her to the town. I had had some personal introduction from Donna in Ottawa when she gave me letters to take to Keffi so I felt some obligation to provide the same to Noreen the NEW newbie. With the Irish surname of McCaffrey, she likely was Catholic and I assumed that to be the case. In writing to her I explained the presence of several non-Nigerians in the area including Fr. Liam.
I was part of the orientation crew when Noreen’s cohort arrived in Kano in August 1982 and we were introduced to each other. We had a few beer and conversations together. We agreed to attend mass together on the Sunday of this orientation week in Kano but neither of us got up in time that morning. Our first mass together, however, was in Keffi. Fr. Liam was away for some time when Noreen first arrived in Nasarawa. I don’t remember exactly where he was but he may have been home visiting family in England. He had already been in Nigeria for two years at this point so I am pretty sure that is where he was at this time. I introduced Noreen to the Keffi priests and we went to mass there a few times in late August, early September. The first time we went, she had not yet purchased her motorcycle and we rode double on my machine up the 40 kms to Keffi. The church and congregation in Keffi were both much larger than in Nasarawa so our attendance was not as novel as other Baturi had occasionally been parishioners there.
One of Liam’s brothers was also a Catholic priest back in England. When their mother died his father entered the seminary and also became a priest. When the three of them met together they would greet each other with: “Hello father, father. Hello to you father and father….” a humorous start to a small family gathering.
When Liam arrived back in Nasarawa I introduced Noreen to him. He explained that he was English, sixth generation as a matter of fact, named: Liam O’Conner.
Noreen laughed heartily at this and said, “Liam! You’re as Irish as the day is long!” using a very Irish phrase. I learned other Irish idioms from her, that being one of the first. Liam did not dispute this fact very much as he could not escape his name. He most decidedly DID NOT have an Irish accent, however.
Liam became a bit of a fixture at Noreen’s place. Since they both smoked, they often sat in her living room area and shared a time of cigarettes. I endured it but wasn’t crazy about sitting there with them. A couple of beer would make it tolerable.
I collected cashew seeds in their husks from the trees around my house and a few handfuls of these wound up at Noreen’s place. Liam would take a cigarette lighter and burn off the husk of a cashew seed removing the caustic urushiol oil and making the inner nut edible in the process. On more than one occasion while he and Noreen sat in conversation wreathed in cigarette smoke, I repaired to her kitchen and dining room and mixed up a batch of donuts to be subsequently deep fried and then drenched in sugar. It got me out of the smoke for a bit and also allowed the two of them to have a conversation without me in it. The donuts were appreciated.
Noreen and I attended mass in the tumble down thatched roofed church a couple of times but the fury of the storms of the current rainy season meant that the building needed re-thatching and Liam was not going to spend money on that.
He had inherited the foundation of a new and much larger church right next to the old structure and had been busy building it in the prior year. It was not quite useable at this point but he did get it roofed within a couple of months of the end of 1982. I don’t remember when we first had mass there but it may have been sometime in October. Thereafter mass was in the new structure. It was constructed from concrete cinder blocks and had only a couple of windows. The front wall and the wall behind the altar were where the wall blocks had been turned on their sides so that their hollow centers provided some light and air flow from the outside to the inside of the church. The inside of these blocks were eventually painted various primary colours so that light shining through them gave an almost stained glass feel to the ambiance. Very much a Poor Man’s version of stained glass but it sufficed.
Fr. Liam also gave an early morning mass at the Gov’t Teacher’s College where Noreen was posted. I didn’t know this during my first year. A classroom was used and a dozen or so students would attend mass at 7 AM. I remember going there once and Noreen went on several occasions as we didn’t always attend mass together.
When Stella and I met up for our second motorcycle sojourn we stayed in Vande Ikya in Benue state for a couple of nights (see my account of this journey). We were there on Easter Sunday and Elva, whom we were visiting, arranged a multi-passenger van for all who would like to attend Easter mass that day. About 8 of us did. Elva knew the parish priest of the church we went to though she was not Catholic herself. In fact, just Stella and I and one other lady were Catholic of the crew we were with. This mass was given in the Tiv language. Though I didn’t meet this priest, he was also from the UK and had been at this church for a few years already.
A week later, Stella and I were in Douala in Cameroon and attended mass in a large church, Saint’s Peter and Paul, in that city. This time the mass was conducted in French and a large portly Gallic priest presided.
Noreen and I did a major motorcycle trip together through Nigeria up to Niger down through Benin over to Togo and then back to Nigeria (see my account of this journey). While in Cotonou in Benin for a couple of days we entered a very large and airy church. I was getting used to Noreen’s habit of crossing herself as we passed a church, this seemed to be an Irish thing to me as I was not aware of this custom before, but this time she wanted to actually enter. It was a hot and humid day like many days on the coast of West Africa. Within the church, however, there was relative coolness.
We seated ourselves in the main nave. There were few other people in the church at the time. To the left of the altar in a side section of pews were a few Béninoise ladies who were engaged in praying the rosary.
I don’t remember if they were reciting in French but this was most likely as we were in French West Africa.
A few days later we were in Togo and it was Christmas Day. We attended Christmas mass in Aného and were greeting by shyly smiling kids whom we had met the prior day at the beach, another funny anecdote in my travelogue. This mass was given in Ewe. Having attended mass in Nigeria in Hausa and Tiv, and during the prior August while in Kenya, in Swahili, this was mass for me in a fourth African language. I count these four languages as part of over a dozen different languages in which I have attended Catholic mass.
When the new church in Nasarawa became useable the number of congregants increased substantially. There were always dozens of young children and both secondary schools were boarding schools so students of Catholic faith from other communities helped to swell the ranks. There were some large celebrations in the new church. One particular young fellow took upon himself the role of child minder.
He wielded a thin wooden rod that he used to tap and admonish youngsters if he thought that they were not engaging closely enough with the mass. No one but the young kids seemed to be upset with his self-appointed role. I suppose someone had to do it but mostly the children were very well behaved. Perhaps he just needed to have a role in the celebration and saw this one as unfilled and, in his mind, necessary.
Easter 1983. We had got Noreen a plane ticket home to attend the sudden wedding of her younger sister. I had seen her off at the Kano airport and had got back to Nasarawa to attend Easter service before I headed out on a solo motorcycle journey. Fr. Liam had decided on an Easter Vigil mass that included a large bonfire outside the church from which he would light his Pascal candle. The congregants, including myself and John, the school secretary, stood around the blazing bonfire while Liam said several Catholic incantations.
A wind was picking up and flames and sparks were jumping up from the fire. It was a much larger fire than we really needed and it was being whipped into a frenzied furnace by the incipient wind. As Liam completed the introductory prayers to the Easter Vigil mass, the wind really got up its strength. Liam attempted to light his large Pascal candle from the fire but by this time it had become too hot to be very close to it. The end of his candle melted away in the heat without igniting the wick. He tried several times before a flame finally remained dancing on his candle. Thin tapers had been handed around to the waiting congregants and one was ignited from Liam’s candle.
This flame was then swiftly passed to other tapers as we all tried to light our own in the blustery evening. No sooner was a taper lit then it was blown out by the wind. Low chuckles were flowing through the attendants. As Liam led the procession into the church we stopped often to get our personal tapers relit from someone beside us. I walked beside John and we both shared a single flame for much of the way as we kept getting one blown out.
Finally getting into the church and its calm air, we dispersed ourselves within it and a soft glow lit up our faces. Though Liam had electric power in his rectory, the church itself had not yet been wired for light. A dark and blustery night outside the building was given a decidedly welcoming glow by the myriad tapers that were now shedding light upon us.
Liam’s reflecting white face was easily seen as I am very sure was mine. However, the dark faces of the African congregants were giving faint sheens that did not do much to define their features. Mostly I saw variously outlined head silhouettes and had to guess to whom they might belong. The lovely harmonies of voices that produced the Pascal hymns were a magnificent adjunct to the soft candlelight that filled the church. Mass this evening was a very glorious affair.
Noreen and I were in Lafia, a town to the east of Nasarawa, one weekend. The road back home was about a 3 to 3.5 hour ride which included a horrendous 65 kms on the Keffi-Akwanga road. This was a bit of hell that we just endured when we needed to travel and it was the only route going in the direction we needed to go. On this occasion we were steered to a more direct route that would take us home in a shorter distance and hopefully in less time. Bad advice and a bad decision but after 5 hours of motorbike dirt riding we arrived at the south edge of Nasarawa and Fr. Liam’s house and decided to stop and say hello. Liam was hosting an ecumenical meeting with the other Christian pastors of Nasarawa and environs when we arrived so we only said hello and then goodbye and promised to get together in a few days. Liam often had such meetings in various places in the town and in other, larger centers as well. Since the area we lived in was populated at least 60% by people of Islamic faith, the Christian ministers had to negotiate with the Imams of the area as well. I am sure that they saw the Christians as encroaching on and pilfering the local population so there was some friction between Muslim and Christian clerics.
One evening Liam came to my house and just opened the door and walked in. I don’t think that he knocked first and I sure didn’t open the door myself. Liam greeted me with “Hey, Rick, ya fucken’ Canadian! Bring me a beer!” Ok. Not exactly his usual greeting so I knew that something unusual was happening. Liam was also not a regular visitor at my house. I was at his place more than he was at mine. I got him a cold beer.
Uncapping the beer he took a long swig and then blurted out, “Those Muslims! They are EVIL people, they’re EVIL!” Ok, Liam, calm down. I don’t remember the conversation specifics other than the local Imam and perhaps even the Emir had flatly denied the Christian ministers some request. I am sure that they all thought that it was a perfectly reasonable request but the Islamic authority of the town didn’t. After a couple of beer and some venting conversation Liam’s blood pressure retreated to a more normal level and he left for home. I never heard any more about what had so upset him.
Noreen and I went with Liam to one of his outlying missions one Sunday.
He and his Catechist rode in the cab of his Peugeot pickup and Noreen and I rode in the box. This was very Nigerian but also very rural Canadian so this was not my first experience in riding bareback pickup. The small village of Ara was to the west of Nasarawa. Down the paved highway a few kilometers and then off on a very rutted and bumpy bush dirt road. Ara was a small village with a straight and wide main street that was lined with shops and houses. It was also a very rutted street. The overwhelming feature of the town, however, was a large inselberg that towered over the southwest edge of the town. Ara Rock it was called. A large sugarloaf shaped monolith of basalt, I think.
The church was a small building abutting the edge of an agricultural field. It was concrete floored and walled and corrugated zinc roofed. It proclaimed itself with a name scratched into the blue paint over the door: “Kalik Chuch”! The interior held a small altar and the pews were of an unusual construction. They were arranged in a bit of an arc along the length of the interior with the altar near one of the longer sides of the rectangular room. The pews were concrete and plaster risers that came out of the undulating concrete floor.
They rose about 40 cms above the floor and were about 10 cms wide and rounded over on top. Not exactly comfortable to sit on and being cemented to the floor were not moveable. Mass was a sparsely attended affair but it was mass anyway. After mass we took a few photographs of the church and the environs and then drove back to Nasarawa.
Noreen went with Liam to at least one other mission parish after I left for Canada.
One time it was south of Nasarawa all the way to Loko at the Benue river. I have a few photos of her journey with Liam to this town. I never was there myself. One story about going to Loko that Liam told me was when he and his Catechist were driving to Loko early one morning. I had made a couple of motorbike trips partway down this road so I knew what the initial landscape was like. Liam said that as he drove up and over a low rise in the road there to one side stood a wonderful antelope in full side view. He stopped and took in the wildlife spectacle. Much of the wild game that used to exist in Nigeria has since disappeared so this was not a regular occurrence. Liam remarked out loud that he didn’t have his camera and this was a disappointment. His Catechist replied back, “And I don’t have my fucking gun!”
Liam recounted to me a story about baptizing a local village chief’s son. This was at another mission that he had established. After the baptism ceremony he was sitting with the chief and a few other people enjoying a beer. The chief whistled for a dog to come to him which it dutifully did. Taking a sharp knife the chief slit the poor animal’s throat and bled it in front of Liam. When it was dead he handed it to one of his older sons saying, “Here. Cook this for the Father.” Liam was aghast when he told me this. “So, what did you do?” I asked him. “I HAD to eat some of it!” he declared. The things that a priest has to do to maintain good relationships!
Fr. Liam had to rely on his congregation and their mass offering for much of the financial needs of the church.
He had a Peugeot pickup for his personal transport. I don’t know how he acquired that. Noreen and I were at his rectory one day picking up some mail that he had managed to receive in Keffi. A letter addressed to Noreen from her mother was given to him and he was passing it on to her. I opened it. Out fell a Canadian $100 note. Prime Minister Borden stared out at us in Africa. “Yauwa!” I exclaimed. The included letter from her mother, May, said that this was to be given to Liam for church purposes. The end of the school year was in sight and Noreen and I were planning another out-of-country trip. We were in dire need of finances other than Nigerian Naira (₦). I offered to exchange the $100 for ₦100 and Liam accepted on the spot. The Canadian cash wasn’t much good to him as he would have to either cash it in a bank with subsequent explaining as to where he got it from or attempt to exchange it on the money black market somewhere. He didn’t want to do either of those things. Though he might have received more than ₦100 on the black market he was satisfied with what I gave him.
When I left Nigeria I had not yet received my last month’s salary. I wrote a check to Noreen so that she could withdraw the ₦300 when she got back to Nasarawa after our trip and I had gone back to Canada. I told her to keep half and give the rest to Liam. Most of my Sunday offerings were 1 or 2 Naira and occasionally ₦5 so giving this bit of extra cash to him was a bit of reparation for me for not giving more during my time in Nasarawa. Most of the weekly cash that he received was in the form of 5 or 10 kobo coins though there were a few richer congregants and Liam told me he could count on a couple of ₦10 notes and maybe a ₦20 note each Sunday. When I got home and told a few stories about my time in Nigeria my mother decided that she wanted to send Liam some money. I think mom mailed Liam a $100 note.
When I was leaving Nasarawa I asked Liam to pick me up and take me to Noreen’s place the day before I left. My motorcycle was already at Noreen’s and there was some household materiel that I wanted to pass on to her as well so his pickup truck was nice to have for this purpose. Noreen and I had become close over the prior year and we were planning on another holiday together before I continued on home to Canada so we were consolidating our plans. We didn’t survive a subsequent reunion in Canada. Liam stayed for supper this evening. The evening was winding down but before Liam got up to leave I told him bluntly that Noreen and I had grown in our love for one another and though I was going home to Canada and she was staying in Nigeria, I asked him to bless our love for each other. I saw Noreen’s eyes filling with tears. He stared at me and then said. “I’m a fool! I’m such a fool!” Apparently he hadn’t picked up on what our relationship had progressed to though several other people (women) who didn’t live in Nasarawa had. I guess it was a male thing. Anyway he declared that Yes! Yes he would bless our relationship and gave an impromptu prayer and blessing to us before he headed out the door. That was the last time I saw Liam.
I lost touch with Fr. Liam O’Conner. I do know that he returned to England and his family after spending four years in Nigeria, most of it in Nasarawa. With the advent of the commercial internet I tried searching for him several times. His name never came up in my searches. No cyber presence for Fr. Liam. I emailed a few dioceses in England asking if someone could do some searching for me but I received no answer to any of my enquiries. In August 2014 I again GOOGLE’d his name and this time I found him. I found his obituary. Liam had died after a short illness a week or so before my latest search for him. This was the only reference I found until I actually had a parish to look for. Within the context of his parish I found his name a few times but nothing more.
Fr. Liam was in his early to mid-seventies when he died. He was a non-descript forty something when I knew him. I wrote his parish and they gave me the email address of one of his brothers. I sent his brother a bit of my remembrances of Liam and a few digital pics of him and our time together in Nasarawa. I emailed Noreen (I had reconnected with her about 5 years prior to this) and told her about Liam. She thanked me for the information and told me she had often wondered about Liam over the years but also had lost touch with him. Separately we honoured his memory.