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Home Features The Zee Edgell I knew

The Zee Edgell I knew

I rarely visit my homeland, Belize, these days — and this was the case even before COVID’s unwelcomed intervention. But it has nothing to do with distance, cost and time, but rather because of the dumbing down Belize has been relentlessly subjected to in the last few decades, which has made it unusually philistinic and a slow-motion tragedy in the making. However, in the 1980s, and ‘90s, and even in the early 2000s, I willingly took the arduous journey from Nigeria to Belize, cheerfully changing planes from Lagos to London, then Miami or Houston, to get home and spend a month with relatives and friends.

It was at a dinner party held in my honour by Horace Young, one of Belize’s most distinguished and “old school” lawyers, that I first met Zee Edgell on one of my visits home.  Horace, whose maternal grandfather and my paternal grandmother were siblings, and whose mother, Mrs. Florine Gentle Young, was a ward of my grandmother, Margaret Gentle Belisle, was anxious that I meet Zee. “She’s just like you”, he smilingly assured me. I did not think so at the time, because she was “a senior girl” to me, as Nigerians would say, and also because I held her in awe.

Both Zee and I were journalists. She was a trained journalist. I, on the other hand, had wandered into journalism after becoming disenchanted with working in the education sector. I had to learn journalism on the job, and later took journalism courses and did media attachments in the US. But both Zee and I had met our foreign husbands in Belize. Hers, a white American with loads of international experience, came to Belize as the Head of USAID. Mine, an Igbo-Nigerian, was a British-trained barrister and a member of the Bar in England and Wales. He had practised law in London and was recruited by Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office and posted to Belize (then British Honduras) as a Crown Prosecutor before moving to the Bench as Chief Magistrate. In addition, both our husbands were much older than we were: Zee’s by 16 years and mine by 12. What also brought us together was the fact that my husband’s two closest friends in Belize when he lived there, were Zee’s father, Mr. Clive Tucker, and Mr. William Arnold, Belize’s wealthiest Creole entrepreneur at the time. Both men had befriended my husband immediately when he arrived, and the trio were a staple at the Newtown Barracks Club.

Zee had lived in Afghanistan as well as in Nigeria. She had witnessed the Nigerian-Biafran War, had resided in the Eastern Region of Nigeria, which now has been divided into nine states, and she knew Nigeria — the most complex nation in Africa — fairly well. She and I also shared mutual friends. One was Roseline Odeh, who had studied journalism with Zee in Britain at Regent Street Polytechnic, which is now the University of Westminster and is located in London. Both Roseline and I were among a small group of media women in Nigeria who founded the Nigerian Association of Media Women, of which I became its first National Secretary, and Roseline, the first Zonal Chairperson for Lagos.

Another mutual friend of Zee and I was the feminist historian, Dr. Nina Mba. Nina was from Sydney, Australia, and, like myself, had married an Igbo-Nigerian and followed her husband whom she had met in Australia to Nigeria. When I alerted Zee to Nina’s groundbreaking research on female political activists in Nigeria, who included the legendary Fumilayo Ransome-Kuti, the mother of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Afro Beat’s founder and its most famous exponent, as well as Nina shedding new information on the famous 1920s women’s riots against British taxation in Aba, a large town in South Eastern Nigeria, Zee was genuinely excited. We discussed in detail Nina’s book, Nigerian Women Mobilized: Women’s Political Activity in Southern Nigeria, 1900-1965, which had become mandatory reading in almost all Nigerian universities, and even beyond, and which Nina had asked me to review at its launch in Lagos.

Whenever I was in Belize, the Edgells would take me around, and occasionally I would sit with them after dinner at their lovely home in the Kings Park suburb of Belize City and reminisce. During one of our discussions, I discovered that Al Edgell knew a number of prominent players in the Nigerian-Biafran Civil War and had made copious notes of most of his experiences in Nigeria. While I was encouraging him to turn these into a book, Zee, after processing my own experiences in Nigeria, and my working time in Senegal, Gabon, Togo, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa, insisted that I had so many novels inside me just waiting to emerge, that I ought to make time despite my hectic schedule to write them. She used to say: “You have the experiences, the insights, language, and yes — the imagination. Just write”. And, my retort was always the same — “mañana”.

The Zee Edgell I knew was warm, kind, at times self-effacing, and even diffident. She was acutely conscious at one point in time of being criticized (by “bad-minded cruffy”) for not having a university degree and yet being regarded as Belize’s foremost writer and actually teaching at a university. To which I replied that when it came to the arts, those who are painters, sculptors, writers, composers, musicians, and various performing artistes are chiefly measured on entering the Ivory Tower by the quality of their creative work and not the acquisition of degrees. But to my mind, the steady trickle of ignorant and envious nitpicking motivated Zee to storm the halls of academia and enabled her in the process to successfully acquire a couple of degrees. I reassured her then during this acute period of self-examination, that many of us, including myself, who had gone to university, had not achieved the kind of literary recognition she had, and perhaps never would. Her husband, Alvin Edgell, who predeceased Zee nine months ago, was always a tower of strength and totally believed in her.

I am disappointed, but not altogether surprised, that all Belize could have mustered for her was an “MBE”, instead of a “Dame” from its erstwhile rulers, the British. Yet there was this hullabaloo in Belize at one point in time regarding the African-American Olympic and World Championships artistic gymnast, Simone Biles. Belize shouted from the top of the roof about its proprietary rights to the celebrated American sport star, largely based on the fact that Biles’s  STEP-grandmother, who with Biles’s grandfather had adopted her and her sister, Adria, and helped to bring them up, was from Belize. Simone Biles also holds Belizean citizenship through her STEP-grandmother. Yet what really held many Belizeans spellbound was that she refers to Belize as her “second home”!

It is true that unlike the West Indians, we Belizeans are generally bereft of globally recognised icons, such as Marcus Garvey, Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire, Walter Rodney, Eric Williams, and Nobel Laureates in Literature such as my favourite poet, Derek Walcott (he won the Nobel in 1992), and the misanthropist novelist, the Trinidadian-Indian, V.S. Naipaul (in 2001) . Nor do we have many of the likes of the historian, poet, culture activist and Africanist, Edward Kamau Brathwaite of Barbados, who taught me at university and died this year, and the greatest all-rounder to play cricket, (Sir) Garfield Sobers and the runner, Usain Bolt. Unlike Trinidad & Tobago and Jamaica, we did not invent the kind of musical greats like the steel band and reggae, which has not only gone global, but is now nuclear.

However, my characterization of most Nigerian artists in one of my reviews on Nigeria’s contemporary art, as big fish in a small pond, is precisely our situation in Belize. Therefore, when we are confronted by creativity in the form of Errollyn Wallen, the Belize-born British composer, who is a truly global figure in the world’s leading concert halls, theatres and the much acclaimed Proms, we fail woefully to understand what such icons have achieved, and as a result do not know how to adequately reward, celebrate and treasure them.

Mrs. Edgell worked in the early stages of her career as a reporter for Jamaica’s widely respected newspaper, The Jamaica Gleaner, founded in 1834. She later became the founding editor in 1967 of the Belizean newspaper, The Reporter, which began as the newsletter of the Belize Chamber of Commerce. During one of my visits to Belize, I found Zee was lecturing at the University College of Belize, then a college of the little known Ferris State College of Big Rapids, Michigan, and which is now the University of Belize. Zee went on to later lecture in the US when she and her family eventually relocated there, and achieved the laudable feat of becoming a tenured professor of Kent State University.

Zee Edgell has written a number of short stories, as well as four novels. Her novels are: In Times Like These, The Festival of San Joaquin, Time and the River, and her most acclaimed book, Beka Lamb, which many believe shows Zee to be a feminist. This book was published by the highly regarded publishing house, Heineman. Among the literary prizes Zee won are the Fawcett Society Book Prize (1982) and the Canute Broadhurst Prize (1999). Her novel, Beka Lamb, is a staple of literature curriculums and examinations throughout the British Caribbean and Belize. When I handed her signed copies of this novel to her friends in Nigeria, they were not only impressed, but wildly exuberant.

Mrs. Zee I. Edgell made all Belizean alumni of the University of the West Indies (UWI) proud, of which I am one, when in 2009 she was conferred with an honorary Doctor of Letters degree, and was chosen to deliver the keynote address at its ceremony on the Cave Hill, Barbados campus. UWI is the pre-eminent university in the region (50,000 students and five campuses), and the only Caribbean university to make the prestigious list both in 2019 and 2020 of the world’s most reputable university ranking agency, the Times Higher Education. UWI is also one of the world’s most globalised universities, with nine global centres spread across  Europe, Asia, Africa, North America and Latin America. That such a citadel of learning could honour a daughter of Belize is a singular achievement on the part of Zee Edgell, and says much about her. She has contributed to putting Belize on the literary map, with books which largely deal with the political changes and social issues within Belize, and in addition are readable.

Like a true daughter of Belize, Zee was a nationalist, and despite her middle class and in many respects privileged background, she never lost sight of her Belizean Creole origins. Both my friends, Nina and Zee, have been cruelly felled by that seemingly indestructible demon called cancer, a reminder to those of us left behind that in the midst of life there is always the Great Leveller, Death. But as we reflect in these miserable COVID times on the earthly passing of this gracious and inspiring, but very human writer, her children, grandchildren, in-laws, siblings and other members of her extended family should take solace in the fact that through her literary offerings we will always be in Zee’s debt. Indeed, as her spirit continues to live on another plane, in constancy she remains with us through the literature she has bequeathed to all those who love books and enjoy the art of reading.

Therese Belisle-Nweke writes from Lagos, Nigeria.

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