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After Katrina, Nigerian Poet Starts New Life in New England


Surviving Hurricane Katrina has been a life-changing experience for many of the people who were rescued and evacuated… including Niyi Osundare. Now, the well-known Nigerian poet and professor of English at the University of New Orleans is rebuilding his life in a totally different environment, in the northeastern state of New Hampshire.

Niyi Osundare was about to leave his house in New Orleans to drive his wife, Kemi, to the local hospital where she worked, when he found floodwaters covering the driveway. "Soon after, it got into our basement," he says. "My wife and I started trying to save whatever we could."

Unfortunately, this wasn't much. The water quickly swallowed what was most important to him -- his books, manuscripts and computer files. The Osundares fled to the attic, where, without electricity, drinking water or food, or any means of communication, they spent the next 26 hours. "At that time, my wife was almost suffering a heat stroke," he says. "She said, 'Let's try something.' We got a pole. A bag floated toward us. It was red. We tied this bag to the top of the pole, and found a little hole in the roof that we passed it through. My strength was not enough, hers was not enough either. So both of us combined our strength and said, 'Help! One, two, help!' We kept doing that."

Eventually, a neighbor came by in a boat and rescued them. "That was our escape," he says. "It was entirely accidental. If our neighbor hadn't come, we would have been part of the statistics now. The only shirt I had, got torn. That was the rag I was in for a long time, no shoes, nothing. No credit cards, no passport, everything perished in the flood. When we get out, we couldn't recognize our street. New Orleans was water - it was an extension of the lake."

They stayed at various shelters around New Orleans. A few days later, a family offered them a temporary home in Birmingham, Alabama. "The young family gave us a place in their basement," he says. "It was the first time I had access to my computer in days. I saw 800 e-mails waiting for me and wondering where I was. We were there, still wondering where to go next, when an e-mail came from Professor Michael Bell, Provost of Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire."

This compassionate and friendly note, he says, was very comforting. He recalls it said, 'We know what you've been through. We're ready to offer you a place as visiting professorship and a residency for the fall semester. We'll make a place for you and your wife to live. We'll arrange transportation. We'll try as much as possible to replace some of the things you lost.' "Tears came to our eyes," he says.

Niyi Osundare is no stranger to the small New Hampshire school. A few years ago, the college presented him with an honorary degree. Franklin Pierce College President George Hagerty says offering the poet a visiting professorship in his time of need is in tune with the school's mission. "The theme of the college is individual and community," he says. "What's the responsibility of the individual to the community, and in turn, what's the responsibility of that community to provide for the welfare of the individual? Having Professor Osundare with us is just wonderful for the institution. What he adds to the institution in his richness as both a poet and a human being is beyond measure."

Mr. Osundare is not the only Katrina evacuee on the Franklin Pierce campus. Professor Hagerty says that immediately after the hurricane, the college adopted what they call the Katrina Project. "We made a decision after the hurricane to offer full tuition, room, board and fees for 20 Katrina students. We were getting students from Tulane, Loyola, and Dillard. They had already been at their institutions and paid all their tuition and fees. So we felt it was very important to provide some kind of opportunity for them, which would require them to put no money down. They just had to be students in good standing."

Now settled in the town of Rindge, New Hampshire, Mr. Osundare says he feels at home. He has now been in contact with his family who, for one week, didn't know whether he was dead or alive. He also says that he has been inspired as a poet by this traumatic experience. "My daughter spoke to me two days ago," he says. "She said, 'Daddy, I know how you feel. You lost a lot but we gained your life. I went to three bookstores today and saw three of your books. You wrote them and you'll still write others.' She said something that my mother used to say when consoling people. 'It is the water that has spilled, the pitcher is still intact.' In Yoruba we say, 'People are my clothes.' The following morning, I did a short poem: 'I lost my wardrobe, but my clothes are intact. The water is spilled, but the pitcher is here.'"

He also talked with his mother in Nigeria, who reminded him of the irony of his name.

" actually means 'the spirit of the river is on my side," he says. "She said the river gave me to her, and no way can it take me from her. I'm building a poem about this."

Even considering what he lost in the flood, Niyi Osundare says he still believes that he came out a winner. "For two weeks, I'd been a homeless person, an evacuee, taking my food from the Red Cross. It happened to me. I found it humbling, but not humiliating in any way. It reminded me of certain things about human life, it deflated some of the arrogance we carry all over the place."

Niyi Osundare says Hurricane Katrina left him with less property, but more wisdom. He lost his manuscripts, which are irreplaceable. But, he says, the love, kindness and friendship that he has been given made him stronger, and helped him make a new start.

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