On July 7, 2005, Marie Fatayi-Williams was getting ready to leave for Mass at the nearby parish in Lagos, Nigeria, when a mystery voice nagged her to switch on her TV. News was breaking of bombs in London, where Anthony, her 26-year-old son and future family head, was building up his career in the Nigerian gas and oil industry.
Was he amongst the 52 commuters who died and hundreds who were injured when four suicide bombers blew themselves up in the London Underground and a bus in Tavistock Square?
Four days later Anthony was still not accounted for. Mrs Fatayi-Williams spoke live on British TV from Tavistock Square: “My son Anthony is my first son, my only son, the head of my family. He’s the love of my life. I am proud of him, I am still very proud of him. What did he do to deserve this?”. Her passionate words made her famous as a symbol of national grief.
Thus begins a mother’s tale of a family caught up in tragedy.
Mrs Fatayi-Williams is an impressive and well-educated woman and she has written a wonderfully readable book. Anthony himself must have been a truly outstanding person. Two small events will demonstrate his calibre. Once at a dance, he went to the defence of a girl who had been slapped even risking his own life. Another time while walking through an underpass with his mother in London they came across a beggar. Anthony reached for some coins and gave them to him. His mother remonstrated with him, saying the man would probably spend them on drink. But Anthony’s reasoning was that they would have a hot meal that night, and it was not for them to decide how the beggar spent his money. Nor was he afraid to defend and practise his Catholic faith, which he shared with his mother.
Fatayi is a Muslim name. Anthony’s father is a leading doctor in Nigeria. He is a Muslim, as was his paternal grandfather, who married an English woman, Irene Lofts. Like many families in sub-Saharan Africa, the Fatayi-Williams are a religious mix, a fact of life which the author considers most natural. She reasons as follows: “Islam, like Christianity, is a religion founded on peace, and perhaps Anthony was a doubly peace-loving man because he came from twin traditions”.
She has harsh words for the callous and evasive British police, who made Anthony’s family feel as if they were related to the terrorists rather than the victims. Nor was she impressed with the memorial service in St. Paul’s Cathedral. There was no parking for families of victims; they were seated in a side nave; their suggestions were ignored; none of them carried candles during the ceremony. A service for Government officials, not grieving relatives, she concluded.
Families were invited to claim £11,000 by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, which the chief executive called “efficient, fair and compassionate”. Mrs Fatayi-Williams called them “a calculated insult”. The Nigerian ambassador was “too busy” to ensure that the Nigerian flag was not hoisted at the memorial spot at Tavistock Square, even though 3 of the 52 victims were Nigerian. Only much later did the Fatayi-Williams family receive an official letter of condolence from the High Commission. But she was grateful to one of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s ministers, Tessa Jowell, for an invitation to her office. She has kind words for notes from Prince Charles and his wife Camilla.
Rather than sit back and lament, the energetic Mrs Fatayi-Williams swung into action. She has launched the Anthony Fatayi-Williams Foundation to encourage multi-cultural debate, education and peace. Her conviction is that it is women who can make a real difference. “As women who grieve, who feel, who touch, who reach out,” she writes, “I think it’s time for us to rise up and lead the world in a movement to restore what every religion preaches: peace.”
This foundation has two goals. The short-term one is to give a voice to the families of the victims of terrorism, to educate young people about the causes of violence, and to strengthen bonds between divided peoples, especially youths on the fringes of society and the poor.
The long-term aim is to reach out to the “peace constituency” — the silent majority who long for an end to war. To show that these are not simply pipe dreams, through Tessa Jowell she has appealed to the 2012 Olympic Committee to use the London Games as a launching pad and loud-speaker for the peace initiative, and for inter-faith dialogue for peace. She also plans to use the Foundation to help educate the youth of the oil-rich Niger Delta who live in “abject poverty, even though engulfed by fumes of untouchable riches”.
Not long ago another autobiographical account of an African woman was published, Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. On the surface the two books have quite a lot in common: both women underwent personal tragedies; both were affected by Islam; both are educated and articulate.
Infidel leaves a bitter taste, of pessimism and frustration which evokes only a certain sympathy, yet the outcome is one of sterility. For the Love of Anthony is the portrait of a mother’s personal faith, courage and forgiveness in the face of suffering. Her forthrightness, occasional humour and motherly feelings burst out on every page, making this book an invigorating tonic.
Martyn Drakard writes from Kampala, in Uganda.