The mourners who walked down into Depo Edu's small apartment carried with them the grief of a town and, some said, that of his homeland.

Inside the almost windowless apartment in Hyattsville yesterday, they stood solemnly along the walls, or sat silently at the kitchen table, or sobbed softly on the couch next to his widow, Olasumbo.

Friends said the Edu, 38, a cabdriver by necessity, saw his stay in this country as a stage in a life to be lived, with his wife and three children, almost entirely in Nigeria. The return to his homeland, which could have occurred as early as this year, ended early yesterday when a gunman shot and killed him during a robbery attempt while he was on duty.

No one knew yesterday how much the killer may have stolen in the robbery, which occurred about 2 a.m. in the 1400 block of Florida Avenue NW. Change was strewn about the cab's interior, and a witness told police he saw a man running from the scene. Edu was a driver for Le Chic Taxicab of Washington.

Just an hour earlier, Edu had picked up his wife at Prince George's County Hospital, where she is a nurse's aide, and taken her home to their apartment in a housing complex on Toledo Place just north of Prince George's Plaza.

With a bachelor's degree in agriculture and a master's degree in business, Edu was set to return to Nigeria and make his contribution, friends said. He was biding his time here while his wife finished her degree in nursing.

It is this that compounded the tragedy. Unlike others who emigrated for good, Edu always spoke about "coming back" to Nigeria and "rebuilding the country," said one friend, the Rev. Samuel Fatokun.

"As he is a loss to the family, so he is a loss to the country," said another friend, Abiodun Adepoju.

In 1980, with a scholarship from the Nigerian government, Edu emigrated from a town in the state of Oyu to this country and began his studies in Illinois and later at the University of the District of Columbia, friends said. Soon his wife joined him. Their oldest daughter, Mojisola, 9, was born in 1981, followed by Ademola, 5, and Olutoyin, 2.

An unspecified problem with his immigrant status -- his wife said his residency was approved within the last four months -- made cabdriving his temporary career. His flexible schedule also made him the homemaker, and friends said it was he who woke the children, dressed them for school and prepared their dinner.

Mojisola, standing stoically, described him this way: "If he had one penny, he would spend it on us. He would try to encourage us to do our work at school so we could get a good education."

Statistics on the number of cabdrivers killed or robbed were unavailable yesterday, but at least two were slain in the District last year.

Cabdrivers in the District have long complained about a fare structure considered low despite recent increases. Drivers, many of them immigrants like Edu, say they must work longer and longer hours to make enough money.

If not the targets of armed robbers, those who work nights say there are people who simply do not pay. On Tuesday night, for example, two teenagers refused to settle a fare and bolted from a cab near Capitol Hill. The two were quickly caught by U.S. Capitol Police officers.

One youth was carrying a .32-caliber handgun, and both were suspects in an armed robbery earlier that day, Capitol Police said.

Like other drivers, Edu recognized those dangers. One night last week, Fatai Ahmed, a Nigerian who also drives a cab, stopped at a traffic light and noticed the cab in the next lane was driven by Edu. It was late, and business was very slow. Ahmed, speaking out his window, asked his friend why he was still searching for riders. It was the last time the two friends saw each other, and the moment seemed fixed in Ahmed's memory.

" 'Well, we have to eat,' " he remembered Edu replying. Ahmed paused and added, "Then the light passed, and that was it . . . . "

Friends said the family is left with little money and wishes to take Edu's body back to Nigeria for burial.

Anyone wishing to contribute may contact Rafiu Alabi at 301-249-8423.