Ikhide

Father, Fighter, Lover

A. Igoni Barrett, love, power, stories, living books, and all that jazz

“There are other human experiences and emotions to write about beside anger. Poems are not only for gunning, for other people, no matter how pernicious they may be. Anger is a tiny bit of human existence and should never be over-orchestrated. I am very suspicious of ‘Protest Poetry’. Poetry can be redemptive without being a banal protest; without exuding forced righteousness. Shrillness cheapens poems. A nation that demands that the entirety of its poetry should only address socio-political ills must be delusional, hysterical, and uninhabitable. A poet should not only be wracked with the meanness of history.”

- Uche Nduka in an interview with Uche Peter Umez

Igoni Barrett’s Love is Power, or Something Like That is a good, albeit frustrating read, those who love good writing will enjoy the power, intellect and industry that Barrett brings to this collection of nine tales. The Kindle copy is published by Graywolf Press, and the hard copy by Farafina Publishers. You should read the stories, if you’ve not already read them elsewhere online; Barrett displays great range in the writing. He is a powerful writer, and it shows in the stories, well it mostly does, for even with his immense talents and skills, this is a frustrating book. If the stories look familiar to some readers, it is because the book is really an archive of works previously published online. This is becoming a pattern with new writing – it portends the future of the book. The lot of the artist in the 21st century is to endure the book as a museum. Indeed it is the case that a frugal and enterprising reader could probably cobble these stories together free off of the Internet by simply trolling the Internet. I loved that the stories were well edited, some would say over-edited, perhaps to broaden the buying market to the West where the money is. Still I found a few editing issues. I wouldn’t give the publishers much credit for the editing quality since they were previously published by online journals that pride themselves on high publishing standards.

It is interesting, reading through the numerous blurbs in the book by many writers (Teju Cole, Binyavanga Wainaina, Doreen Baingana, Helon Habila, Michela Wrong, etc.) they speak mostly of Barrett as a writer of great talent and skills, rather than to the contents of the book. This is appropriate; they are on to something. As I often argue, it is unfair to judge today’s African writers solely on the output of their books. Chinua Achebe’s generation had only the book as the canvas for their literary output. Today’s generation is suffering an embarrassment of riches and a cruel paradox: They are doing great work in the new frontier – the Internet, that publisher of choice for young African writers – struggling with the reality and notion – that to be taken seriously as a writer one must have published a book – any book. For writers in Africa faced with a publishing industry that is at best mediocre, this is a tragedy. They are being judged by circumstances beyond their control. Love is Power or Something Like That is a good collection of stories but it does not even begin to light a candle to Barrett’s brilliance, innovation and leadership in telling the stories of Africa on the Internet. That is a shame, for when the history of online writing is told, at least with respect to African writing, Barrett’s name deserves to be up there with all the other digital warriors too numerous to mention that have ensured that Africa is undergoing a renaissance in literature.

So, let’s talk about the book. I have said it is an uneven book in terms of the quality of the stories, stories that stay with me because they are unrelenting in their sadness and despair. The stories bathe the reader with detailed vivid, disturbing imagination. Desolation, despair and mind-numbing suffering are everywhere. You get used to reading stuff like this:

The bathroom was small, low-ceilinged, and stank of mildew. A colony of chitinous creatures thrived in the wet earth underneath the metal bathtub. She glanced around out of habit to see if any cockroaches had ignored the daylight signal to return to their hiding places, but in the dim lighting, her eyesight failed her.

Barrett, A. Igoni (2013-05-07). Love Is Power, or Something Like That: Stories (Kindle Locations 73-75). Graywolf Press. Kindle Edition.

What strikes the reader is how Barrett expertly documents the intellectual and spiritual emptiness of life in contemporary Nigeria. Nigeria comes across as one vast farce, filled with suffering, incompetence and mediocre thinking. When the reader comes across signs of deep introspection in the characters one gasps with relief. The writer is challenged to entertain the reader with more than vacuous pablum. Nigeria hasn’t changed much; it is the same old stuff, the usual anxieties that seem to preoccupy African writers: immigration or the movement to other climes, the many vices of relationships (betrayal, infidelity), state sanctioned brigandage in the Nigerian Police Force. The new Christianity and prosperity churches, corruption, alcoholism, patriarchy, rape, you name it, all of Black Africa’s dysfunctions are collected like drunken deadbeats and made to stand at attention. It is discomfiting. In Barrett’s world, people live like lower animals. That is where his muse inhabits. There are all these asymptotes everywhere; Barrett is always questioning one injustice or the other, smirking at one dysfunction or the other. In unsparing detail. Many of these stories are beyond dark and disturbing. The darkness rushes and rises into a raging crescendo. And you are stunned by the casualness of evil. The Nigeria here is another planet. Dark. These are sad stories. Sometimes though, the love still shines through the savagery. Somehow you are reminded that these are human beings. There is humor, of the wry variety, not enough of it, alas. Barnett takes himself very seriously. Which reminds me, graphic illustrations would have broken the monotony of text.

About the stories, for my money, the piece, The Worst Thing That Happened is probably the most sophisticated short story I have read in recent times. This story alone is worth the price of the book. And yes, it debuted in Guernica (here). It contains some of Barrett’s most poignant prose. This is a deeply rich and brilliant conversation about immigration, relationships, the extended family, and fraying ties in a global world. This is brilliant, muscular writing strutting about with quiet dignity. The reader will enjoy cool lines like this one:

A FanYogo carton lay on the road, and strawberry yogurt had leaked out and pooled on her paved frontage, a lurid pink surface dive-bombed by flies. (Kindle Locations 103-104)

In a clever twist, Barrett ties it to another story in the book, Perpetua and GodSpeed, another lovely story marked by disciplined, tightly woven sentences that pounce into a beautiful trot. Here there is a tender reflection on fatherhood and one grows to admire Barrett’s eclectic eye.

Dream Chaser comes across as a dated story about 90’s style Internet scams. I am not sure I would call this a short story, whatever it is, I enjoyed it a bit. It needed more work and sounded somewhat contrived.

The Shape of a Full Circle is is a dizzying goulash of dysfunctions thrown together like empty bottles of alcohol enduring a drunk’s leer. In this story, a son’s love for the mother is unbroken by the hurtful dysfunction the ravages of his mother’s inner darkness. Every dysfunction is here, checked meticulously – alcoholism, an absent father, child abuse, theft, rampaging thugs, a society in decline. It is grossly overdone. And here, the prose comes alive and dies, comes alive and dies, as a beautiful writer is restrained by over-eager editors pulled apart by competing visions – a memorandum versus straight luscious writing. By the way, rats are everywhere in Barrett’s stories. Barett can paint the savagery, brutality, despair and helplessness from the incompetence that sometimes passes for life. These are disturbing tales of alcoholism and child neglect and abuse. The stories occasionally redeem themselves with lines like this:

Late into the night, while she nibbled the food and sucked the bottle, Daoju Anabraba apologized to her son, over and over again , for the life they were living, for her failure as a mother, for killing his grandfather. Dimié Abrakasa, a veteran of these episodes, kept his silence. Her speech grew slurred and slid farther into her throat; her eyelids sank, struggled, fell. She cried in sleep, the bottle clutched to her chest. She farted, loud and continuous. When her sobs became snores, Dimié Abrakasa rose from his seat at the foot of the bed. He freed the bottle from her grasp and placed it by the wall, where her hand, in the morning, would reach for it. Then he covered her up and blew out the light. (Kindle Locations 856-861)

This story houses some pretty prose poetry. It is as if Barrett is in a trance. Hear him:

The world turned gray, the temperature plummeted, and gusts of wind sprang up. The wind grew stronger and flung dust into the air. A lightning flash split the gloom and a rumble of cascading boulders burst from the skies. Another flash, sulphuric in its intensity— the thunderclap was like a shredding of the heavens. Birds crawled across the sky with panicked cries. There was a lull, everything froze in that instant; and then, with a sound like burning grass, rain fell. The raindrops had not made landfall when a bolt of blue-white lightning, like a forked tongue, streaked the sky, and one of its prongs struck a fleeing swallow. The bird stalled in midflight, then began to tumble earthward as the rain hit the ground. Through sheets of crashing water, pedestrians sprinted for cover. Puddles formed on the sidewalks, then flowed together and rushed for the drains, which brimmed over and poured water onto the road. The road became a river. Car engines drank water, coughed out steam, and died. Both sides of the road— and the sidewalks, too— got jammed. The horn blares of motorists became one long, unbroken blast. (Kindle Locations 536-539)

Beautiful. You wish he would produce prose like this from beginning to end. Hunting for delicacies like this was a perverse hunt, alas. And here he is channeling Ben Okri’s malarial, febrile brilliance. He writes: “The road became a river.” And you remember Ben Okri’s famous opening lines in The Famished Road:

“In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.”

In Love is Power, or Something Like That, a troubled policeman tries hard to hold on to his sanity and his family. It is violent and bloody. A man is flogged mercilessly – with a cow’s leg snatched from a butcher’s stall. Still through the nightmarish story, pretty lines peek out of the undergrowth to gawk at the traumatized reader.

He spoke English like one who thought in it. (Kindle Locations 1152-1153)

From the bushes night sounds came: scrabbling noises in the undergrowth, predatory screeches and distressed squeals, the sheesh of breeze in the treetops. (Kindle Locations 1120-1121)

He felt how the warmth of the liquor would spread through his throat, his chest; but his imagination couldn’t replicate the solid weight of good alcohol hitting the belly. He’d made a pledge: no more, not when he was in uniform. Not after the time he broke his wife’s arm in two places and had to accept her judgment when she blamed the reek of his breath. She had laid down her ultimatum from the safety of Mama Adaobi’s doorway, and he, kneeling before her in his underwear, hungover and full of remorse, had given his word. (Kindle Locations 1111-1115)

My Smelling Mouth Problem is a riff on halitosis which turns into social commentary. It was a creative experiment gleefully ambushed by the red ink of editors.

Trophy is a lovely story that plumbs the mystery of the bonds of friendship. Still the sadness seeps through; Nigerians are aliens with “skin the color of rotted wood.” It is a story that rides several dysfunctions – sleepy dead end towns with teachers having sex with their teen wards, teen sex and promiscuity. Wretched lives in various degrees of disarray are examined ad nauseam until the reader screams, “STOP!”

The Little Girl with Budding Breasts and a Bubblegum Laugh is a tale of love and forbidden sex. Two young cousins fall in love. A little girl suffers the teen blues. I must say it is at once disturbing and affecting. A disturbing love story. There are nice lines:

The air smelled like rain. (Kindle Location 1583).

Okay, he said, and dug his elbow into the bed, braced his jaw against his fisted hand, stared at her with widened eyes and pouted lips, a playful face that fell away as he continued— since you’re forcing me. I like your eyes. I like the way they light up when you’re happy. I like your legs. I like the way you walk, especially when you’re hurrying, the way you throw your feet, like a child who’s about to fall. I like your nose, and your mouth, and your breath. I like the way your breath smells. Like melted ice cream. Wow, she said in a hushed, wondering voice; and then she adjusted her legs. His hand slid between her thighs. (Kindle Locations 1757-1762)

In A Nairobi Story of Comings and Goings racism confronts prejudice and one is left stunned and confused by Barrett’s brilliant but disconcerting literary sleight of hand. The snarkiness is delightful actually, a welcome release from the over-editing of most of the stories. If you want to confirm that Igoni can write, start here:

The engine of Nairobi is fired by cash-crop farming, oiled by tourism, and steered by NGO money. Everywhere you turn in the city you find NGO people, camouflaged by straw hats and safari boots and the skin color of the tourist, white. In the supermarkets (Indian-run), the swanky restaurants (white Kenyan– run), the bus parks, souvenir bazaars, immigration offices (black Kenyan– run), luxurious hotels and safari lodges (British-run), AIDS patients’ wards and spoken-word poetry slams (American-funded), and, in small sightseeing groups, in Kibera, the largest zoo in Africa. (Kindle Locations 2495-2499).

barrett picBarrett is relentless in his message, and one reflects on the fate of women and children in Nigeria and Africa. Men are the aggressors on these pages – and in real life. Women have no chance, their saviors are too busy writing books and setting up NGOs. These are violent, abusive male authority figures accountable to no one. The unfortunate subtext: The real humans are women, children and white folks. The men of Nigeria are savage beasts, sub-humans. It is what it is. Or not. Barrett is the writer as effete judge looking into a troubled society with focused supercilious concentration, many good lines wasted on stereotype and jaded cynicism. Many times the stories gasp for air and energy. Sometimes, the passion rises, and then falls flat, bored lion too lazy to pursue prey. Sometimes Barrett makes a great deal of paying attention to detail, but for what purpose? Barrett’s facility with pidgin English is sadly under-used; where he does, it is compromised by over-editing presumably for a broader audience. The paying readership is in the West. I don’t blame Barrett, but this hurts.

Let me share some random thoughts and use Barrett’s book to annoy my readers with my soapbox rants. We must define the narrative and the terms of engagement with the world more boldly. These books expose us as timid and beholden to a conservative establishment of ancient gatekeepers. When Wole Soyinka won the Nobel Prize in 1986, VS Naipaul in his typical bluster asked: “Has he written anything?” Naipaul was being silly and myopic, Soyinka deserved the prize, not just based on the quality and quantity of his works as evidenced by his books, but based on the sum total of his life as an intellectual and an activist. Today, almost three decades later, it is even more important that African writers be judged on the sum total of their works, not just by their books. In the 21st century, the book as a medium of expression serves brilliant young writers. Barrett is one of the victims. They think as if they are on social media and they are forced to write on paper to get stature. In the process, they are losing readers by the millions. Writers, African writers especially have an opportunity to re-capture the love of good reading and storytelling by going to meet readers where they now congregate, and speaking to them in the language and cadence they understand, cherish and relish – in the call-and-response 3-D world they live in – that community of communities we call the Internet.

We live in a world full of innovative practices in literature, many pioneered by young Africans. The question becomes: Why do brilliant young writers and thinkers feel incomplete until they have stapled their thoughts into books few will read?  In addition to writing books, African writers must actively search for and nurture innovative initiatives, like the Bride Price app, three dimensional e-books, journals and conversations that deploy hot links, illustrations, and the call and response interactions of the reader and the writer. Nothing for me is sadder and more frustrating than visiting writers’ conferences and other meeting places where digital pioneers and leaders spend their time talking about and furtively hawking poorly produced books to a handful of attendees. At these meeting places, discussions about literature online are limited and usually come across as an afterthought. It is clear to me also that prizes like the NLNG Prize are an expensive exercise in mimicry. We don’t need prizes as much as we need supports to build innovative architectures for 21st century African literature.

This is my beef with books: In the 21st century, our creativity is still centered around the book. That paradigm shifted a long time ago. We should be having literary NOT book fairs and festivals. The young should elbow out gerontocracy from scarce resources. In terms of African literature as it exists online, the world is sitting on a goldmine. The answer is not to ignore the youth behind these new forms of storytelling, but to support them. They are the new storytellers. I will say this until I am blue in the face: social media is the publisher of choice for young African writers. Online, the writer does not have to worry about being edited to bland death by over-eager Western editors. The Internet does not ask them to italicize egusi, it laughs at their jokes and doesn’t call them “ethnic.”  In the villages of social media, writers write of sorrows and despair and heartbreak, they also write of musicians who sing pretty songs, about recharge cards, bank alerts and ATMs. When you add their stories to what obtains in books like Love is Power or Something Like That, the reader gets a well rounded  trajectory of African narrative. There are all these opportunities; alas a timid generation of writers bows to laziness, orthodoxy, patriarchy and western literary imperialism.

To be fair, there are several constraints. The Internet is wild untamed territory; poaching and disorder are at an all-time high and writers and publishers are struggling to be heard and make money at the same time. It doesn’t help that there is a dearth of innovation – traditional publishing houses have invested billions of dollars in 20th century publishing architecture. It is tough for them to turn things around on a dime. In a perverse sense, Africa on the other hand has few such constraints, the architecture is not there; however many new publishers hamstring themselves daily by investing in ancient methods. I say to them, look around you, the Internet is the publisher of choice for young African writers. Build an architecture from scratch – and they will flock to you as they flock to Linda Ikeji’s blog and as they flocked to the Bride Price app. The bride price app is perhaps the most brilliant short story ever written by an African in the past decade. The data is there to prove it; there were 12million hits, 7million unique users, and 18million unique social conversations. And one suspects that the author has made money off the app’s global reach. Ask Editi Effiong. He is African. He is not waiting for the West to help him out.

Finally, for me, the most haunting and evocative line in Barrett’s book is in the story A Nairobi Story of Comings and Goings: “I got my things and left.” And then the reader remembers why it spoke to him. Dambudzo Marechera. Helon Habila considers “I got my things and left, the first line in Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger, the coolest opening line in African literature I agree. Barrett loves famous opening lines.

For our son, Fearless Fang: The gift of you…

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
― Albert Einstein

I have this essay in my head I would love to write, inspired by Fearless Fang and Lion Cub, our teenage sons. It is about multiple intelligences. Fearless Fang is almost indifferent to books, but he is built in the oral tradition of my ancestors. He is a smart kid, he loves to play, he could be on the football field for hours and that is just fine with him. He’ll spout off ”stats” about different kinds of football plays (he literally sleeps with his football “playbook”) but tell him that he is reeling statistics, and he shuts down. I don’t think he likes to read books, but he loves the iPad. I can tell when he is on it; the sound of his liquid laughter carries the house away from its foundation as he travels the world through its glowing monitor. America’s schools prefer his brother Lion Cub, the geek who loves books and can stand the rigid sage on the stage 19th century style of instruction that still holds the world’s classrooms hostage.

FearlessFangTodaYyI once watched Fearless Fang during “Black History Month” recite a Langston Hughes poem to the accompaniment of riffs from his guitar and I understood something – it is not about the book, it is about the ideas in the person. I wish the classroom would understand Fearless Fang. I am not knocking books, I would not be here without them, I am only saying that in the 21st century, we should consider the heresy – which is that the book is dying a long slow death. I think also that the digital world offers creative opportunities for thinkers and teachers to reach all children, especially brown children. Our son is fine. The iPad may have saved him from state sanctioned academic ethnic cleansing.

The book is powerful. It can open doors. It can slam doors shut. In the 21st century, the “book” threatens to be the most stifling word ever written. In the 21st century, in the digital age, the thinker cannot think outside the confines of the book. The thinker insists on being a writer – of books. The book will not go down without a fight. I say, read, read, read, read everything, not just books. Write, write, write, write everywhere, not just in books.

Our sons and I go to this barbershop that is owned by this dude with a college degree. The degree hangs on his wall; he is a great barber though. I imagine he took thousands of dollars in college loans simply for the privilege of hanging a certificate on the wall. Somehow one feels complete with a degree. Which is a shame. The other day the locksmith came to the house to install an electronic Bluetooth enabled lock. $125 he said it would cost us, for a basic installation. We would have to get a computer technician to program the lock with Bluetooth. We laughed harder than Unoka and sent him away, too expensive. Lion Cub took down the old lock, and with a video he found on YouTube he installed the new lock and programmed all our smartphones to open and lock the door. My Lover (ML) and I have the manual keys in case the app fails – or Lion Cub locks us out of the house. He is also our network administrator, which gives him incredible control over our lives in the house. It is a new world; patriarchy is under attack by the forces of technology. Lion Cub is going to college. If he simply knocked on doors and installed locks, in four years he would be wealthy. He is going to college. In four years we will owe what he would have earned if he had been a locksmith. It doesn’t sound right. But America is weird like that.And yes, Fearless Fang is going to college, even if it kills me. I hope he gets a football scholarship. It is what it is.

At the barbershop the dudes yell at each other about ideas. They don’t read books. I have this feeling that they hate books. All their lives they have been shepherded from stifling classroom to patronizing teachers to prison. You should see the tattoos on these guys. They don’t read books, they hate books, but they are intellectuals, they just don’t know it. I go in there for a haircut, me and my book and my iPad. Their eyes point at me and laugh, and go, “The intellectual is here!” I think they are mocking me.

the boys

Pius Adesanmi – Guest BlogPost: For Whom is Africa Rising?

By Professor Pius Adesanmi

Winner, the Penguin Prize for African Writing

Author of You’re Not a Country, Africa!

Keynote lecture delivered at the 8th MSU Africanist Graduate Research Conference, Lansing, Michigan, October 17, 2014

(We just lost Professor Ali Mazrui. May we please observe a minute’s silence in his honour?)

The best of times and the worst of times. No, I have not come to Michigan State University to conduct an excursion into quotable quotes from Charles Dickens. I am just taking the liberty – presumptuously, some of you might say – to put into words what it must feel like to wear that enigmatic title, “Africanist scholar”, in these most paradoxical of times for and on the continent. One would ordinarily have assumed that being privileged to be called a producer of knowledge about a part of the world which is said to possess the distinction of being at once the cradle and future of humanity would come with the fringe benefit of permanent elation.

There is one additional reason why permanent elation ought to be the defining essence of my own interpellation as a producer of Africanist knowledge. In the complicated business of nationalism and national identities in Africa, we learnt a few years ago – from one of those studies frequently purporting to have discovered new truths about the African condition – that my own corner of the continent, Nigeria, is home to the happiest people on earth. All one hundred and seventy million of us provide one jolly canvass of carnival, revelry, and jouissance. Now, we are talking about the largest group of Africans in one national place – indeed, the world’s largest assembly of black people in a single nation-space – being uniformly happy in this trickle down neoliberal world of ours. If Nigeria’s happiness trickles down, chances are the remaining 1.1 billion less fortunate Africans will at least get reasonable drops of the happiness tonic.

A little over a billion happy Africans should be good enough reason for the intellectual whose job it is to make disciplinary meaning of their ways and their world to be permanently elated. The way I see it, happy subjects make happy scholarship and happy scholarship makes the world go round! Wishes, sadly, are not horses. So we know that elation of a permanent kind is a risky proposition in the business of engaging Africa, especially in terms of her chequered trajectory in the struggle for agency. Permanent torn-ness between the diametrically opposed sentiments of elation and depression, as evoked in the Dickensian conundrum, is a safer emotional and psychological refuge for the student of Africa.

padesanmi_large-carleton-uOkay, let’s get depressed before we get elated! As you already know, our renowned Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o did not win the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature after yet another nomination round. Beyond the intellectual terrain, indeed, 2014 has been a very bad year for African sports. Virtually all our teams performed woefully in Brazil, producing a cavalcade of images leading dangerously back to the familiar routes of African stereotyping. Benoit Assou-Ekotto’s headbutting of teammate, Benjamin Moukandjo; the emergency plane load of dollars from the troubled economy of Ghana to placate players in full rebellion in Brazil; the repeated hints of threat and rebellion in the Nigerian camp, are all texts underwritten by some unsayable ur-texts, constantly hinted at or whispered on social or traditional media: Africa’s corruption and institutional demission. Note that the misbehaviour of Luis Suarez remained the misbehaviour of bad boy Luiz Suarez and did not have transcendental or generic identity consequences for the American continent.

Let’s have some more depression. As I prepared to board the plane in Ottawa, I received an email from notable African scholar, Professor Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, Vice President for Academic Affairs at Quinnipiac University. The crossover to Administration was never going to slow down the constant flow of books and essays from Professor Zeleza’s goatskin bag of wisdom. As it happens, some of us in his inner circle of friends do receive personal new essay alerts from him. The essay I received alerted Professor Zeleza’s “Dear Friends” to the publication in Africasacountry.com of his latest essay entitled: “Why I am Afraid of the African Disease of Ebola”.

It is true that the continent moved from the great depression of Brazil in July to the deadly depression of Ebola in August. But I am sure that you can already take a stab at the drift of Zeleza’s essay from the title. It’s a satirical tour de force on the politics of yet another gigantic “single story” (apologies to Adichie) about Africa. Of course I have been preoccupied with the emotional roller coaster that is Ebola. After all, the outbreak in Guinea and Liberia occurred just as I prepared to leave Accra after a one-year stint as a Carnegie-Diaspora Visiting Professor of African Studies at the University of Ghana, Legon. I’ve been part of a Nigerian social media community of mourning as precious lives were lost to Ebola. Beyond loss and trauma, Ebola is creating new economies of meaning, of contact, of cross-border figurations on the continent and of transnational calibrations of African identities across the Atlantic. I have been part of it all like everybody else.

What caught my attention in Zeleza’s essay, therefore, is that after almost four decades of “writing back” through such milestones as Chinua Achebe’s “An Image of Africa”, Chinweizu’s The West and the Rest of Us, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind, Claude Ake’s Social Science as Imperialism, V.Y. Mudimbe’s The Invention of Africa; after Fanon, after Cabral, after Rodney, the usual prosecution witnesses have dragged yet another icon of African Studies to the intellectual court to play the part of a defense lawyer and argue our case: that Africa is not Ebola and Ebola is not Africa. For I must say it unequivocally that Paul Tiyambe Zeleza speaks for me in that essay.

After every routine needless killing of a black male teenager by police in this country, I am sure you are familiar with the spectacle on cable television of black mothers lamenting the ritual of having to have “that talk” all over again with their black teenage sons over dinner: how to appear non-threatening when pulled over by cops. Not again, such mothers gasp in exasperation. And you notice the weariness of the soul seared into those voices. A hint of that sentiment creeps in on me whenever circumstances force any of us to pick up his keyboard and reaffirm what Africa is not. Africa is not Ebola, Zeleza laments. And I experience a weariness of the soul that the ritual of enunciative disavowal of stereotype is once again foisted on us. That talk that we are not Ebola; that talk that we are not HIV/AIDS; that talk that we are not famine, hunger, war, and want. Over and over we must do it again and again. Sisyphus and his boulder have far better luck than Africa and the knowledges we generate to engage her in the theatre of representation.

Still on depression, the 2014 Ibrahim Index of African Governance has been published as you all probably already know. The continent’s performance is assessed under such rubrics as safety and rule of law, participation and human rights, sustainable economic opportunity, and human development. Whatever noticeable gains there are in the individual fortunes of particular countries is immediately dampened by the overall average result for the entire continent: 51.5%. That’s a “D-” in the North American grading system, one rung of the ladder above an outright F: how else can one express the uninspiring performance!

I am sure you will all agree with me that no portrait of depressing points about Africa would be valid in which our friends in Bretton Woods didn’t make an appearance. The last newsflash I read before I boarded the plane for the trip here announced that Ghana had started the final round of talks with the IMF on a bailout loan. The news came packaged in registers and diction which evoke the trauma of the 1980s when SAPs, conditionalities, market forces, market-driven shocks, economic downturn, devaluation, inflation, and austerity measures emptied the present of my generation across Africa and mortgaged our future. Three decades after the IMF laid the foundation of the realities which made our bosom friends in The Economist to declare Africa a hopeless continent, Ghana, one of the few countries so often placed in a glass display case as continental success stories, is back at Bretton Woods, beaten, battered, and broke.

My generation came of age in the 1980s, writing tests and exams on foolscap sheets. Jacques de Larosiere and his successor at the IMF, Michel Camdessus, sealed our fate with policies rammed down the throat of one military dictator after another across the continent. Today, the youth who make Africa tick are on Facebook and Twitter grumbling about the size of iPhone 6 even as Christine Lagarde declares enthusiastically that an appropriate “policy mix” will be worked out to ensure a “good bailout” for Ghana. I am of the 70s – 80s. A generation came of age in the 90s. Another came of age in the 2000s. Three generations of Africans, only one uniting factor: Bretton Woods’s policy “mixes”. With Christine Lagarde talking about Ghana in 2014 like Getafix the Druid in the Asterix comic series, a speaker not as optimistic as my humble self would say that we have come full circle in Africa.

Being an optimistic speaker means that I must hasten to conclude this part of our exercise on depression and pretend that the atavism of crisis and conflict is not part of the tableau of depression. I am therefore not going to say that Congo is still as Conradianly dark as ever; I am not going to mention Boko Haram and South Sudan. Throwing crises and conflict into the mix will only delay us from asking the inevitable question: is there anything about the condition of Africa and the disciplines through which we generate modes of hermeneutic inquiry into the said condition that allows us to map anything other than one gory trajectory from colonial trauma to postcolonial abjection – with ten steps backward making nonsense of every step forward in a linear course?

I am assuming we all know what the politically correct answer to this question is: Yes, there is much to celebrate in Africa and about Africa. It is not all doom and gloom. Luckily for us, logic and political correctness are in happy agreement here. It is logically untenable to stabilize doom and gloom as the permanent condition of any human society. Even in the most perilous of times which led to the tragic loss of their two most important dignitaries, one to death by suicide and the other to insanity, Umuofia and Umuaro had moments of triumph not arrested by the circumambient doom and gloom as articulated by the great novelist, Chinua Achebe.

However, beyond this happy marriage of logic and political correctness lies nuance. If we agree that elation and celebration have as much droit de cite in the African story as depression, gloom, and doom, we must ask the question: how exactly did elation come into this picture? What is its trajectory? What are its contents? How do we account for the politics of back and forth between depression and elation and what does it portend for disciplinary engagements of Africa? Consider these scenarios. Jean-Francois Bayart closed the 1980s on a note of gloom by announcing in 1989 that the state in Africa was doomed to a metaphysics of corruption. In Jean-Francois Bayart’s The State in Africa:the Politics of the Belly, the African state and her political practices were effectively placed under the conceptual control of Opapala, the Yoruba deity of hunger and gourmandizing in whose domain lies the stomach.

Ten years later, in 1999, Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz appeared to take a different tack in Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument. On the surface, it looked like we were finally getting a break from the depressing Afro-pessimism of the politics of the belly. We were approaching the uplifting territory of elation. But, wait a minute, Africa Works – differently? Isn’t rationalizing informal networks of human and political agency – with the attendant argument to exclude ethics and value judgements – another way of saying that the usual ways and practices of democracy and the social contract would never work because Africa is somehow not culturally and ontologically attuned to those structures and practices of modernity? Even with Africa Works, have we really moved beyond the paradigm of depression in 1999?

No, you haven’t, replied The Economist one year later, famously ushering the continent into a new millennium with the now famous or infamous caption: “the Hopeless Continent”. Things moved very quickly from here. You will observe that between 1994 and the early years of the 2000s, something was brewing beneath all this veneer of depression and pessimism. Something home-grown. A discourse of vision and hope anchored in cultural, economic, and political renewal, bearing the traceries of Negritude, cultural nationalism, and pan-Africanism. Welcome to the discourse of African Renaissance and its associated agendas. Thabo Mbeki and his associates screamed African Renaissance throughout the 1990s. They convened a conference in 1998, published a book, founded an African Renaissance Institute and went about organizing instead of agonizing. They gained little or no traction outside of South Africa. In the North, everybody was interested in depression and pessimism on account of Africa. Any talk of renaissance referred to that period from the 14th – 17th century in Europe and not whatever some upstarts thought it meant in 21st century Africa.

Then, just as Mbeki and all those on the African Renaissance train finally began to gain a solid hearing in academia and beyond, those who had crowded out their voices with depression and pessimism suddenly announced that they had had a road to Damascus moment. We were advised to move on to the other extreme of celebration and elation. They said that something much bigger than a renaissance was happening in Africa. They had no room for the semantic nuancing through which Chabal and Daloz were able to deodorize disorder and the informal as legitimate praxes of agency in Africa. We were no longer in for any back-door announcements of hope. Go tell it on the mountain that Africa is rising, has risen. The Economist tried to outdo Time Magazine. Africa Rising! Aspiring Africa! The Hopeful Continent! One glossy cover after the other screamed: Africa Rising!

I believe that an audience such as this should be sufficiently familiar with the content and career of this narrative of elation which brushed aside age-long narratives of depression like Achebe’s proverbial wildfire in the harmattan. Everything that was negative and depressing about the continent suddenly became positive and uplifting. Diction and registers changed: hopelessness became hopefulness, despondency became opportunity. Numbers and statistics rained torrentially from every imaginable source, bearing mouth-watering good news of “growth”, “sustainable development”, “governance”, “democracy”, “human rights”, “rural and infrastructural development”, “gender gap”, “poverty”, “education”, etc.

I am sure you can expand this list infinitely. After all, you know by rote what the talking points and the keywords are in those PowerPoint slides whenever men in black suits from the international capital and finance community, the international development community, the global NGO and activist community, world governance bodies and their continental appendages in Africa, as well as the institutional and disciplinary world of the social sciences, descend on any seminar room to talk about Africa Rising. To these keywords and faddish phrases we must add the fact that Africa Rising also comprises an ideological investment in the future. What used to be called a problematic youth bulge when we were in the era of depression and pessimism is now said to represent the continent’s greatest advantage. She has the greatest number of youths on earth and who says youth says innovation. Africa Rising is, therefore, African Innovation on the rise.

What could possibly be wrong with this picture, some of you may wonder. After all, there is enough going on in the continent to bear out the new narratives of elation. There was the Arab Spring; South Africa is in BRICS; Nigeria is MINT, democracy is spreading. This may be true but a lot is wrong with the politics and philosophy of elation. There is the question of the suspicious timing of the rise of the discourse of Africa Rising. One African scholar who has raised this question is the celebrated Nigerian political scientist, Professor Bayo Olukoshi. I was on a panel with him early this year in Pretoria and he wondered aloud why the narrative of Africa Rising emerged only when the narrative of African Renaissance had finally begun to gain global attention. “Why and how did Africa Rising outshine African Renaissance?”, Olukoshi asked the audience and enjoined them to think about it. President Thabo Mbeki was in the room…

It may be true that the suspicious timing of the rise of Africa Rising did have something to do with the growing fortunes of African Renaissance but I have since found other issues to worry about. One of these issues is the provenance of the discourse of Africa Rising. That this narrative appears to have been born here in the West is not a problem for me. After all, Negritude was born in Paris and Black Paris of the interwar years is a legitimate theoretical framework for me. The problem, for me, is precisely where in the West the loudest noise about Africa Rising is always coming from. Google is a good Ifa Oracle to consult in these matters. I am worried that a casual google search of this term almost always brings up the May 2014 Africa Rising conference of the IMF as the first and most important hit. You click on that link and you are welcomed by the inevitable face of Christine Lagarde welcoming you to the conceptual territory of Africa Rising in a podcast and speech. I have stated earlier that we know all the keywords by rote so it must be easy for you to imagine the content of Mrs. Lagarde’s speech without even reading it.

Other google hits will take you inevitably to The Economist and Time Magazine and all kinds of neoliberal Think Tank work on Africa Rising. If you are patient, you will finally encounter some African input midway scrolling down to the bottom of your screen. You’ll encounter the Africa Rising Foundation set up by Ndaba and Kweku Mandela and you’ll encounter, ironically, a podcast by a Deputy Governor of Nigeria’s Central Bank, Kingsley Moghalu, claiming that Africa hasn’t risen yet. Now, I don’t know about you but whenever a new narrative about Africa seems to be domiciled mainly in the market-driven mansion of neoliberalism, I tend to develop severe allergies. My migraines tend to worsen whenever I encounter the IMF, the World Bank, The Economist, and Africa in the same sentence.

I am saying that it is a problem for me that every time I google Africa Rising, Christine Lagarde is always the first to appear on the scene to welcome me and conduct a guided tour of the concept. You google African Renaissance, Cheikh Anta Diop, Thabo Mbeki’s speech, and the African Renaissance monument in Senegal are likely to be your first hits. Then you google Africa Rising and the IMF and The Economist are your first hits. This brings back Bayo Olukoshi’s query and worry: why and how did the narrative of Africa Rising emerge to overshadow and supplant the narrative of African Renaissance?

This question could be framed differently: for whom is the Africa in African Renaissance being reborn? For whom is the Africa in Africa Rising rising? I do not want to address the first question here. At any rate, you probably can guess how I would answer the African Renaissance part of the question. My answer to the second part of this question may also seem obvious. You’d be right to conclude that I believe that Africa is not really rising for the African – at least not yet. You’d be right to conclude that I believe that Africa is rising mainly and predominantly for those screaming Africa Rising in Bretton Woods and their accomplices in the commanding heights of the continent’s politics and economics. This explains why the narrative of Africa Rising is always powered by an insidious thematic of rich pickings. Africa Rising would have no meaning beyond market orthodoxy and investment friendliness. Africa is rich pickings! Go ye hither and exploit all the opportunities before wily China laps up everything!

These obvious answers mask a deeper concern. Africa Rising invites us to take a closer look at the question of African agency. As one looks at the glass display cases of triumphalist and exultant neoliberalism, many African countries are on display: Ghana, Botswana, South Africa, Kenya, Namibia, etc. After every election meeting the minimal requirements of democracy, new countries are installed in new glass display cases and brandished to the world as the latest success stories from Africa. Yet, as you window-shop and look at these African countries glistening in display cases, your mind returns again and again to the question of agency. What was the African’s role in the construction of these glass show cases and what say did he have in the politics of inhabiting that glass display case?

Let me illustrate this point with an anecdote. I was discussing Ghana at the beginning of this talk. I was lamenting the fact that the country is now in the final phase of negotiations with the IMF for a bailout loan because of “market-driven” shocks. I was lamenting the fact that Madame Christine Lagarde was talking enthusiastically about a new “policy mix” for Ghana by the IMF. We all know that this is all a honey-coated way of saying that Ghana has failed and is now back in Washington, cap in hand, begging for the loans that will predictably ruin the future of the next three generations of Ghanaians. The African Union has been talking about the Africa 2063 Agenda. I was involved with the Diaspora Consultations on this agenda in New York last year. It seems to me that the question of what Africa ought to look like in 2063 is already being settled in the case of Ghana. The year 2063 will meet Ghana repaying loans and renegotiating the terms and conditionalities of the policy mix being conjured today by Getafix Lagarde.

Yet, this is the only country in West Africa that was placed in a glass display case by Africa Rising for more than a decade. Much to the envy and annoyance of Ghana’s eternal rival, Nigeria, the usual suspects in the choir of Africa Rising screamed from the rooftops that Ghana was the beacon of hope for the continent. All the usual ingredients of discourse flooded the global public sphere in relation to Ghana: political stability, growth, democracy, jobs, infrastructural expansion, etc. So, how did we get to being unable to pay salaries after ferrying three million dollars cash to football players in Brazil? How did we get to the perdition that are IMF loans and bailouts?

I spent a year in Ghana. I only just returned in the summer. On arrival in Ghana, I couldn’t believe the level of development that I saw. Stable electricity and stable water from the taps: these two alone are enough to make a Nigerian award the Nobel Prize in Infrastructure to any country because they have not been part of our national experience since the early 1980s. Add to that the gleaming and glistening infrastructure that I saw all over the place and you would forgive me for taking enthusiastically to social media to declare that it was criminally unfair to place Ghana in the same third world bracket as Nigeria and other less fortunate African countries where electricity and tap water are never regular. Yet, Ghana was not yet at the second world level of South Africa. I decided to hang her in a no man’s land between the second and third worlds.

However, something made me perpetually uneasy about the infrastructure and modernity that I saw all around me in Ghana. I was only able to identify the source of my unease five months into my stay. It was the jeeps! There were way too many jeeps on the roads of Accra for my liking. No, I am not talking about private jeeps belonging to individuals. I am talking about what I call postcolonial jeepology, a phenomenon in which jeeps bring the symbolism of foreign aid and dependency to the doorsteps of the postcolony. You should be able to visualize those UN Jeeps by now. I mean those white Toyota Prado jeeps that are so ubiquitous in Africa. They bear the insignia of every imaginable specialized agency of the United Nations: FAO, UNICEF, UNCHS, WHO, etc. The glut of white jeeps is not the singular making of the UN. The European Union, International Development Agencies, International Development Partners, all kinds of Foundations from Bill and Melinda Gates to Clinton, Christian missions and charity organizations – everybody is pumping jeeps and experts into Africa.

I was at the University of Ghana. The campus is crawling with the jeeps of postcolonial aid dependency. I visited ministries in town and other institutions of state – jeeps and jeeps everywhere. WHO-assisted this, IDRC-assisted that; European Union-assisted this; DANIDA-assisted that; German Government-assisted this; French Government-assisted that. Now, my own rule of thumb is that any African country crawling under the weight of the white jeeps of postcolonial dependency is in trouble. It means that the modernity you see all around you is contrived, fragile, and artificially propped by ways and means that do not belong to you. It means that somebody somewhere is desperate for a narrative, for a showpiece, and is pouring resources and symbols into a particular space to prop it up as that showpiece and produce a desired narrative.

These postcolonial white jeeps of dependency power a narrative of representation hoisted for the visual satisfaction of the giver. This is why President Obama went to Ghana and the mirror beamed an African success story at him and he sermonized to Africa from that location. This is Africa Rising, president Obama screamed. This is Ghana in which Washington is well pleased. We want y’all in the rest of the continent to be like her. Today, Obama’s showpiece is at the IMF begging for loans. The IMF spent the 80s and the 90s producing those children with countable ribs and mucus-drenched nostrils with policies designed to guarantee starvation across the continent so long as the market was growing. Evidence of failure only yielded more prescriptions of the same policies and lectures that Africa was not applying them properly. Things got so bad that Nobel Prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz had to draw the line for the West. Somebody somewhere desperately needed a narrative of success. Ghana was just the sort of candidate needed and ready for the assignment.

What this means is that there is little or no African agency in the modernity of the white Toyota Prado jeeps of postcolonial aid dependency. What would happen if these jeeps were suddenly withdrawn, I kept wondering in Accra. I got a taste of what could potentially happen in my last two months in the country. Power cuts made a rude intrusion into my life; water supply followed suit and became erratic; salaries started to be delayed; everybody groaned on campus and in town; the Cedi plunged into a free fall. By the time I was leaving Accra in August, echoes of Ebola were rumbling in Guinea and Liberia and we prayed for that cup to pass over Ghana. When your Africa Rising narrative is unravelling, when you are only just discovering for whom your Africa was really rising all this time you thought she was rising for you, you do not want Ebola to be the coup de grace. Thankfully, Ebola spared Ghana.

What do these scenarios portend for you as graduate students and scholars of Africa? For starters, it means that the disciplinary space between elation and depression has not been fully probed in terms of our efforts to understand the dynamics of that continent. It means that we are yet to account for the elusiveness of agency and we do not even fully understand why it remains elusive and perpetually beyond grasp in Africa. If we do not understand why we lack agency, we will never find our way to it.

For instance, you’d think that almost four decades of writing back in and through the disciplines of the Social Sciences and Humanities; of telling and retelling our story as Africans and Africanists as we see in Paul Zeleza’s remarkable book, Manufacturing African Studies and Crises; of detailing and accounting for the significance of Africa to the disciplines as was done in the book, Africa and the Disciplines; you’d think that all these disciplinary gains and insights would have rendered us masters of our destiny in the field of representation. You’d think that we would have become more secure and stable owners of Africa’s story by now, owning your story and the means of its narrativization being a precondition for agency. Yet, somehow, we never owned the Joseph Kony story, never owned #BringBackOurGirls, and do presently not own the framing of the narrative of Ebola. If a continent cannot even own the means to perspectivize her failures and her tragedies, how can she possibly own the path to her successes and triumphs?

My own field, African literature, falls prey to this play of agency in interesting ways. Where is agency located and enabled in terms of literature as a canonized institution? The recent social media spat between my friends, Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina and Nigerian thinker and literary ‘papa terrible’, Ikhide Ikheloa (he is too old to be called an enfant terrible), is a good case in point. Binyavanga has been a relentless critic of the Caine Prize in recent times. If you want to be unkind, you’ll say that our man Binya is kicking at the ladder he rode to literary stardom. He believes it is overrated and has acquired too much power in the canonization and validation of African literatures. He whines and whines and whines. It gets on Ikhide’s nerves. Ikhide is angry that the Nigeria Prize for Literature, a USD 100,000-Prize awarded annually is an annual ritual of literary powerlessness and oblivion.

A prize worth ₤15,000 pounds is awarded to an African short story and it comes with an international media buzz announcing instant canonization. One hundred thousand dollars is awarded to a writer in Nigeria and he’d be lucky to be interviewed grudgingly by two or three local newspapers. Ikhide is mad as hell about this development. So he dismisses Binyavanga’s endless whining about the Caine Prize. Stop complaining about the white man, he screams, go and develop and empower your own prizes and narratives in Africa! If you have no clue how to empower your own cultural and institutional modes of literary valuation in Africa, stop whining about the white man, Ikhide screams.

It should be obvious to those of you in literature that the interface between the Caine Prize and the Nigerian Prize for Literature offers grounds for interrogating agency, power, and modes of privileging in your field. If Africa is rising for the African, how does one account for the fact a literary Prize worth a hundred thousand dollars in Africa guarantees oblivion for an African writer and another prize worth less than half of that amount awarded in Europe guarantees instant superstardom, including paradoxically in Africa? How does one engage the seeming unwillingness to apply ourselves in Nigeria and in Africa to the task of empowering the Nigerian Prize for Literature?

One last area of disciplinary consequence I want to mention is the question of finding appropriate idioms for the persisting disjuncture and disconnect between reality and the etiquette of disciplinary narrativizing in the age of political correctness and anti-essentialism. This past year that I spent in Ghana came with the added advantage of extensive travels in the continent. Those who were loath to paying my way for lectures such as this because of the cost of flying me from Ottawa could suddenly afford to fly me from Accra. I crisscrossed the continent for lectures but I was also a keen observer of the life and pulse of Africa. I saw gains. I saw pains. I saw evidence of Africa Rising but not with or for the African. About the only thing I saw rising is the hard-earned income of the poverty-stricken African rising into the pocket of his pastor as prosperity Pentecostalism rages across the continent to fill the vacuum abandoned by the state and her institutions.

In too many cases, Africa is simply rising without or beyond the African. Africa cannot really be said to be rising if the state still mainly demissions from the social contract and her gleaming institutions rise to satisfy the empirical and statistical parametres of outsiders at the expense of the peoples of Africa. Do the disciplines have a language for these confounding dynamics beyond the patronizing depression of Afro-pessimism? Where the idiom is lacking, do we focus on the evidence of progress which abounds and veer into un-nuanced Afro-optimism?

Yesterday, Kofi Annan grumbled about the response of the international community to Ebola. Says Annan on BBC:

“If the crisis had hit some other region it probably would have been handled very differently. In fact when you look at the evolution of the crisis, the international community really woke up when the disease got to America and Europe.”

This is one of Africa’s most famous and illustrious sons telling us that Africa has not risen. Europe and America ought to have moved in faster with white Toyota Prado jeeps to tackle Ebola. The day that Africa would be able to take care of business such as this without waiting to condemn Euro-America for not playing the traditional role of the saviour quickly enough, Africa would truly have risen for the African.

I wish you successful deliberations in this conference.

Moses Ochonu: Africa in Fragments and the limits and dangers of a single literary medium

Reading Professor Moses Ochonu’s new book, Africa in Fragments: Essays on Nigeria, Africa, and Global Africanity was not an easy task. It was no fault of the book, a well-written engaging and eminently insightful book. It simply fell victim to my newly acquired digital ADHD,  I rarely read books these days, I do read nonstop, pretty much anything I can lay my eyes on online. The book as a literary medium is in many ways a distraction from what my detractors would call an unhealthy obsession with the digital world.  Yes, as far as I am concerned, books are fast becoming a distraction in the 21st century. Thankfully, Ochonu’s book was worth my time, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and I whole-heartedly recommend it to all those who are interested in matters Nigerian and African.  It is a substantial contribution in the seemingly eternal battle to make the world see Africa’s sophisticated humanity through broader and more objective optics.

 s200_moses_ochonuWho is Ochonu? In the 21st century, it is impossible to talk about a book, without talking about the author and the sum total of his or her works and world view. Thanks to the Internet, the book is just one medium of expression deployed by the typical thinker.  Ochonu is one of the smartest and most prolific public intellectuals I have never met. Although he is less well-known than his more fiery counterparts – Pius Adesanmi, Okey Ndibe, Sonala Olumhese, etc., he is just as passionate, erudite and uncompromising in his ideals and vision for the way things should be in Nigeria. Ochonu has an uncanny, disciplined ability to hone in on an issue and spur robust, feisty conversations on the Internet, especially on the USA-Africa Dialogue forum, a list-serve and mailing list of professionals and academics who are mostly from or affiliated with Africa.  As a side note, the USA-Africa Dialogue forum is run by the world-renowned History scholar, Professor Toyin Falola, and is populated by perhaps some of the smartest and most prolific academics birthed by Africa (read my review of his awesome memoir, A Mouth Sweeter than Salt here). You should read the discussion threads on there and marvel at how much is out there that is rich and available and free to the world. It is an honor to be part of such a pantheon and there has to be a way of introducing a resource like this group to formal classroom instruction. The culture of the Internet mailing list is dying off but if I had to recommend a mailing list it would be the USA-Africa Dialogue forum; on a good evening, its many combatants could be e-seen holding forth and creating a dust storm of rigorous intellectual provocation. It is not always pretty in that pantheon of eggheads, but there is never a dull moment.

Ochonu is a fine scholar, extremely well read and it shows in the book. His ruminations in the book span a broad range of topics that all have depth. The essays are engaging in the style that I have gotten used to in mailing lists, social media and the Internet in general. This book would be an awesome addition to any curriculum resource on Nigeria and Africa, especially in Nigeria’s tertiary institutions, where students are coming in from broken classrooms that do not teach history, because, the government has outlawed history from the curriculum. Ochonu is an intense intellectual, with a razor sharp intellect that is matched only by his passion for the work. As an example, Ochonu wrote the definitive take-down on Mallam Nair Ahmad el-Rufai (Dealing with the el-Rufai nuisance). It is a beautiful essay, crisp and focused on holding a former public official accountable, brimming with damning data and analysis, one that has yet to be responded to by El-Rufai since it was written. Because there is nothing to respond to. We are entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts.

Africa in Fragments is a well-researched book, invaluable to any student of contemporary history, thanks to its detailed notes and references; the references alone are invaluable and are worth every penny of the book’s cost. Priceless tip and shameless plug: Buy the Kindle version, it is cheaper. What specifically is the book about? Well, I came up with this brilliant idea of listing the titles of the twenty six essays in the book to give you a sense of the book. They are laid out in three sections:

Section I: How Nigeria can survive; The other problems of corruption; The case for real constitutional reform; Nigerians’ love-hate relationship with government; The “federal character” conundrum; Can Nigeria afford (literally) this democracy?; Northern elites and Northern economic backwardness; The limits of electoral reform. Section II: My Oga is better than yours; Anti-intellectualism and book people; Bongos Ikwue and Idoma cultural cosmopolitanism; Names and naming in Nigeria; Helicopter escapes and the common good; The patriotism blackmail. Section III: Africa, corruption, and moral consequence; Abuja millennium tower and the problem of explaining Africa; Arab Racism against Black Africans: Toward an understanding; Boko Haram, African Islam, and foreign Islamic Heterodoxy; African participation in the Atlantic slave trade: A deconstructionist approach; Why do Africans migrate to the West?; Immigrants, uprising, and the revenge of history; Of African immigrants and African Americans; Debt cancellation, aid, and Africa: A moral response to critics; Race, racism, and the immigrant black experience in Euro-America; Nollywood and the functional logic of mediocrity; Toward a new African renaissance.

There is so much to like about this book. The chapter, Arab Racism Against Black Africans: Toward An Understanding is a provocative and important essay. He confronts the late great Professor Ali Mazrui’s views vigorously and gleefully entertains the reader with punchy paragraphs:

Arab racism is so deep that it is inscribed in the fundamental semantic structure of the Arabic language. To this day, the generic word for a black person in the Arab-speaking world is the preface abd, which translates as “slave.” Although abd is used in reverential contexts to denote devotion, as in abd-allah (slave or servant of God), its generic usage for blacks in the Arab world is a throwback to the slave status of the ancestors of black Arabs and is clearly pejorative. This linguistic norm, among many other racially charged ones, is an expressive constant that holds true for the entire Arab-speaking world regardless of dialect and orthography.

Ochonu, Moses (2014-07-23). Africa in Fragments: Essays on Nigeria, Africa, and Global Africanity (Kindle Locations 2405-2411). Diasporic Africa Press, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Ochonu’s essays in this book make the case eloquently that corruption is in every cell of Nigeria’s governance. As I said earlier, Ochonu wrote the most authoritative and competent essay on the narcissism of el-rufai. You can’t link to it in the book (of course not!) but here, in Chapter 2, The Other Problems of Corruption, read, laugh, – and weep at a country on her knees from the relentless pillaging by her leaders. And Ochonu has sharp elbows; the chapter The Patriotism Blackmail is a resoundingly defiant middle finger to chants of Afropessimism leveled by alleged “patriots” against those deemed too critical of African states.

In Northern Elites and Northern Economic Backwardness, Ochonu proves that this is a rich book as he confronts Northern leadership and calls them out on their performance lapses.

[T]he ideal that underpins federal character does not square with a widely shared and expressed ideal: the preference for residency rather than ancestral origin as the supreme marker of citizenship/ indigene rights. In the wake of recent ethno -religious crises, this ideal has gained currency across the political and intellectual spectrums. Conversely, there has been widespread outrage at the practical consequences of the indigene– settler divide.

Ochonu, Moses (2014-07-23). Africa in Fragments: Essays on Nigeria, Africa, and Global Africanity (Kindle Locations 978-981). Diasporic Africa Press, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

In Why Do Africans Migrate to the West? Ochonu provides a unique perspective that perhaps could be bolstered even more by the voices of the  new underclass coming in droves from economically sacked African nations. The essay Of African Immigrants and African Americans is perhaps the most ambitious piece I have ever read, certainly a more complex and robust intervention than Adichie’s Americanah. It is a bit controversial as he tries (unsuccessfully, in my humble opinion) to offer an alternative meaning to the pejorative term Akata. Regardless, the best narrative space for an African immigrant interested in documenting the immigrant experience is the blog, twitter and Facebook. These are breathing living spaces for breathing living stories.

In Boko Haram, African Islam, And Foreign Islamic Heterodoxy, Ochonu struts his stuff majestically; this is scholarship at its best. It is a powerful, rich essay, I highly recommend it. If you read nothing else this year, please read this one. He detaches himself from an analysis, he can be dispassionate and clinical but yet deeply engaging.

Nollywood and the Functional Logic of Mediocrity is an amusing if somewhat farcical defense of mediocrity. Nollywood mirrors the society. Many would disagree vehemently with his take on Nollywood. I also loved his compelling and robust defense of the charity work of folks like Bono and Geldof and force Africans to look inwards for their help to avoid the interventions of Western “do-gooders.”

Sometimes, Ochonu seems genuinely baffled by the bizarre levels of corruption and excess of Black Africa’s leaders. The answer is deeper than the megalomania and kleptomania that fuel virtually all of Africa’s leaders. By the way, for those interested in savagery, here are graphic pictures of Mobutu’s excesses ($100 million palace) in ruins, here; in particular watch this BBC video clip.

africaOchonuWe must ask however, especially of Nigeria’s troubles: What is the state of the environment that has spawned these dysfunctions? The book is silent on that question. Without the back and forth of online dialogue, something is sometimes lost in the translation. In my opinion, Ochonu’s book does not go far enough, it is about [the lack of] accountability, a resounding failure of leadership, and I am not just talking political leadership. The analysis should be simple: There has been no substantive restructuring of any of Nigeria’s institutions since her alleged independence from colonialism in 1960. Most of Nigeria’s structures are 19th century holdovers from the colonial days. The result is a glaring 20th century caricature nation in the 21st century. True accountability is the crux of Nigeria’s current problem. I must say to Ochonu’s credit, he gave it a great shot in the essay Can Nigeria (Literally) Afford This Democracy? It is an insightful and rigorous intervention of this subject that offers, or at least hints at, alternatives. What a refreshing concept. Here, Ochonu’s passion is almost at full throttle; still it does not match his killer performances in the digital spaces that he stalks. It is not his fault, the book as a medium does poor justice to his intellect, passion and energy. You can’t contain the Ochonus, Adesanmis and Olumhenses in a mere book. They need an infinite canvas. That would be the Internet.

Africa in Fragments offers an opportunity for me to talk about the poor job the hard copy book is doing to documented thought in the 21st century. For Ochonu’s mind and industry, the book as a medium does a poor job. Even when the book is ported to the Internet as an “e-book” it is akin to using the computer as a typewriter. Let me explain. The links in the Bibliography section are not hypertext on Kindle. You would have to copy and paste it onto a browser to use it. Traditional publishers don’t get it, they are fighting a change that came yesterday, using the Internet as if it were a typewriter. Publishers, in order to survive, have to align their vision with how people, especially the youth now live. This is not how youths of today read. Youngsters are being forced to master arcane styles of referencing using “MLA” or “ALA” format. These styles are not sustainable. I point this out because Ochonu’s book is essentially an archive of his viewpoints that were previously expressed in online forums, they are written as such and it shows. Missing is the robustness of discourse that the thoughts were part of; you would have to go to the threads online to get a feel for the tenor, content and trajectory of the discourse, because there you would see the responses to Ochonu’s ideas by other intellectuals. Here, it sometimes reads like a lecture, instead of an important part of a thread or conversation. I dream of a living breathing e-book, complete with running discussion threads embedded, hyperlinks to all the resources in the essays and opportunities for comments – almost blog-like. I would be willing to pay a modest fee to subscribe to Ochonu’s mind in such an endeavor.

Ochonu also takes time in the book to explore the role of African writers and intellectuals in perpetuating the myth of the single story. However, I howled with mirth at the MLA formatted footnote of Adichie’s Ted Talk. In the book’s bibliography this is the citation for Adichie’s video, The Dangers of a Single Story:

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Dangers of a Single Story,” TED Talk, July 2009. http:// http://www.ted.com/ talks/ chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html. Accessed on February 4, 2014.

If the gatekeepers of tradition believe that readers will type all that gibberish on to a computer they are joking, That is what Google is for.

I enjoyed his academic riff on his townsman Bongos Ikwue’s music, I did find the prose sometimes stodgy – in an amusing way. Here, Patrick Obahiagbon would have been proud of him, Hear Ochonu:

 The philosophical implication of Bongos’s music is that universal values are not independent of their constitutive elements; they are instead coextensive with their divergent parts. They are empowered and substantiated by the material and abstract worlds of disparate people living in localized, sometimes remote, milieus in different corners of the world. Idomaland is one such constituent of the universal. Its quotidian realities, cosmological landscape, and incantatory messages mirror and feed into the universal axioms that we take for granted in speech and gestures, and that some of us adopt as moral instructions . Not only are universal concepts minted in European linguistic systems analogous to similar concepts in the worlds of the Idoma and other non-hegemonic cultural formations; they sometimes derive their credibility and persuasive appeal from the fact that they are ultimately rooted in the material and symbolic inventions and adaptations of peoples— like the Idoma— who are often theorized as peripheries of the world.

Ochonu, Moses (2014-07-23). Africa in Fragments: Essays on Nigeria, Africa, and Global Africanity (Kindle Locations 1613-1619). Diasporic Africa Press, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

That part taken from the essay, Bongos Ikwue and Idoma Cultural Cosmopolitanism reads like part of an obtuse PhD thesis. If you understood all that, you are ready to take the SAT aptitude test. My son is studying for the test. He should read the book. His world-view will expand, yeye American, and he will ace the SAT reading and writing sections, LOL!

I kept dreaming: What would a really good digital book look like? We could start with Africa in Fragments and convert it to a real book, complete with links, forums and pictures. I would pay a mint to get into Ochonu’s head that way. Yes. Imagine, back and forth dialogue, multi-layered, multi-dimensional – the emerging form of literature in the 21st century. Death to the sage-on-the-stage tyranny, welcome to the guide-by-the-side paradigm. The book makes frequent, veiled references to the richness of discourse in  the USA Africa Dialogue online forum and unwittingly makes the most eloquent demonstration of the failure of the book as a medium to replicate the joys of digital media. Again, the book was written for a digital audience, and struggles with long explanations where a hot link would explain. Resources to  What is the Marshall Plan? and Tony Blair’s debt cancellation plan should have been hot links on kindle. They are not. That is the fastest way to lose an audience. In any case, to really get into Ochonu’s fecund mind, go online, Google him and feast – for free. But first you must buy this book.

The good news is that the structural transformations going on in the world, thanks to the Internet and allied technologies are very much on Ochonu’s mind and he is at his most thoughtful when he muses on them as these quotes show:

 The second potential catalyst for Africa’s development in the twenty-first century turns on the degree to which the continent’s leaders harness and channel into productive endeavors the ideas, peoples, goods, intellectual capital, and technologies moving in and out of Africa. This effort to take advantage of new ideas and mediums to rebuild, reclaim, and revitalize Africa is as much an intellectual process as it is a political project. As thinkers on Africa’s fate and future, African intellectuals must accept that certain aspects of their analytical toolkit are now simply outmoded, rooted as they are in struggles and constructs that were relevant to sociopolitical moments that have expired. For instance, the old utopian pan-Africanist vision that sought to dissolve rather than understand intra-African difference is no longer tenable. Without explicitly intending it, some of these outmoded constructs shut off discussions on communal fissures, contentious relations between contiguous African peoples, internal hegemonies of class, race, and ethnic privilege, and the ugly underbellies of a frayed Afro– Arab relationship.

Ochonu, Moses (2014-07-23). Africa in Fragments: Essays on Nigeria, Africa, and Global Africanity (Kindle Locations 4490-4497). Diasporic Africa Press, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Furthermore, as the spaces for discussing, brainstorming, and troubleshooting on Africa’s slate of challenges increasingly take on informal characteristics with the popularity of social media and others organs of democratized punditry, African leaders and intellectuals have to engage with nontraditional African discursive communities nurtured on informal technologies of expression and problem solving. All of this throws up larger, more consequential questions. How can African leaders and intellectuals reckon with increasingly mobile African bodies, ideas, and objects? How can they keep up with the narratives that are animating the lives of African communities in fixed, situated locales and in shifty information landscapes such as Internet forums and social networks? How do we write African stories that are proliferating in cyberspaces into our rendering of African realities, into our descriptions of African ways of seeing and structuring the world, and, ultimately, into our prescriptions for an African renaissance? Africa’s future depends on the extent to which these ideational, human, and technological flows between Africa and the world and within Africa intersect to create new economic, political, and intellectual paradigms. The first imperative is a basic existential one of remaking the territorial, constitutional, and political contours of postcolonial African nation-states in the diverse, complex images of their constituents.

Ochonu, Moses (2014-07-23). Africa in Fragments: Essays on Nigeria, Africa, and Global Africanity (Kindle Locations 4483-4516). Diasporic Africa Press, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

These are profound observations that should breathe beyond Ochonu’s book; they should be enough for a week-long conference, not a book. I salute Professor Moses Ochonu for engaging me with his thoughts in his insightful book. Go get your own copy, LOL!

For Linda Ikeji: Wole Soyinka on Mukhtar Alexander Dan’Iyan (@MrAyeDee)

Those following the Linda Ikeji saga will forever remember her adversary, who goes by the Twitter handle @MrAyeDee. His real name is Mukhtar Alex Dan’Iyan. My views about the whole episode may be summed up in this interview with 9jafeminista. I promised to share on Twitter Professor Wole Soyinka’s views of him; it is rather harsh, but is very important to understand the man that Linda Ikeji was up against. I have known Mukhtar since the early 90’s, first on Naijanet where I was the towncrier, and then as members of the Association of Nigerians Abroad, where I served as Secretary General, and then as adversaries and allies inside the pro-democracy movement.  I shall have more to say about those heady, exciting and dangerous times, indeed I felt it was necessary for folks on Twitter to know his real name, it wasn’t obvious that they did. I don’t regret that outing, folks needed to know what they were up against. I shall have more to say about that someday. Let’s just say he was formidable enough to attract the attention and ire of Professor Wole Soyinka, a rage which spilled into his memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn. Here is a direct quote from Soyinka on Mukhtar:

“One was a self-hating Igbira, a minority tribe from the Nigerian hinterland, whose yearning to be mistaken for a Fulani aristocratic scion had resulted in his changing his name from Daniyan to Dan’Iyan. Partnering him was an ambitious youth from Swarthmore College, Jude Uzowanne. The third member was a labor unionist from Edo in southern Nigeria, Tunde Okorodudu, an activist in his own right who fell under the spell of the fourth member and center of intrigue, the liaison officer for the U.S. Boston chapter, Maureen Idehen, a pharmacist who had worked closely with me and was central to the coordination of activities for much of the United States. Together, this Gang of Four—the accolade was spontaneously bestowed—succeeded in serving a timely lesson on the power lust even among a yet inchoate formation that sought to curb power at its most virulent and malignant. It was a low point in the career of the anti-Abacha movement, suddenly compelled to confront the banal distractions of trite intrigues and personal ambitions. Expelling the miscreants took its toll. The liaison officer, the Boston-based Maureen Idehen, made off with our scant funds, leaving behind a trail of bad checks.”

Now read what Soyinka had to say in its entirety. I am intimately familiar with most of he issues, I lived it along with Mukhtar and many others.  Soyinka was NOT happy with “The Gang of Four.” I don’t think he should have mentioned them in his memoir and in some cases things got muddled up a bit. One day, there may be a need for a Truth Commission to unpack all of this. Oya read… Linda Ikeji never knew what hit her. Mukhtar Dan’Iyan is one of the most brilliant and tenacious fighters I have ever engaged in my life. As an adversary and as an ally, I grew to respect and in some cases fear his mind. Those were the days. Oya read…

“I HAD HARDLY recovered from that exercise when, thanks to a meeting with the South African poet Breyten Breytenbach, a former prisoner of apartheid, we found an opening through which we could advance the newly unified organization from the beginnings made at the Johannesburg/Oslo meetings. The George Soros–sponsored Goree Institute in Dakar, of which Breyten was a board member, agreed to facilitate the second meeting of the umbrella group, now going by the name of the United Democratic Front of Nigeria (UDFN). That gathering took place over strong diplomatic representations by the Abacha regime. The Senegalese government replied that it did not make a habit of intervening in “cultural” meetings, which, to the best of its knowledge, this was meant to be, since it was sponsored by the Goree Institute. It was a moment to be savored, the solidarity of the Senegalese government with the democratic cause and the coming together of twenty-seven organizations spread all over the globe, from Australia to Canada. Alas, the affliction I sought to escape in NADECO traveled with the luggage of a handful—a mere quartet, American-based—of the delegates. It served to increase my bewilderment at the craving for position and power in human disposition, one that seems especially absurd when an intervention in the fate of millions is initiated from the position of a weak challenger. It proved to be a near death at nativity; a movement that had been formed to liberate a nation from the very bane of power found itself enmeshed in a tawdry tussle for position. I had declined any formal position within the new body. This, however, signaled a contest for what the ambitious quartet read as an opportunity for self-promotion into a vacuum and the complete takeover of the organization. The plot had been hatched well in advance. It began from the moment that the liaison officer for Boston discerned, with absolute certainty, that I would not run for office and would remain content with my functions as an informal ambassador to the movement. The irony of such jostling was totally lost on the conspirators. One was a self-hating Igbira, a minority tribe from the Nigerian hinterland, whose yearning to be mistaken for a Fulani aristocratic scion had resulted in his changing his name from Daniyan to Dan’Iyan. Partnering him was an ambitious youth from Swarthmore College, Jude Uzowanne. The third member was a labor unionist from Edo in southern Nigeria, Tunde Okorodudu, an activist in his own right who fell under the spell of the fourth member and center of intrigue, the liaison officer for the U.S. Boston chapter, Maureen Idehen, a pharmacist who had worked closely with me and was central to the coordination of activities for much of the United States. Together, this Gang of Four—the accolade was spontaneously bestowed—succeeded in serving a timely lesson on the power lust even among a yet inchoate formation that sought to curb power at its most virulent and malignant. It was a low point in the career of the anti-Abacha movement, suddenly compelled to confront the banal distractions of trite intrigues and personal ambitions. Expelling the miscreants took its toll. The liaison officer, the Boston-based Maureen Idehen, made off with our scant funds, leaving behind a trail of bad checks. I should have been warned by the extralong talons, garishly decorated, that she affected in place of fingernails, but this highly efficient intriguer was the daughter of an old schoolfriend and classmate. His visits to his daughter in Boston had even served as an updating source for much of what was happening on the ground at home, and his support of the cause was quite vocal. As it turned out, he had also immersed himself in position grabbing on behalf of his daughter, even to the extent of poring through the minutes of the Dakar meeting and placing transatlantic calls to argue with my son—elected secretary-general of the UDFN—to assert the position of his daughter in the movement. To say that the entire episode constituted a personal embarrassment would be understating an experience of intense chagrin. I had the unpleasant duty of reminding the doting father that he was not a member of the movement and would he kindly keep sons and daughters outside an already draining undertaking. Ironically, it was the “vengeance” of one of the subversives that raised the profile of the opposition in the mind of the Abacha regime, far above its own ambitions or capabilities. A “confession” appeared in a Northern-based newspaper run by the brother of the inspector general of police, Alhaji Ibrahim Commassie, contributed by Jude Uzowanne. In it the writer claimed that he had been involved in the recruitment and training of a secret army, that he was in fact chief of staff of this force under my military command. In the meantime, naturally, he had had second thoughts, was now opposed to violence, had voluntarily quit the organization for this reason, and was doing his patriotic duty by revealing these terrorist plans.

Of all the fabrications put out by Abacha’s men about our activities, this was by no means the wildest. In any case, armed struggle, even from the start, was a subject that was openly introduced into discussions. This young man’s claims, self-ingratiating concoctions though they were, did have one decidedly negative effect. They had, after all, emerged from one whose earlier membership could not be denied, albeit that he was now expelled and had turned into a born-again pacifist. He had come into the UDFN through an affiliating group and been assigned the role of mobilizing the youth wing of the movement. If young Uzowanne’s claim had been true, it would have been his second conversion within a year. Revelations came tumbling in, confirming earlier rumors of his instability. He was confronted with a position paper he had sent to Sani Abacha, outlining how the dictator could turn himself into the Pinochet of Nigeria. His intellectual prowess, of which he had no modest estimation, was humbly offered to Abacha for the historic transformation. A small, ambitious Walter Mitty character, emotionally unstable, Uzowanne would indeed have been a most unusual choice for a military assignment, additionally being shortsighted, virtually blind, behind his inch-thick lenses and of such physical insubstantiality that the slightest wind from the heat of New York streets threatened to blow him right off the sidewalk and on to summary execution by the traffic. Alas, some of our supportive foreign embassies in Nigeria did swallow this “revelation” without any qualification and reported to their governments, which began to distance themselves from the opposition movement. This would have been a minor nuisance, on balance, since we were also positively served in other ways by this egregious piece of fiction. Certainly it played havoc on Abacha’s peace of mind; all reports indicated that it contributed to imbuing in him a holy terror at the very mention of W.S. or NALICON.”

Soyinka, Wole (2007-12-18). You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir (pp. 402-404). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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My mother’s cell phone

My dad, Papalolo served the colonialists in the fifties’ Lagos and was fond of telling anyone who would listen that he loved the white man’s orderliness, governance, discipline, etc. My mother is similarly contemptuous of my generation of looters (her word). She says ruefully that in the previous life black folks were in charge but they screwed things up so badly, God said never again. My mother half-jokes that the white folks know where God is but they won’t tell us, so we don’t go and kill Him.

I understand my parents’ cynicism; they and many people live in our village under appalling conditions. I reflect on my parents’ feelings a lot these days. President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration must be the most reviled in the history of our nation. No one that I know of has anything good to say about him and his hapless sidekicks. However reading Nigerian writing and its anxieties through the decades, you cannot help but notice that the refrain is constant. Except for the changing dates, the story is the same; massive corruption and inept governance, no accountability. I half joke that the only civil servant that ever went to jail in Nigeria was Obi Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease and that was fiction.

It is sad. Nigeria’s intellectual and political elite have used democracy to demonstrate convincingly that they are devoid of credibility and incapable of governance. It is sad but again this is not new. Chinua Achebe has raged at colonialists, postcolonial leaders, VS Naipaul, Joseph Conrad and anyone that questions our humanity as black people. I identify with his anger; a pox on the mansions of all racists. But I wonder at what point we should take personal responsibility for the circumstances we find ourselves in. What passes for democracy in today’s Nigeria, for example is a perverse mimicry of the real thing and foreigners may be forgiven for being skeptical of our progress and expressing this in condescending patronizing ways. It is important to demand respect but it must also be earned.

To be fair, globally, many assumptions about democracy and governance are changing. Orthodox economic theories are falling by the wayside because they were crafted under assumptions of demographic homogeneity and fixed physical boundaries. The world is browning, walls are falling and old assumptions about how we should live are no longer as useful as they once were. In Nigeria however, not much is changing in terms of governance. The intellectual and political elite seem genetically wired to look out only for themselves and their immediate families, the people be damned. The distinction between Nigeria’s ruling Party, the PDP and the pretend-opposition, the APC is a distinction without a difference. They are both profoundly corrupt and incompetent, with the PDP only marginally better in the sense that it lays no dishonest claims to honesty. Nigerians are still howling with laughter at Mr. Atiku Abubakar’s declaration that he will stamp out corruption in Nigeria if elected. He is stupendously wealthy and he has given feeble defenses to robust and compelling accusations that virtually all of his wealth came from state-sanctioned looting of the treasury. Get this, he is the most credible of the APC front-runners, yet he has refused to quash credible rumors that he is wanted in the United States. At least one of his associates is in jail for fraud. This is what the New York Times piece says about this embarrassment:

As for the money in the freezer, agents found it in a raid at Mr. Jefferson’s home in August 2005. Prosecutors said it was from a Kentucky businessman and was supposed to be used to bribe a high official of Nigeria, later identified as the vice president, Atiku Abubakar, who denied being part of any scheme.

Mr. Abubakar might end up being the first Nigerian president to be arrested by the law enforcement authorities of another nation. We are in a very humiliating place as Nigerians. But then Nigerians’ expectations for even a half-decent government are pretty low. It won’t happen anytime soon, especially given the shady characters on social media, former thug-rulers, now writing lofty tweets and posts about the Nigeria of our dreams. They would dearly love to return to the scene of the crime; they left a lot of unresolved loot behind in Abuja and elsewhere. We may be stuck. Our only hope perhaps is a second colonization. I see the harbinger of this coming dispensation in our willingness to mimic, and be assimilated by Western values. The West is an asymptote that even the most Pan-African of us has bought into. Nothing is original and valued unless it is from the West. Our leaders’ children do not go to our schools because they are not good enough. I don’t blame them, have you been inside any of our schools lately? In Nigeria, the children of the dispossessed are being abused in the name of education.

So, what am I saying? There is hope. Yes, stop laughing. The lowly cellphone saved Nigerians from the tyranny of state-sanctioned incompetence and corruption (NITEL!). So will Wal-Mart save us from the hell that our intellectual and political elite have put us in. America needs new markets, she is saturated with consumer goods, you can only buy so much. Black Africa is the new frontier; there are a lot of unthinking consumers waiting for Western capitalist detritus. Wal-Mart needs to reach my waiting mother. In order to do get to her, Wal-Mart would need to fix the broken roads and hire armed robbers as toll booth attendants. Our elders would be people greeters, taught by professional development experts to say in perfect American accents, “Welcome to Wal-Mart!” Just like they did the chaat wallahs of Mumbai’s bazaars. Wal-Mart will sell do-it-yourself (DIY) municipal kits aka Gofment-in-a-box. If you have the money you can use Wal-Mart’s roads, water, police and schools, all in a safe environment. As long as you pay for it. Just like in America. There is hope my people, go to church today and pray for deliverance through my prediction. In Jesus Name! Insha Allah! Ise! What has all this got to do with my mother’s cellphone? You will need to ask her, I don’t know. Goodnight.

 

 

Half of a Yellow Sun – The movie

Once upon a time, beautiful men and women rose as leaders to embrace the awesome promise of an emerging nation, Nigeria. They were poets and soldiers, intellectuals and doers who mesmerized the world with beautiful words and crisp uniforms – and proceeded to take the promise apart brick by brick with graft, incompetence and civil strife. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s epic novel Half of a Yellow Sun about Nigeria’s anxieties and the ensuing civil war spoke to the heart of that broken promise in a unique and mesmerizing way. Half of a Yellow Sun is a beautiful book that should be required reading in every classroom, so that we may never forget. Many years ago, I was so taken by it, I wrote a cringe-worthy review in which I gushed aloud my hope that the book would be turned into a movie.

My prayers were answered, there is a movie and all I can say is that Biyi Bandele the movie director, who also wrote the script, did a great job, never mind the reviews. It is not a perfect movie, but it certainly entertained me. Let me just say that it is important for those who are interested in Nigeria’s history to watch the movie. At the very least, this pretty movie is a conversation starter; you watch the movie and all these questions come rushing at you. You want answers. Nigeria is a nation that deleted history from its classrooms’ curriculum. We need movies like this in each classroom so that children can rediscover the joy of being inquisitive.

What did I like about the movie? Well, start with Bandele’s attention to detail, the period dresses, hairstyles, the music, the Cuban era cars driving on the wrong side of the road and your heart melts. Miriam Makeba starts out the movie with the haunting song, The Naughty Little Flea and Africa comes sailing back into your soul in reverse black and white. I loved the historical pieces dispersed within the narrative, of a young Queen Elizabeth visiting Nigeria in 1956, a young Ojukwu trying to lead Biafra, etc. History buffs will have a field day deconstructing this narrative. And when the ever-befuddled white writer Richard (Joseph Mawle) gets down with sultry Kainene (Anika Noni Rose) on the dance floor and proves with Rex Lawson’s rollicking highlife piece Bere Bote that white men can’t dance, you are grinning and reaching for more popcorn and beer. It is a powerful cast of powerful actors and actresses, more importantly the chemistry among them was electric.

Do not die until you have watched Thandie Newton play Olanna. And the chemistry between the twins Olanna and Kainene has to be seen to be relished, this is simply fine acting. Chiwetel Ejiofor was great as Odenigbo; he came across as hardworking, paying attention to every detail, down to the accent even. And I thought John Boyega played the role of the houseboy Ugwu magnificently. By the way, does anyone notice he looks a bit like a young Denzel Washington? However Onyeka Onwenu and Genevieve Nnaji looked like they needed acting classes, they were mechanical in their thankfully bit roles, the script did not give them the space to strut their stuff, if they had any. Onwenu’s overwrought acting was comical – and not in a good way. Again, kudos to Bandele for assembling a (mostly) star cast.

The 2014 Caine Prize: Stories in the age of social media

As the world knows, the 2014 Caine Prize shortlist is out. The shortlisted stories are: Phosphorescence by Diane Awerbuck of South Africa; Chicken by Efemia Chela of Ghana/Zambia; The Intervention by Tendai Huchu of Zimbabwe; The Gorilla’s Apprentice by Billy Kahora of Kenya; and My Father’s Head by Okwiri Oduor of Kenya. No Nigerian made the shortlist. Which begs the question, is it an authentic Caine Prize if no Nigerian is on the shortlist? The answer is, YES. Nigerians, get over yourselves, abeg. There is a short biography of each of the five writers here. Reading the stories wasn’t a waste of my time, but compared to the fun I am having on social media, it was a collective near-yawn. I was not overly impressed by any of the stories, well that is not entirely correct, a couple of the stories held my interest quite a bit.

What are the stories about? The theme of this year’s shortlisted stories seems to be relationships. Even as the writers explore old and familiar themes, they still manage to experiment with the exploration of all sorts of relationships, sometimes inanimate objects and animals form bonds with human beings and I must say that in each instance, the relationships are convincing and even poignant. 2014_awerbuckThese new African writers are moving away in glacial installments from the single-story pejorative that has defined and limited the works of those before them. There are some admittedly timid experiments away from traditional notions of African literature. It is not enough to stem the allure of social media but we are making progress.

So what do I think of the stories? Diane Awerbuck’s Phosphorescence  explores a relationship between a woman and her troubled granddaughter. It is an intimate love story, well done, too well done, one that features a pool, an inanimate object as a living breathing major character. A girl takes a respite from her abusive demons to go visit her grandmother. Well written. Too well written. Reading it is like driving on a too-smooth road, the eyes glaze over; you fight deep sleep all the way. It reads like a piece written by an expert in the technical arcana of fiction writing. Everything is in its place, no sloppiness here. That is its major weakness. It is clinical, edited almost to a sterile standstill. It does not excite, it assures you only that the person who wrote it went to serious fiction school where they teach these things.

I would be pleasantly surprised if Awerbuck wins the Caine Prize. She should. There is a sense actually in which Awerbuck is over-qualified for the Caine Prize, her writing towers above the others in a way that makes her an outlier. Despite itself, Phosphorescence is perhaps the only one of the five that can lay claim to being serious literature. In design and substance, it is head and shoulders above every story on the shortlist. The story is not your typical image of Africa. If you are expecting “African literature” here, you will be disappointed. You will roll your eyes at the expressions of self-absorption by the (white) wealthy. Who would relate to the anxieties of a white African teenager born of privilege? Only a black African teenager born of privilege. We don’t write about those. There are wars, rapes, filth and distended stomachs to obsess about. SMH. Phosphorescence is also different from the other stories in one important aspect: Its characters are not wretched caricatures, somehow through the banality of their lives, they retain their dignity and humanity. Also, it is not mere social commentary pimping as fiction. This writer dares to write about the banal, about life. That is writing.

By the way, Phosphorescence is not all agnostic clinical aridity. There is good prose; sometimes it is exciting, like this:

Under Brittany’s dumb gaze Alice straightened her back in her black costume as much as she could, grateful for the coming dark. Still, her bones curved like forceps and there was only so much good posture could do. Her son Sidney, the plastic surgeon, always said that it was the skeleton you couldn’t change. Boob jobs, tummy tucks, facelifts were easy to execute, but when your patients hauled themselves up from their towels on the sand to hobble to the water, they hunched over like the old ladies they were. Plastic surgery was as much a mystery to Alice as the idea that in another century Sidney himself had emerged, smeared and screaming, from her body. She couldn’t imagine wilfully visiting radical change upon herself.

And this is really beautiful:

The two of them fell quiet. Above them the moon was swollen orange and fully risen, the rabbit scrabbling his paws to prevent his fall into mortality as the earth and sun lined up.

Efemia Chela’s Chicken starts out with the best opening lines I have read in a long time:

It was a departure of sorts, last time I saw them. Or maybe not at all. I had left sigh by sigh, breath by breath over the years. By the time my leaving party came, I was somewhere else entirely. From this place, I watched fairy lights being looped low over long tables and rose bushes being pruned. The matching china came out with the crystal glasses. The guards in our gated community were paid off to pre-empt noise complaints, as were the local police. Our racist neighbours were invited in time for them to book a night away. A credit card and a note on the fridge told me to go and buy a new dress (“At least knee-length, Kaba!!”).

But then Chicken is a story in three incoherent parts; the first part features nice disciplined sentences daring you to look away. You can’t. The other two parts are divorced from the first part. Weird. Chela should have ended the short story at Part I. She did not. Sadly. Part I is dark and beautiful. Hear Chela:

Uncle Samu, my mother’s brother had driven away his third wife with a steady rain of vomit and beatings. As the family’s best drunk he could play palm-wine sommelier. His bathtub brew was mockingly clear. Getting drunk on it felt like being mugged. And by midnight he and Mma Virginia, who according to family legend were kissing cousins in the literal and sordid sense, could always be counted on to break out ‘The Electric Slide’ to the entertainment of everyone watching.

2014_ChelaChela can sure put together sensuous pretty prose. Part I is a culinary experience, a food festival that reminds the alert reader of a certain passage in Wole Soyinka’s You Must Set Forth at Dawn. One learns quite a lot; Parson’s nose is chicken butt, a delicacy of my childhood. By the way, I absolutely love that these writers no longer italicize or go into apologetic explanations of “ethnic” words. Let the reader do the research; that is what Google is for, yes. Confidence has returned to our storytellers. When Chela described grasscutter meat, “slightly hairy with a bit of gristle dangling from it,” it was exactly as my exiled taste buds remembered them and they wept. Chela sure can write, you can imagine the scenery, touch the ambience even and almost eat the bushmeat:

A chitenge-covered desk beside the second buffet table was for the DJ. There was a stack of records and the glow of a MacBook illuminated my older brother’s face. He played eclectically, switched from computer to record player. Computer to Supermalt. Supermalt to record player. Mostly high life, with Earth, Wind and Fire, Glen Miller and Elton John. The musical liturgy of the family. Everything he knew would please. Near the bottom of the pile of records I saw a tiny snail that had escaped being stewed, creeping slowly upside down on the underside of a WITCH LP.

Chela’s story explores the familiar and the new – sexuality, alcoholism, relationships, boundaries, etc. It is the best use of prose by any of the shortlisted writers. By far. It reminded me of the joy of reading Petina Gappah’s delightful collection of short stories, An Elegy for Easterly. But then, it bears repeating; Parts II and III were unnecessary, a narcissistic appendage tacked on from the drawers of forgotten forgettable manuscripts, the writer obediently complying with a request for filler material to stretch a beautiful story into a vacuous stretch limo. They featured the usual sin of your stereotypical African writer, supercilious, needy, self-absorbed and obnoxious, cringe-worthy self-absorption glorifying clinical depression in lovely prose. Let’s just call it creative nonfiction. In sum Chela celebrates life joyfully in Part I and loses herself in a pity party in Part II and III. Even so, there are delicious pickings of tart, juicy prose to be plucked off from under Chela’s pity party canopy. Chela is a writer to watch. I can even see her winning the Caine Prize.

2014_huchuTendai Huchu’s The Intervention may be summed up in one word: Forgettable. It features the worst opening lines of all of the stories, actually of all the stories I have read in a long time. The first sentence begins with a grammatical misunderstanding: The first thing I did when we got to Leicester was ask Precious to use the bathroom. It was not Precious that used the bathroom. It is a silly tale that goes nowhere and in a bad way. It ignores all the rules of storytelling and writing and in a bad way. Huchu’s attempt to use humor as a vehicle ensures a fiery crash landing; his jokes fall flat – each time. The Intervention is a needy story too eager to please, dropping lame jokes off-key, like a bumbling drunk. Huchu does have the potential and skills of a good writer. If you are patient enough, you will find good prose sticking out of the weeds of cheesy impossible dialogue. But then one sneezes uncontrollably from the prose pollen. Huchu would be very good at creative nonfiction. Maybe the problem is we see African writing only through the lens of fiction. Do Africans write fiction poorly? Let’s examine their essays. Huchu is an unwitting visionary though. Hear him:

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” Z apologised, “Simba is a poet.”

“A poet?” someone said.

“I’m a member of the Zimbabwe Poets for Human Rights,” I said.

“What does that mean?” Precious asked. “Like, forgive my ignorance, but how can one be a poet for Human Rights. Does this mean that as a poet for Human Rights you’re not interested in love, landscapes, the stars, ordinary life?”

#GBAM

2014_kahoraBilly Kahora’s The Gorilla’s Apprentice was a nice surprise. I am not sure why it is fiction; it reads more like creative nonfiction. But I did enjoy reading it. It is about a relationship between man and ape with a lot of social issues thrown in to complete the script. I like how the gorilla is one of the main protagonists, pretty clever. Kahora employs good imagery to keep the reader connected to the story. It works:

Week after week, year after year, he listened to the screeching conversations of vervets devouring tangerines, peel and all; the responding calls of parrot, ibis, egret: the magenta, indigo and turquoise noises fluttering in their throats like angry telephones going off at the same time.

It took him away from real life. Real life was Evelyn’s College for Air Stewards and Stewardesses which he had attended for a year. Real life was the thin couch he slept on at home. Real life was his mother screaming that he needed to face Real Life. Waking up on Sunday morning and staring at the thin torn curtains of the sitting room, the stained ceiling that sagged and fell a few inches every week and smelt of rat urine, Jimmy often felt he needed to leave the house before his mother asked him to join her and her latest boyfriend for breakfast. Real life was the honey in her voice, the gospel singing in the kitchen as she played Happy Family for her new man.

It goes on and on and on like this, prose that is enthusiastic but does not overwhelm the senses. It is a dark story wrapped around an alcoholic mother, a gorilla and a man:

Jimmy had been born not far from State House where the President lived. The house he remembered smelled like the Animal Orphanage. It smelled of the giant pet tortoise that had disappeared when he was eight. After he had cried for a week his mother brought him Coxy, and the house came to smell of rotting cabbage and rabbit urine. Later, when he was older, Mum allowed him to keep pigeons, and they added to the damp animal smell of the house. It smelled of the bottom of the garden where he eventually strangled Coxy and the second rabbit, Baby, and drowned their children, overwhelmed by three squirming litters of rabbits; the piles of shit to clear. His mother found him crying at the foot of the garden and said in consolation, ‘What are rabbits anyway? Your father is a rabbit. Always up in some hole.’

 It is not exactly serious literature, but it is a nice piece, that effectively describes urban decay and squalor and kitsch. There is a certain confidence in Kahora’s language, an earned swagger.

 2014_oduorOkwiri Oduor’s My Father’s Head is a sleepy puzzling story about a father’s ghost or memory, an oedipal longing for an absent rejecting father, dark but not quite dark enough, a story that went on too long, no energy in the story, no zing. It is an experiment that fails ultimately because it is timid. Again, I do like how these writers now own their own words – with pride. New words are created everywhere every day, the English language is ours now, screw the dictionary, Google does not discriminate. Bodaboda na okada. Try it.

 Oduor speaks of dusty desolate places, of nameless faceless people who mostly lead lives puzzling only in their meaninglessness, pregnant only with the drudgery of subservience to man and his narcissistic God:

Let me tell you: one day you will renounce your exile, and you will go back home, and your mother will take out the finest china, and your father will slaughter a sprightly cockerel for you, and the neighbours will bring some potluck, and your sister will wear her navy blue PE wrapper, and your brother will eat with a spoon instead of squelching rice and soup through the spaces between his fingers.

There is prose poetry but it has little or nothing to do with the piece. It makes the piece even more incoherent and puzzling. The parts do not gel, all the ingredients revolt against the clay pot.  It does show that Oduor can write though.

Whatever the failings of these writers, the Caine Prize has little or nothing to do with it. Writers have to accept responsibility. A prize can only do so much. Ultimately, writers have to step up their game and take advantage of the incredible opportunities that these prizes offer. I have had my issues with the Caine Prize (here and here) but I have grown to really like and appreciate it. The Caine Prize is organic – it taps into the vast sea of stories online written by an army of young African writers. It is the only credible avenue I know that gives aspiring writers an opportunity at stature. And there is a long history of African writers of stature stepping out of the shadows thanks to the hard work of the organizers of the Caine Prize. I do not know of any other prize targeted at African writers that does it so effectively. And for that I salute the Caine Prize.

It bears repeating: African writers need to up their game significantly; their products are completing poorly with Twitter and Facebook. The world of traditional writers is still very 20th century. Most of them cannot fathom the world they live and breathe in; no wonder they are totally disconnected from the 21st century reader. How many young people under 30 would relate to these shortlisted stories? For them it would be a collective yawn that would send them sleepy into the arms of social media. Our writers can do better than this. Be bold. Create new frontiers. Wean yourselves off of orthodoxy and the stifling confines of the classroom. Contemporary African literature as is taught in classrooms is pathetically 20th century. The keepers of those gates tend to think of contemporary African literature in terms of the three As: Achebe, Adichie, and Abani. When pressed, they add Habila. It is pathetic, really. The bulk of our literature is on the Internet and ancient professors are still photocopying what Achebe wrote in 1958. This must stop.

Writers, I beg you, write, just write. Do not write to the test of any prize, write, just write. And experiment for heavens’ sake! These stories are neat paragraphs adorned by lame titles, same old model designed eons ago before the advent of contemporary tools. One reason these stories hardly engage is that they are too one-dimensional for the new world and the new generation. Dare to place hot links in your stories and listen to the laughter of readers as they click and travel the world through your stories. Hot links are the pictures of my childhood that took me to Hyde Park and to the bazaars of India, that connected me with the world out there. Many stories today that keep readers chuckling do not use paragraphs and stuff, they are called apps. Use today’s tools to tell today’s stories.

 And oh, I move that we simply call this prize the Caine Prize, NOT the Caine Prize for African writing. What is that? In the 21st century, it seems faintly offensive. What is “African Writing”? Please let’s call it the Caine Prize. Yes. I love the Caine Prize.

[Guest BlogPost - Professor Pius Adesanmi] #WhoOwnsTheProblem?

By Professor Pius Adesanmi

Winner, the Penguin Prize for African Writing

Author of  You’re Not a Country, Africa!

Carnegie Diaspora Visiting Professor, University of Ghana, Legon

(This keynote lecture was initially delivered as part of the opening session plenary addresses at the Fourth Annual African Renaissance for Unity Conference convened by the Africa Institute of South Africa and The Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute, Pretoria, South Africa, on May 22, 2014. A modified version of it was subsequently delivered as Professor Pius Adesanmi’s valedictory lecture at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, Legon, on May 29, 2014, in conclusion of his tenure as a Carnegie Diaspora Visiting Scholar.)

Your Excellency President Thabo Mbeki, organizers, sponsors and co-sponsors of this conference, esteemed colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, you must forgive me for the peculiar title of this lecture. It is true that the organizers of this timely conference gave me an unambiguous mandate about what they wanted me to do: share some reflections with you on the subject of finding African solutions for African problems. Specifically, they wanted me to engage the subject from the perspective of culture. Let me state from the onset that the singular, culture, is not my making. That is how it appears in my letter of invitation. Coming from a disciplinary background where the producer of knowledge must constantly watch out for traffic cops eager to hand out tickets for the offences of monolithization and essentialism, I probably wouldn’t have dared to speak of an African culture in the singular purporting to solve African problems in the plural.

padesanmi_large-carleton-uHowever, not even the most audacious enforcers in all the humanistic and artistic disciplines with which we engage Africa would dare to hand out a traffic ticket to the scholar who drags the hashtag into the arena of serious scholarly reflection on the unending dilemmas of the African condition in the 21st century. These, indeed, are great times to be a hashtag. In my second life, I’d prefer to come back not as a bird or a flower as is the wont of nature lovers but as the world’s most recognizable symbol, the hashtag, previously only known to Americans and the English as the pound key on their phones but catapulted to planetary celebrity status in a little under a decade by Twitter. The hashtag is the only subject that can legitimately claim to be more famous than Kimye – that conjugal combination of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.

Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to describe the hashtag as the highest stage of globalization, what with its ability to go viral within seconds, crisscross geographical borders and ideological boundaries, connect cultures and peoples in defiance of difference, break down walls between causes and create a common village square for actors as far apart as gay rights activists of the global north and anti-gay cultural fundamentalists of the global south in Nigeria and Uganda, animal rights activists in Scandinavia and the whale and shark hunters of Japan, gender rights activists in the global north and the bearded guys preventing women from driving in parts of the Arab world. Every time I reflect on this singular capacity of the hashtag to unite the world’s largest community of strange bedfellows, I am almost always tempted to conclude that more than three decades of intense theorizing in the humanities and the social sciences have been reduced into a tiny symbol.

The intellection which yielded world systems theory, globalization, and everything in between, and gave us illustrious cross-disciplinary thinkers of global flows, fluxes, and linkages such as Achille Mbembe, Mahmood Mamdani, Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, Adebayo Olukoshi, Thandika Mkandawire, Ato Quayson, Immanuel Wallerstein, Frederic Jameson, Edward Said, Arjun Appadurai, Gloria Anzaldua, and so many usual suspects in the arena of contemporary global thought now all boils down to the performative power of just one symbol: the hashtag. For the hashtag is world system, borderlessness, and globalization on steroids.

Some of you are already probably thinking that you know the reason why a Nigerian public intellectual would start an exercise such as this by singing the praise of the hashtag. Folks, don’t blame me. My country, already a famous subject of all kinds of fair and unfair stereotyping here in Africa and the rest of the world, has seen her notoriety attain stratospheric heights courtesy of the hashtag. Doubtless some of you have already participated in what may now rightfully be termed a global hashtag movement. Perhaps some of you will take selfies in the course of this conference, brandishing a cardboard on which you would have inscribed the reigning marker of collective global activism: #BringBackOurGirls.
The phenomenal career of this particular hashtag – #BringBackOurGirls – has very obvious theoretical implications for those who have been thinking and theorizing the borderlessness of our postcolonial and postmodern world and the modes of Africa’s insertion into it in the last three decades or so. But, more importantly, this conference will have to zoom in on the possessive adjective, “our”, map its trajectory and modes of articulation, listen intently to its politics in order to determine who is speaking – or more appropriately, who has acquired the agency to speak – every time you encounter this celebrity hashtag.

In essence, this conference must ask the question: who is the “our” in #BringBackOurGirls? I don’t know the answer but how you, esteemed colleagues, answer this thorny question will have very serious implications for the aims and goals of our gathering. For when I saw the theme of our conference, “African Solutions for African Problems”, and the rider stating that more than a hundred scholars from Africa, Europe, and North America would gather here to find “African Solutions” to whatever we eventually agree – or agree to disagree – are “African Problems”, my mind immediately went to #BringBackOurGirls (and even the Joseph Kony campaign before it) and I asked: who owns the problem? Or, more appropriately, when was the last time Africa possessed the critical agency to own problems that are defined and narrativized as African? What are the possibilities of localizing the ownership of problems in the age of the hashtag? To make the inevitable allusion to Gayatri Spivak, can the subaltern own her problems?

Some of you may have noticed that no sooner had the #BringBackOurGirls handle gone viral than conflict over its origin and ownership arose, with CNN and the Wall Street Journal devoting time and space to clearing the air. And this war over ownership and narrative raged even as the girls were still in captivity. Who started it? Is it an offshoot of President Goodluck Jonathan’s bring back the book campaign? Or is it more directly linked to Wole Soyinka’s variation – with acknowledgment – on that presidential buzz with his own bring back the pupils retort? Or is it Oby Ezekwesili’s making? Or is it the making of the American woman who immediately claimed ownership of it and rushed to edit her Wikipedia biography to include ownership of #BringBackOurGirls?

In the context of the politics – for there is always politics involved – of owning problems that are defined as African, it does seem to me that the advent of the hashtag and social media has introduced the dimension of separating the localized reality of problems from their modes of articulation, representation, and, I daresay, marketing. It seems to me that Africa is being told: you may own the scrawny children with countable ribs and mucus-soaked nostrils studying under baobab trees with chalkboards donated by UNICEF, we reserve the right to adopt those malnourished children with full media fanfare and scold you if you grumble – even if you are the President of a country like Malawi; you may own the lives and limbs being blown up in Kenya, in Congo, in Mali, and in the ungoverned Boko Haram Territories of Nigeria, we own the glamour, glitz, and razzmatazz attendant upon the global dissemination and narrativization of those horrors.

This leads me to a second set of questions that must detain this conference. You may have noticed that I have been using the passive voice when talking about “African problems”. In fact, I have avoided that particular phraseology employed by the conveners of the conference. Instead, I have been talking about “problems that are defined and narrativized as African”. This mode of address is deliberate on my part. Apart from wondering whether Africa has the agency to own problems and their modes of articulation, the theme of this conference also made me wonder if we didn’t need to problematize the problems before finding African solutions for them. Perhaps my unease is further heightened by the suspicion that a certain neoliberal sleight of the hand underwrites the expression, “African Problems”. I believe the ability to smell neoliberal modes of framing, of naming, of engaging the actualities of Africa from a thousand miles come with the territory of what we do as the thinkers and writers of this continent. Hence, we must ask: what exactly are these African problems? How do problems acquire African citizenship? Who does the designation? When is an African problem?

For anybody familiar with the usual laundry list, these questions may appear to be no brainers. African problems? Oh, that’s poverty, illiteracy, disease, hunger, comatose infrastructure, tribalism, bad governance, wobbly democracy and allied problems of leadership, crises and conflict, corruption, environmental degradation, the familiar tableau of human misery associated with the girl child , human trafficking and, above all, the failures of the postcolonial state – some would say her complete demission. This is by no means an exhaustive list of problems that have acquired African citizenship in global imaginaries of discourse. Each participant in this conference could draw up his or her own list but I am sure we would have considerable overlaps. Consider, for instance, Professor Joseph Ki-Zerbo’s list and see how close it is to mine:

“raging genocides, mass movements of refugees, tortures and mutilations, random destruction of the environment and bio-diversity, hostage-taking of the young generation as cannon fodder for warlords, the decimation of whole populations by pandemics, the stranglehold of the republican army, the giving away and eradication of age-old cultures and distinct knowledge.”

Professor Ki-Zerbo’s list of the pressing challenges of the continent obviously devolves from the register of wars, conflict, and crises. It is easy to run through the said list and think of Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Kenya, Nigeria, Mali, Congo, and all the ongoing hotspots in the continent – if one wasn’t in the mood for immediate past spectres of bloodletting in Rwanda, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. However, if you leave out any geographical referents, it is also quite possible for observers in other parts of the global south to run through this generic list of problems that has acquired the tag, African, and assume that one was describing those places and spaces. What is there in my own list, for instance, that is not part of the politics of everyday life in significant parts of Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Arab World?

Consider poverty. You’ll be amazed by how comparable the indicators and the statistics are if you looked at, say, the situation in Peru, Honduras, Bangladesh, Ecuador, Papua New Guinea, Cambodia, the very black deep south of the USA, the First Nations reservations of Canada, and Cameroon. Yet, only Africa becomes a synonym for these problems. The same applies to infrastructure. I’ve been reading that decrepit infrastructure is going to be one of the major headaches of the new Indian Prime Minister. The New York Times recently framed this problem, drawing on the capacity of Indians for self-deprecating humour. Indians, the newspaper claims, have a saying that while the English drive on the left of the road, Indians drive on what’s left of the road. Booker Prize winner and activist, Arundhati Roy, also paints a grave picture of poverty and infrastructure in India in a post-election interview. Yet, that part of the register of underdevelopment that deals with dilapidated infrastructure is also almost always framed as an African problem.

These scenarios lead to some pressing questions. Do problems and human tragedies which also exist elsewhere become African because of perceived differences of spread and intensity? Do these problems become African because of imagined or real differences in the readiness of the institutions and opportunities of African modernity to rise up and solve them using critical human intelligence and innovation? Are these problems African because the websites of global actors in what I have previously theorized as the Mercy Industrial Complex (donor agencies, humanitarian organizations, aid and charity organizations, Bono, Jeffrey Sachs, career saviours of African children through adoption such as Madonna) almost always label them as African? More questions: do these problems become African because the continent is powerless against the modes of representation so powerfully captured by Binyavanga Wainaina in his classic piece, “How to Write about Africa”? There is even a latest variation of this problem of discursive and epistemological violence. I am told that there are particular ways to design the cover of the African novel, the African book, if you are a serious publisher looking for serious buyers of books about Africa in the global north.

The acknowledgement by the organizers of this conference that culture has a role to play in finding African solutions for African problems is perhaps a conscious admission on their part that despite contemporary pressures to the contrary, history has a huge role to play in solving many of the said problems. To solve a problem is to understand it in all its manifestations and ramifications and this includes its origins and modes of perpetuation. Yet, mentioning the colonial origin of many of the afflictions of the continent has become unfashionable in many of our disciplines. In my own discipline, it is taboo and could earn you a citation by the essentialism police.

As if Latin American thinkers like Anibal Quijano and Walter Mignolo never theorized coloniality (the persistence in our present of the fault lines and effects of colonialism), you are told that the recourse to colonial paradigms to explain the benumbing dilemmas of the African present amounts to disciplinary laziness and an attempt to excuse, rationalize, or justify the self-imposed woes and tragedies of Africa. Yet, how could Mahmood Mamdani have explained Rwanda without going back to the colonial origins of the problem? How can I explain Boko Haram, how can I propose solutions to Boko Haram, without going back to 1914 in order to understand and map the errors of the rendering that have inevitably produced this gory Nigerian present? The search for more than 200 school girls is only the latest stop in a journey programmed for tragedy and disaster by Lord Frederick Lugard in 1914. The Igbo genocide and the attendant civil war are also significant stops in that journey.

To recall Chinua Achebe, how do you begin the process of drying yourself when you are told that it is no longer fashionable to try and understand when, where, and why the rain began to beat you? How do you solve a problem when you are told that the ordained discursive procedure is to acknowledge and focus on your own contribution in making the rain that is beating you today and leave well enough alone with regard to yesterday’s rain made by foreign rainmakers? Do these two epistemological propositions have to be mutually exclusive?

If history helps us to understand the origins and trajectory of many of the problems blighting the African present, culture is what explains why the problems became African or why outsiders of the neoliberal bent have been able to attach a fixed African identity to problems that are transcendentally human, even where we make allowances for differences of intensity. Culture is the location of the original injury of modernity. Culture was the first target of the discourses and the institutions of modernity at the moment of encounter. Many of the problems that Africa still has with the orders and institutions of modernity – democracy, governance, corruption, etc – devolve from the unresolved contradictions of the original injury of modernity.

Let us not forget that modernity was imposed on the African largely through institutions of discipline and punish, to borrow from Michel Foucault. The prison, the Christian mission, and the school did not stop at inflicting corporal punishment on the “African native” while scrupulously pursuing the civilizing mission, they equally all had very specific ideas about the cultures and worldviews of the African that we do not need to repeat here. If we need any reminder about this discipline and punish approach to the introduction of the structures of modernity in Africa, we need not look beyond the workings of the said institutions in Ferdinand Oyono’s famous novel, Houseboy.

Thus, the African was culturally alienated from the institutions, protocols, and orders of modernity from the very start. This cultural alienation explains in large part the apathy to institutions, especially public institutions, in the continent. Institutions of modernity evolved as alienating structures of discipline and punish under colonialism and have retained that identity in the postcolonial phase of African life. The postcolonial state has failed woefully in detaching itself and its institutions from the colonial socius of violence that birthed it.

Hence corruption! Hence the impunity with which the public till is plundered in so many African states, especially in my own Nigeria. As Kwame Gyekye reminds us in his book, Philosophy, Culture, and Vision, the cultural relationship of the African subject to his precolonial cultural and political community conduced to a collective ownership of institutions and modes of cultural citizenship which enhanced the notion of the common good. The communal stream, communal farm lands, communal institutions of governance and public order, were not just in sync with the psychic world of the African subject, you took care of them because they commanded your loyalty and were not structures of violence and alienation.

Here then is the dilemma. Precolonial institutions, with all their warts and weaknesses, worked to a great extent and corruption was minimal – and punished adequately whenever it occurred – because those institutions acquired legitimacy and hegemony (as opposed to exercising only dominance and violence) through an historically developed sense of collective ownership. Postcolonial institutions have trouble working or functioning properly in Africa because they are orphans. Everybody steals from them; everybody leaves them to rot precisely because nobody owns them. The precolonial cultural attitudes of ownership of institutions and the collective good were never carried over because the new institutions destroyed or looked down upon the cultural values and worldviews that would have aided their insertion into the African space and psyche. These are contradictions that the modern African state is yet to resolve. She still hasn’t been able to sell herself culturally to the African.

The story is told – and it is a true story – of the late Alhaji Barkin Zuwo, a Governor of Kano state during the Second Republic in Nigeria which lasted from 1979-1983. The task of making the daily trip to the public treasury to steal money became too cumbersome for this Governor. To solve the problem, he introduced the practice of home delivery of stolen public funds into the lexicon of corruption in Nigeria. He simply had raw cash delivered to him in large quantities in his official residence which we call Government House in Nigeria. When the coup happened in 1983 and soldiers stormed Government House to arrest him, they were astounded by the quantity of raw cash they found in his bedroom. When queried, Barkin Zuwo famously quipped: “Government money in Government House, what is the problem?” This sums up the story of the African subject’s conceptualization of the institutions of the postcolonial state. Would Alhaji Barkin Zuwo have had the same attitude to public office and to public property in the precolonial Emirate of Kano? Your guess, ladies and gentlemen, is as good as mine.

Like corruption and institutions, most of the problems and challenges that postcolonial Africa has encountered in the arena of democracy and governance can be explained on the ground of our radical departure from the economic and political cultures of precolonial Africa. All over the continent today, the state and her economy are hyper-centralized because they were carried over unmodified from the hyper-centralization of the political and economic structures of the colonial state. We are all familiar with the consequences of the hyper-centralization of political and economic power at the centre all over the continent. It foreclosed the possibility of good governance and genuine democracy and facilitated the emergence of authoritarianism, supervised by the big man and his cronies.

Because the big man’s cronies are almost always from his ethnic neck of the woods, tribalism enters the picture as the handmaiden of political and economic hyper-centralization. This has particularly been the case in much of Francophone Africa’s postcolonial history, a period bloodied by the Father of the Nation and his single party monolithism. This spectre of hyper-centralized authoritarianism haunted the Francophone African novel of the 1970s and the 1980s with novelists like Alioum Fantoure, Williams Sassine, Henri Lopes, Aminata Sow Fall, and Sony Labou Tansi leading the guard in the production of dictatorship novels. Wole Soyinka would respond in Anglophone Africa with A Play of Giants.

What sort of political and economic cultures did Africa evolve before the moment of colonial truncation? The case of the Igbo in eastern Nigeria is too well known to bear repeating here. Those of you who don’t know Igbo republicanism in real life have encountered it in the political life of the six villages making up Umuaro in Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God. Gyekye has also explored what he describes as “consensual democracy” among the Ashanti and other ethnic groups in precolonial Ghana. I will therefore illustrate this part of my submissions with the precolonial political and economic cultures of my own people: the Okun people in the present Kogi state in Nigeria. Okun land is made up of a number of major towns around which gravitated hamlets and villages. Some of the major towns include Kabba, Mopa, Egbe, and my own Isanlu. Although the major traditional ruling stool was located in Isanlu, all the satellite villages and hamlets also had their own stools which related in a traditional confederal fashion with the central stool in Isanlu.

Complementing this political confederacy was the fact that all the villages were economically autonomous and had their own independent markets and other economic structures. Colonialism destroyed this intricately decentralized political and economic culture and replaced it with the model with which we are all familiar. The postcolonial state completed the rout of Okun political and economic confederacy. Isanlu and all the adjoining villages and hamlets now had to start looking up to the local government, the state government, and the Federal government in that order. I don’t believe that we need to rehash the consequences of the collapse of the culture of confederacy and consensual democracy in Nigeria and elsewhere around the continent.

What needs to detain us here is the price that the continent continues to pay by stubbornly holding on to the machineries and institutions of political and economic centralization inherited from the colonial state instead of retracing her steps back to the precolonial cultural template in order to adapt, modify, and modernize it for contemporary usage. The first and perhaps most significant casualty of political and economic centralization is African innovation. The contest for resources at the centre has stunted African innovation because we have evolved a culture in which an entire nation is fixated on just that one source of prebendal patronage. A rapacious political elite very often enlists the help of a confused intellectual class to think and theorize programs aimed at the consolidation of the current arrangement. For instance, Nigeria’s erstwhile military dictator, General Ibrahim Babangida, was notorious for his generous use of Professors to theorize and legitimize his policies.

Yet, recent developments in the continent point to the continued relevance of culture to any idea of renaissance and innovation. It is no longer a secret that Nigeria recently rebased her economy and announced her new status as the Africa’s largest economy, a distinction which promptly earned her the hosting rights for the recently-concluded World Economic Forum Africa (WEFA). I am a man with an ear to the ground here in South Africa so I was made to understand that the news of being overtaken by Nigeria – with her pre-medieval infrastructure and epileptic power supply – was considered a huge joke in this country. I am told that you received that news like a rude slap in the face. You are not alone. Those of us who are consistent critics of the Nigerian establishment also took the same tack. However, reality is reality: Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy and culture played a significant role in the attainment of that feat.
What went into Nigeria’s rebased economy were the IT revolution and the cultural innovation represented by Nollywood and the Nigerian music industry. Just two decades ago, in the 1980s and 1990s, the party scene, the dance floor scene, in this continent was dominated by American rap and R & B. On University campuses all over the continent, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, R Kelly, 112, Next, Changing Faces, Joe, and Boyz II Men reigned supreme. I particularly liked rocking in the nightclubs to the tune of 112’s “Only You”. Some of you may remember the lyrics. Sing along with me if you do:

Ohhhh I, need to know, where we stand
Do we share this special thing called love *
I know I do, what about you
I just can’t get enough of your love *
I need you in my life
Where do we go, what do I do
I can’t live without your love
Thinkin of you * makes me feel
Like I’m the only one for you

And how about this one from Boyz II Men? I am sure you still remember? Let me hear you:

Although we’ve come to the end of the road
Still I can’t let you go
It’s unnatural, you belong to me, I belong to you
Come to the End of the Road
Still I can’t let you go
It’s unnatural, you belong to me, I belong to you

These are great memories of the ancient times of the 1990s on the dance floors of Africa. Today, there has been a cultural revolution on dance floors and party halls across Africa. Whether you are in Belle Aroma night club where I unwind most weekends in Accra or you are checking out Lagos, Nairobi, Kampala, Monrovia, or Cotonou by night, the new cultural gospel is called azonto, skelewu, eminado, and dorobucci. Let me treat you to a youtube clip of dorobucci so you can have a taste of what we are talking about. Ladies and gentlemen, these Anglophone African musical styles, along with Francophone African offerings such as “couper decaler”, “mapouka”, and “sagacite”, have checkmated American musical imperialism on the African dance floor. And this cultural revolution has had such a seismic consequence in the arena of political economy that Nigeria quite almost literally danced her way to the top spot as Africa’s largest economy. I guess you can tell from my familiarity with the latest grooves from the nightclubs of the capital cities of the continent that some of us are deconstructing and funkifying the image of the Professor.

There are two lessons to be drawn from these scenarios. Culture is where Africa was written out of modernity; culture is where her development, genius, and innovative spirit were discounted. Culture is where her path to self- recovery is located. Cultural innovation is where Nigeria came into its own as Africa’s largest economy and also joined Mexico, Indonesia, and Turkey in the MINT economies. Nigeria has no infrastructure fit for the 19th century, she can hardly generate a week’s supply of electricity, and corruption is stratospheric. Yet, cultural innovation intervened and saved Nigeria’s behind when it mattered most.

Secondly, you are nothing if you cannot even own and narrate your own problems. You are nothingif you are a fringe player in the global theatre of naming and ascription. Those who name your problems for you will prescribe neoliberal solutions that fly in the face of your realities. As we have seen, the instruments for a global narrativizing of what constitutes African problems are cultural: social media – that is, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Linked-in, Myspace etcetera; and, of course, print and broadcast media.. Problems are essentially African and not human problems because global culture names them so. It does not mean that Africa does not have and suffer disproportionally from the said problems.
However, losing the means to own, narrativize, and engage your problems on your own terms is a double jeopardy. I am also not proposing Africa’s isolation from the arena of bilateral and multilateral solutions to problems in this age of globalization and inter-dependence. Solutions would be skewed if problems are owned, narrativized, and skewed on your behalf. It is only through a conscious ‘re-basing’ of culture, that is, a re-creation and owning of culture in the 21st century that Africa will be able to identify, name, and engage her own problems on her own terms.

[Guest BlogPost - Professor Bernth Lindfors] Chinua Achebe, a Puzzling Pioneer

Bernth Lindfors, Professor Emeritus, Department of English, University of Texas, Austin, Texas

 (Keynote speech delivered on May 3, 2014 at the 2014 Chinua Achebe Colloquium held at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island)

 “Bernth Lindfors is one of the most renowned critics and historiographers of African literature, and also one of the most prolific writers on the subject…”

   –  Chris Dunton

 The first thing that comes to mind when I reflect on the extraordinary career of Chinua Achebe is that he was a true pioneer. I suppose that could be said of many other African writers as well, not only those who preceded him but also those of his own generation who, rather unexpectedly, helped to launch vigorous literary movements throughout the continent in the middle of the last century by expressing themselves creatively in European and indigenous languages. All of them, individually and collectively, were vital contributors to the modernization of Africa, to the reconceptualization of the continent’s past, present, and future, and perhaps most importantly, to the liberation of Africa’s imaginative energies. And they did this not by waging wars or struggling to win political or economic independence for their people as some of their more famous contemporaries had, but rather simply by manipulating words in new and surprising ways. They were revolutionaries of another kind who changed their world through invention, through powers not of muscle but of mind. They worked from the inside out.

ACHEBE Chinua Achebe was one of the best of these—indeed, possibly the very best among his immediate peers—at performing such marvels of enlightenment. He has been called the father of the African novel, a title he modestly declined to accept. Perhaps the real problem with such an appellation is that it is too restrictively sexist, for it could also be cogently argued that he was the midwife of the African novel, having brought into being by his own exertions and example the healthy offspring of many other pregnant scribblers. He must be credited with having achieved an impressive birthrate in his role as a supportive ancestral hermaphrodite, being both father and surrogate mother of this increasingly fertile brood. Through his ministrations a number of spanking new national literatures were born. James Currey, who edited Heinemann’s African Literature Series for many years, has been quoted as saying that Achebe, by working for years as Heinemann’s advisor, “more than anyone else reshaped the literary map of Africa.”[i] For this reason one could claim that Achebe deserves yet another honorific title—Chief Cartographer of African Literature.

 But certainly Achebe’s greatest claim to fame resides in the fact that his first novel, Things Fall Apart, published two years before Nigeria ceased to be a British colony, was clearly the best of its kind ever produced in Anglophone areas of tropical Africa. It was not just a compelling tale of a flawed individual in a traditional society that was undergoing profound change. It was also a story that offered a fresh perspective on Africa’s colonial history. In much of the literature hitherto written about Africa by outsiders, the coming of Europe to Africa was seen as a blessing, an intervention that yielded enormous benefits for the local population. A typical example of this kind of mythologizing can be found in a book entitled In Defense of Colonies, written by Sir Alan Burns, a former Governor-General of the Gold Coast, and published in 1957, the very year that the Gold Coast became independent Ghana, and only a year before Achebe published Things Fall Apart. According to Burns, in Africa

 in the bad old days under tyrannical indigenous rulers the unfortunate peasants had no chance to cultivate their land properly and little opportunity to reap for their own benefit what they had sown….Free men also suffered from the cruelty and rapacity of indigenous rulers. They were liable, at the whim of a chief or through the instigation of a fetish-priest, to indescribable tortures and brutal punishments. Trade was hampered by bad communications and the depredations of robbers and pirates who plundered and murdered peaceful traders. Tribal warfare caused much loss of life and destruction of property.

But into this dystopian jungle, Burns informs us, British rule was introduced, and

We have put a stop to slavery and human sacrifice, we have checked the cruelty and corruption of indigenous rulers, we have stamped out certain diseases and reduced the incidence of others, we have brought a measure of education to people who were generally illiterate. We have developed backward countries by the construction of roads and railways, we have opened up mines and improved on the primitive culture of the past. We have allowed trade to develop under the protection of a firm administration.[ii]

This was the heroic narrative of Western imperialism, as told by one of its knighted functionaries.

 Achebe told a very different story. His novel is set in a peaceful rural village governed democratically by a group of prominent citizens obedient to their gods and observant of traditions and taboos handed down by their ancestors. Into this well-regulated society foreign missionaries and colonial governing officials intrude, winning over some villagers to a different system of beliefs and practices antithetical to those of their neighbors. As a consequence, the community is divided, things fall apart, and chaos is loosed upon their world. British colonialism has not been a blessing but a curse, causing havoc in what had once been a pacific haven, intelligently governed and guided by the wisdom of the past. Achebe’s novel was in essence a rebuttal of colonial historiography, and it came at precisely that moment when young Africans, on the eve of political independence, were beginning to question what they had gained and lost from their contact with an alien civilization that had attempted to rule them.

achebeHowever, Things Fall Apart was not entirely a one-sided story. Achebe also depicted some of the problems in traditional African society. He chose as his protagonist Okonkwo, an ambitious individual whose achievements as an athlete, farmer, and warrior had quickly earned him a prominent place in his community but who also had a number of personal flaws—a hot temper, a contempt for less successful men, a tendency to treat his wives and children harshly. Above all, he relentlessly sought to prove himself a manly man, not a weakling like his father. These negative, antisocial traits put him on a collision course not only with the new religion and the colonial governing authority but also ultimately with his own community, a conflict that led inexorably to his demise. His death symbolized both the damage Europe had inflicted on Africa and also the self-destruction caused by Africa’s inherent vulnerability to social discombobulation. It was a tragedy in which both Europe and Africa were at fault.

That this was a deliberate strategy on Achebe’s part we know from his essay on “The Role of the Writer in a New Nation,” in which he argued that

The credibility of the world [the writer] is attempting to recreate will be called to question and he will defeat his own purpose if he is suspected of glossing over inconvenient facts. We cannot pretend that our past was one long, technicolour idyll. We have to admit that like other people’s past ours had its good as well as its bad sides….I maintain that any serious African writer who wants to plead the cause of the past must not only be God’s advocate; he must also do duty for the devil.[iii]

This was the kind of heavenly and hellish objectivity that made Achebe’s recreation of the African past not just honest and credible but powerfully persuasive.

In addition to proving an important historical point in his depiction of colonial Africa, Achebe made another signal contribution by writing in a style that had never been seen before in African fiction. He literally Africanized the English language by having his characters speak in a simulation of native discourse in an African language, replete with characteristic images, metaphors, proverbs, and rhetorical strategies employed in daily conversation. He employed the same devices in his own prose. He explained his technique in another famous essay on “The English Language and the African Writer,” noting that

The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use. The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. He should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience….It is largely a matter of instinct, but judgment comes into it too.[iv]

Instinct and judgment. How did these qualities emerge in such refinement in a young man still in his twenties who had had little experience in writing fiction, no encouragement from teachers at school or university to try his hand at storytelling on paper, no models of indigenous creativity in print from which he could draw inspiration, no mentors who could guide him toward representing truthfully the sophisticated verbal culture of a traditional society, no friends, colleagues, confidants or peers who had already set out in the creative direction he was about to explore in such depth and map with such profound understanding?

Where, given this void in his background, did his originality as an artist come from? How did he happen to become a true, trend-setting pioneer? How do we explain his sudden emergence as a fully mature wordsmith who virtually single-handedly changed the course of African literary history? How do we solve this riddle, this enigma of his unexpected and unprecedented excellence? Were instinct and judgment enough to shape his virtuosity and vision as a deep-thinking creative artist?

True, he had been exposed at the University of Ibadan to a few superb examples of bad writing about Africa, the classic cases being the novels of Joyce Cary and Joseph Conrad. He apparently also had become sufficiently acquainted with texts containing tainted colonial historiography of the Alan Burns variety to reject their interpretations of Africa as well. To this register of negative influences we could no doubt add Hollywood films set in the jungles and goldmines of the Dark Continent, especially those featuring Tarzan, Allan Quatermain, and other European adventurers in interaction with stupid, superstitious, malevolent, and unusually inarticulate savages. Western popular culture has been for centuries full of derogatory depictions of Africans. These racist narratives and images could have served as motivation for a writer who wanted to tell a more truthful story of his people and place in the world. But could countering such negativity necessarily account for the kind of artistic triumph we see in Things Fall Apart?

For that, I think we need to look more closely at the environment in which Achebe was raised. He has often spoken of growing up at the crossroads of culture, with one foot in the modern Christianized ambience of his home, and the other in the pagan traditional atmosphere in which some of his neighbors lived. He was a child of two words but comfortable in both, though the differences between these environments grew as he progressed further in his formal education. Yet he never forgot the lessons he learned when listening to his kinfolk on both sides of the divide speak. When accepting one of the prestigious international awards he won—the German Peace Prize awarded by the German Book Trade in 2002—he said

The Africa I write about is not inhabited by people without speech. I grew up hearing sometimes magnificent and always efficient, language in my community. I did not hear the grunts and the screeches that savages were supposed to use instead of speech. So I wrote what I did hear, in a translation that accorded equal respect to the two languages I have.[v]

So the simple but subtle act of effectively translating traditional eloquence gave him a distinctive voice that had never been heard before in African literature. And it transformed the way African speech was rendered by other authors in the years that followed. This was first most noticeable in the works by fellow Igbo novelists who also wrote in English—Flora Nwapa, John Munonye, Chukwuemeka Ike, and especially Obiora Nzekwu. Nzekwu’s first two novels published in the early 1960s had been written in stiff, orthodox English, but by the time he composed his third, Highlife for Lizards, published in 1965, he had abandoned standard English and converted to Achebe’s manner of representing African vernacular expression. Two of these novelists—Ike and Munonye—had been Achebe’s classmates at the University of Ibadan, and Nwapa graduated there a few years after he had left. All of them were good friends of his and freely acknowledged having been inspired by his writings.

Having had this powerful influence on his peers by writing four path-breaking novels in eight short years, fictions set in present times as well as in the past, each reflecting the dominant concerns of his day, we are left to explain a subsequent enigma: the long gap before the production of his fifth novel, Anthills of the Savannah, which was not published until 1987, twenty-one years after A Man of the People. What threw him off-track for a full generation?

The standard answer was that it was the trauma and turmoil of the Nigerian Civil War that made it impossible to him to continue the pattern of life and work he had earlier set for himself. In 1969, while the war in its final stages was still raging in the Igbo homeland of Biafra, he said,

I started a novel just before the war which seemed to me at the time terribly important—I already had the idea for it as far back as ’66—but I finally gave it up because it later seemed to me completely unimportant.

I think there is a myth about creativity being something apart from life, but this is only a half truth. I can create, but of course not the kind of thing I created when I was at ease. I can’t write a novel now; I wouldn’t want to. And even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. So that particular artistic form is out for me at the moment. I can write poetry—something short, intense, more in keeping with my mood. I can write essays. I can even lecture. All of this is creating in the context of our struggle. At home I do a lot of writing, but not fiction, something more concrete, more directly related to what’s going on. What I’m saying is that there are forms of creativity which suit different moments. I wouldn’t consider writing a poem on daffodils particularly creative in my situation now. It would be foolish; I couldn’t do it.

But these are not normal times, not for me. These are not normal times at all.[vi]

Twenty-one years is a very long time. Did any sort of normality ever really return for him? Yes, he created a number of other works, and university duties as well as community commitments absorbed much of his energy after the war, but were there other matters too that left him feeling disinclined to resume writing fiction? Of course, in 1990 he suffered a tragic paralyzing injury in an auto accident, and being confined to a wheelchair thereafter limited the range of his activities still further. Yet it would be interesting to know more about his state of mind and struggles during all these difficult years, if only to gain a fuller appreciation of what he was able to accomplish despite all these personal and professional setbacks.

What I am suggesting is that we need to know Achebe better, not just as a creative artist but also as a human being who lived partly in perilous times and survived adversities with his spirit largely intact and his pen still active. He continued to contribute ideas frankly and forthrightly to causes he had long championed, especially the task of reeducating his own people. His last book, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra was yet another bold attempt to reinterpret his nation’s past. It generated a great deal of controversy in Nigeria, but Achebe was doing nothing more than telling the story from his own experience of having lived through the troubled times he describes. In Anthills of the Savannah he had his chief character Beatrice ask, “What does one do to appease an embittered history?”[vii] His own answer to that question in There Was a Country appears to have been to tell the story truthfully and creatively, relying on your own perception of what happened and offering your own opinion of why it happened that way.

The controversy over Achebe’s final statement on Nigeria is likely to continue until we have a more complete understanding of the man who excited it. Ezenwa-Ohaeto has given us a fine biography of Achebe that puts on record a good many of the formative experiences of his career, placing them in chronological order and relating them to the books he produced during that span of time. But his account was published sixteen years before Achebe died. The final chapter has yet to be written, and it may require investigative research of a kind that has not yet been done. Indeed, even Achebe’s early years need to be more thoroughly documented not only with relevant written records but also with oral testimony from people who knew him well at some stage in his life. A greater abundance of such pieces, strategically assembled, may enable us to put together a clearer picture of the life and career of Chinua Achebe that is for more detailed and far less puzzling than currently exists. One hopes we will grow to know him better in the years to come.

Notes

[i] Quoted in Ezenwa-Ohaeto, Chinua Achebe: A Biography (Oxford: James Currey, 1997), 280.

[ii] Sir Alan Burns, In Defense of Colonies (London: Allen & Unwin, 1957), 23, 63, 67.

[iii] Chinua Achebe, “The Role of the Writer in a New Nation,” Nigeria Magazine 81 (1964): 158.

[iv] Chinua Achebe, “The English Language and the African Writer,” Moderna Språk 58 (1964): 444-45.

[v] Quoted in Tijan M. Sallah, “An Entire Star Has Left Us: Chinua Achebe, In Memoriam,” in Chinua Achebe: Tributes and Reflections, ed. Nana Ayebia Clarke and James Currey (Oxford: Ayebia Clarke Publishing Limited, 2014), 287.

[vi] “Interview with Chinua Achebe,” in Palaver: Interviews with Five African Authors in Texas, ed. Bernth Lindfors, Ian Munro, Richard Priebe, and Reinhard Sander (Austin: African and Afro-American Research Institute, University of Texas at Austin, 1972), 12.

[vii] Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah (New York: Anchor Press, Doubleday, 1988), 114.

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