Ikhide

Father, Fighter, Lover

Category: Africa

African Roar 2013: The hunt for the elusive African story

African Roar 2013, the fourth anthology of short stories by Africans, this time, edited by Emmanuel Sigauke, is out. Well, I would say, buy it and read it. It is on Amazon. This challenging and african roar2013ultimately frustrating collection is instructive in many ways, as in the previous editions, it asks more questions about literature and “African” stories than it seems equipped to answer. Sadly, it struggles with an identity crisis from the very first page, beginning with Sigauke’s “Introduction.” The decision to standardize the English of the stories, for instance, using the Queen’s English, is in my view, unfortunate, because it attempts to sanitize a key story of the journey of the story. American English is different from the Queen’s English in more substantive ways than the spelling of “color.”

Reading African Roar 2013 was a chore, for many reasons. These days, the book as a medium for telling the story struggles gamely against the Internet for the attention of the reader. Many readers are finding that the book is a mere distraction, folks want to bury their faces in the best book out there aka the Internet. It doesn’t help that many of the stories in this collection are just plain awful, and give the moniker, “short story” a bad name. There is no reason why they are even stories, they read like carefully typed dry memos issued by humorless civil servants. With a few exceptions, they were patterned along the true, tried and tired formula that has made the term “African writer” a near-pejorative. In these (non)tales there is a morbid fascination, an obsession with the seamy side. The alleged aridity of Africa is on full display here and this reader wonders, what is new? Not much. Many of the stories present like dirty chores, miserable dishes encrusted with stale food. African writers are an unhappy miserable lot, this collection simpers and whines ceaselessly about a wide range of tired issues. Sigauke says it best in his introduction,

Here we have stories dealing with a wide range of issues: street life in South Africa (Bauling), intercultural dating and the problems of exile (Erlwenger ), the past’s grip on family life and legacy (Muqutu), relationship and marital problems in contemporary urban Kenya (Matata), the works of a mysterious puppeteer whose powers bring both excitement and death to a community (Dila), a father’s moving account of how he met his daughter’s mother in the England of the 60s (Nubi), the joys and challenges of post-independent life in Zimbabwe (Mhangami)… African Roar 2013 (Kindle Locations 60-67). StoryTime. Kindle Edition.

In the 21st century, there is something about hard copy print that mummifies the creativity of the writer. It is all so frustrating really,because the writers showcased in this edition are all good writers. Many of them (Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende, bwa Bwesigye, Mike Ekunno, Ola Nubi, etc.) are higly respected digital story tellers who make social media (Facebook and Twitter) rock and hum all day, with raw unfiltered luscious stories. I make bold to say that the best book of African literature today is the Internet, with Facebook and Twitter as star chapters. In this digital space, the writers and their stories are unfiltered and unhinged, and they tell the world about the sum total of the experience of the human being who happens to be an African. It is not always about certain social issues, sometimes, we get laid also. And enjoy the experience. Go to Twitter, it is all there, we love to share. Thank God. In the 21st century, the book is a chore, an annoying distraction. You just want to read something else. Thank heavens for the Internet.

So, what are these stories all about? Home by Alison S. Erlwanger seems to be a conversation about identity, a reminder that many who treat Africa as one monolithic country are themselves Africans. For Home, Africa is an ideology. Why are we drawn to see only a monolithic Africa? Is this our concept of unity or do we yearn for unity and as a result diminish the complexity that is Africa? Home features superfluous unnatural dialogue, a piece suffering from an acute identity crisis – one minute it is a cheesy romance story, the next, it is a shallow discourse wrapped around an unctuous morality tale. Good writing though.

Business as usual by Jayne Bauling is probably the most visionary short story I have read in a long time, using the anxieties and promise of the digital age to explore change and class. The laconic lazy pace of the story is endearing, I love that the writer does not italicize African words. Yup, google it, I like that. The story is a sumptuous feast of pretty writing:

You know these are difficult days because the timber trains have stopped coming along the railway through the old part of town. Grass and weeds cover the tracks. Before, you would hear the blare of a train, sometimes two, most weekdays. The traffic police still trap drivers for not stopping at the crossing. Fana was laid off from one of the sawmills. (Kindle Locations 414-417)

And:

The water in the pothole has dried up, but the bulbuls haven’t forgotten and keep coming back to see. Maybe they itch under their feathers the way my skin is itching in the winter dry. For us it’s cold, and Boo-man is full of snot, but the winter people say this place doesn’t bite your bones the way Jozi does. (Kindle Locations 467-469).

And this:

There’s nearly always someone ready to buy him something. He never asks. I think it’s because he has an interesting look, like a tree that has seen a lot of life, tall and thin and ancient. People talk to him, and he’ll tell his story different ways, with twists and turns to make it longer. I think he makes up some bits. (Kindle Locations 480-483).

Salvation in Odd Places by Aba Amissah Asibon unfortunately defines the stereotype of the African story. It is a dark story, full of promise, but one that lacks suspense. It drifts all over the place like the drifters in the story. But mostly not in a good way. You read pitiful whiny lines like, “He often dreams about his homecoming to a whole guinea fowl…” desolation and despair recorded in various stages of expertise, lice-ridden, dust-covered men and women of Africa carrying sacks of poverty all over the land, afflicted with the curse of aimlessness and a meaningful life. Where is the spirituality? Haven’t our writers said enough? What are we doing about these things other than hoping to be published in reputable/prestigious journals and spaces? What did this story tell me? Well, I know now that “Aba Amissah Asibon is a Ghanaian writer who has had fiction and poetry published in Guernica, The University of Chester’s Flash Magazine, The Sentinel Literary Quarterly and The Kalahari Review. She lives in New York, and is currently working on her debut novel.” It is pretty bad when the blurb about the writer is more interesting than the short story.

The Faces of Fate by Abdulghani Sheikh Hassan drones on and on until blessed sleep saves you from the prattle. This reader honestly has no idea what this story is all about. There is a lot of squalor in it. Makes sense. Hassan “is a humanitarian Aid worker in the biggest refugee camp in the world -Dadaab. Some of his poems are published online by The Kenyan Poets Lounge. He also runs a personal blog: My Voice, My Freedom where he posts poems on Contemporary political, socio-cultural and economic events…” An NGO monarch writes a manifesto on African poverty. The only interesting part of the stories is at the end – where the blurbs about the writers show that they mostly live interesting lives – overseas. These are interesting people who have very little to write about that is interesting.

In Bramble Bushes by Dipita Kwa continues the tales of woe. Inarticulately. Hear Kwa:

For the last one month, one of life’s well-hidden secrets that filled Yandes with anger every morning when he woke up from sleep, was the reminder that nobody knew how it felt like to be dead. How the afterlife felt or looked like, nobody could tell. He once heard that souls of dead men who had made several enemies in this life were chained by their dead enemies and dragged along streets covered with sharp, hot gravel. If that was true then he didn’t have to worry. His greatest enemy was himself. He had been an enemy to his own body and life had failed to restrain him from ruining himself. That was why he had made up his mind to spit on the very face of life. He wanted nothing more to do with living. He wanted to die. (Kindle Locations 987-992).

There is a God. This pity party, this macabre festival of gloom and doom is broken in the middle by an aptly named short story, Transitions, by Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende. It is an affecting story about interracial friendship in the dying days of Rhodesia. You start reading and want to weep with joy, Finally! There is atmosphere; you can finally smell aromas and odors that do not belong to Mrs. Poverty. Roasted maize, goat meat, and green vegetables. Green vegetables! In Africa! What a concept. In this story, we learn how integration or assimilation into a white neighborhood heightens alienation, self-doubt and self-loathing. Mhangami can write. Still, this is writing as protest, a preachy editorial, not a short story. Eventually it ends in predictable despair; it is not so much a story, but an essay. If our writers continue like this, readers will never wean themselves of social media. I know I won’t.

A Yoke for Companionship by Andiswa Maqutu made me understand why my son hates reading books, many of them are awful, I would rebel too. Memo to African writers: God loves Africans too. And no, Africa is not a country. SMH.

The Puppets of Maramudhu an attempt at a detective thriller by Dilman Dila shows promise in attempting to showcase the coming of the digital age but it soon fizzles into nothingness. This story is a mess; every conceivable anxiety is thrown in, no suspense, just murder, blood and gore and witchcraft. It is dark and disturbing only because it is inarticulate.

Through the Same Gate by Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire is a faux quirky experiment gone awry; faux in the sense that is about the usual, if you like social commentary that prattles on about a child born out of wedlock and the ensuing marital tensions, AIDS, spouse abuse and whatnot. I am not sure why this piece made it into the collection. And I read it twice. This is a shame because on the Internet, Bwesigwe is one of the finest and most exciting writers I have never met. Evidently something happens to his creative muse when he needs to put his thoughts in a book.

A.B. Doh’s The Spaces In-between starts with a tantalizing promise – that this won’t be all about the usual. Nah. It is. The perils of arranged marriages. Childbirth, stillbirth, blah, blah, blah.  Here it is mildly comical how feminism links Buchi Emecheta and Nurudeen Farah and Ousmane Sembene – in the 21st century. Doh needs to read more contemporary writers. In this blighted story, the Elnathan effect (named after Elnathan John’s much copied literary style) lives. Hear Doh:

You inhale the medicinal smell that permeates the room. Sweat droplets glide down your nose, settling stubbornly in the crevice of the ‘M’ that defines your upper lip. Eyes flutter— unsure whether to hide in the darkness behind the lids or courageously face the altered world before them. Thin arms lie unmoving at each side . Heavy legs are splayed, reaching towards the metal ridge at the foot of the bed. It’s the way they’ve been the last four hours; the way they’ve been since you gave birth to breathless life. (Kindle Locations 2022-2025).

The pickings are slim but read Anti Natal by Mike Ekunno. It will still your ADHD. Finally, there is suspense, you can almost feel and taste the streets. This piece alone is worth the price of the collection. It demonstrates good writing techniques; Ekunno’s ability to get into the character of the female protagonist makes this reader jealous. Anti Natal is probably the most contemporary of the stories. And funny too.

I loved Green Eyes and an Old Photo by Ola Nubi, a mercifully short but nice tale about living in England in the sixties. There is racism and interracial marriage but then it goes nowhere like a promising work in progress.

Cut it off by Lydia Matata is mere reportage, with an advocate’s passion – and biases. There is the usual – marital rape, cheating, with a “Kill the bastards! Cut off their penises!” chant. End of Story.

The stories run into each other and you can hardly tell one story from the other. There is precious little attempt at experimentation, the writers seem genuinely allergic to taking risks with their work. All we are left with are carefully edited memos, making you cross-eyed like a jogger racing past miles of manicured lawns, boring yard after boring yard.  These writers would have been better off writing essays. I am being generous here, African Roar 2013 is a collection of writing by writers who happen to be African. The editors should perhaps stop calling the series African Roar. It is deceptive and presumptuous. These writers certainly do not speak for Africa.

So what do I really think of this book? Well, I must thank Ivor Hartmann and Emmanuel Sigauke for their work in relentlessly and proudly pushing the envelope in terms of African writing. When the history of this phase of our struggle is written, their names will be up there in blazing letters. They are visionaries especially in the digital medium, who are struggling to live with a legacy system – the book. I think the book as a medium of expression robustly sabotages the considerable talents of these writers. Our writers no longer know how to write for hard print. A writer friend of mine did not include an online poem of his in his forthcoming anthology – because it contains hot links and it would not make sense without the links. THAT is the problem with books. The book is dying a long slow death and we are in denial. Well, I liked the cover design by Ivor Hartman, using Charles Nkomo’s painting, Memories.”  Read AfroSF Science Fiction by African Writers edited by Ivor Hartmann. It is on Amazon.com Now, THAT is good writing, period.

science fiction

For NoViolet Bulawayo: We need new names

Look at them leaving in droves, the children of the land, just look at them leaving in droves. Those with nothing are crossing borders. Those with strength are crossing borders. Those with ambitions are crossing borders. Those with hopes are crossing borders. Those in pain are crossing borders. Moving, running, emigrating, going, deserting, walking, quitting, flying, fleeing – to all over, to countries near and far, to countries unheard of, to countries whose names they cannot pronounce. They are leaving in droves. (p 145)

-        We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo

In the 21st century, in the age of twitter and Facebook-induced ADHD, when a hard copy book is able to engage you nonstop for two days until you get to its end, all you can do is stand up at the end and give the author of such a miracle a rousing standing ovation. NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut book, We Need New Names is such a book. Let’s just say the book did not make me cry but it certainly aggravated my allergies, something in the pages made a mess of my tear ducts. Bulawayo kicked this one way out of the ball park; dear writers, this is the book to beat. It is a beautiful book, in every sense; every sentence is pretty, you want to take each word home and cuddle up to it. The book may be dying, but Bulawayo is going to ensure that it doesn’t go down without a great fight. I have always thought that thanks to technology, the book at best would be relegated to an archival role, of dead history, etc. Nope, not with Bulawayo, this book is the most contemporary piece of literature I have read in a long time, it situates itself firmly in the 21st century, firmly in our sitting rooms, in our laptops, tablets and smartphones and connects communities, countries and continents with muscle – and Skype. Now, that is how to write a book. Yes.

NamesWe Need New Names punches gaping holes in Africa’s boundaries and oozes lovely echoes of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. So, what is this book about? Defiantly starting with the winning short story that ticked me off during the 2011 Caine Prize competition (see How not to write about Africa), Bulawayo takes the reader through the enchanting, disturbing and amazing journeys of six urchins growing up in a place one suspects is in Zimbabwe. Six ten-year old urchins dressed in NGO castoffs – Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho, Stina and the protagonist Darling, dream of escaping their hell, a place called, you wouldn’t guess it, Paradise. Paradise is hell, a desolate shanty town with a street pregnant with despair named Hope, a place where people simply wait to die, nothing but death and misery happens here. In this part of the world, children are born and they endure waves of war that they did not ask for. Example: Chipo is pregnant – with her grandfather’s baby – at age ten. They are always hungry and they raid the wealthy enclave of Budapest to steal guavas and fill their stomachs until they are too constipated to be hungry. I will never look at a guava the same way again, ever. You imagine six ten-year olds, dressed in the detritus of the West (used Google T-shirts, etc), one pregnant, feet dusty from constant trekking, exploring their devastation, dreaming and scheming of America, a world away where they think there is no hunger, and your heart stops, just stops, this is so wrong. Paradise. Hope. Despair. A deadly joke resides in there somewhere:

We all find places, and me, I squat behind a rock. This is the worst part about guavas; because of all those seeds, you get constipated once you eat too much. Nobody says it, but I know we are constipated again, all of us, because nobody is trying to talk, or get up and leave. We just eat a lot of guavas because it is the only way to kill our hunger, and when it comes to defecating, it becomes an almost impossible task, like you are trying to give birth to a country. (p 16)

We Need New Names is an unusual work of fiction – in a delightful sense. Every chapter has a name and the book reads like a collection of eighteen short stories, whose titles strung together collectively tell one delectable story: Hitting Budapest. Darling on the Mountain. Country-Game. Real Change. How They Appeared. We Need New Names. Shhhh. Blak Power. For Real. How They Left. Destroyedmychygen. Wedding. Angel. This Film Contains Some Disturbing Images. Hitting Crossroads. How They Lived. My America. Writing on the Wall.

And what a story. Each sentence throbs with understated passion. Bulawayo doesn’t use quotes; she employs a delicious neat trick – the dialogue melts into the prose. In effortless dialogue, remarkable since Bulawayo dispenses with the use of quotes, Bulawayo connects the West with Africa in the universality of wars and dysfunction. When the protagonist escapes the hell that was her Africa, she comes face to face with America and her issues, wars that are just as savage as the one she just left behind. And she wails about it in some of the best prose poetry I have ever read in my life. Paradise is hell, Budapest is hope and America, and the road that connects them is named Hope:

After crossing Mzilikazi we cut through another bush, zip right along Hope Street for a while before we cruise past the big stadium with the glimmering benches we’ll never sit on, and finally we hit Budapest. (p 2)

Budapest is the America that the children see on television:

Budapest is big, big houses with satellite dishes on the roofs and neat graveled roads or trimmed lawns, and the tall fences and the Durawalls and the flowers and the big trees heavy with fruit that’s waiting for us since nobody around here seems to know what to do with it. It’s the fruit that gives us courage, otherwise we wouldn’t dare be here. I keep expecting the clean streets to spit and tell us to go back where we came from. (p 4)

These are stories that tell of triumph over the basest of adversities. We Need News Names is unflinchingly disturbing and dark (there is an attempt at abortion by the ten year olds, and there is female genital mutilation). The old ways of Africa can no longer carry her burdens, and her proverbs and sayings are increasingly effete in a new world of twitter, unmanned drones and Wal-Mart. This is a very dark place, most of it a consequence of the rank incompetence of black rule, post-apartheid and independence, many thanks to the selfishness and self-absorption of the intellectual and ruling class. There is deep darkness in this book. Bulawayo’s mind draws intensely dark portraits; a dead woman hanging from a tree, for instance, and children stealing her shoes to go buy bread. Quietly the anger seethes and seethes and seethes in the pretty sentences.

There are daddy issues here, there are no real men here. There are strong whiffs of misandry; there are no real men here, Men are chief baboons in this zoo called Paradise, hapless men fleeing women and children to go to South Africa only to come home, not with bread but with AIDS, prosperity preachers, and men that impregnate their granddaughters and clueless men in the Diaspora shuffling about aimlessly. It is what it is. Here comes Virginia Woolf ululating out of the shadows, chasing men away from the playground:

Generally, the men always tried to appear strong; they walked tall, heads upright, arms steady at the sides, and feet firmly planted like trees. Solid Jericho walls of men. But when they went out in the bush to relieve themselves and nobody was looking, they fell apart like crumbling towers and wept with the wretched grief of forgotten concubines.

And when they returned to the presence of their women and children and everybody else, they stuck hands deep inside torn pockets until they felt their dry thighs, kicked little stones out of the way, and erected themselves like walls again, but then the women, who knew all the ways of weeping and all there was to know about falling apart, would both be deceived; they gently rose from the hearths, beat dust off their skirts, and planted themselves like rocks in front of their men and children and shacks, and only then did all appear almost tolerable. (p 77)

But then, with her enchanting way with words, she draws and paints harrowing pictures of a hell that strips men of their families and dignity with her evocative words. Hear her:

Two years ago, Makhosi went away to Madante mine to dig for diamonds, when they were first discovered and everybody was flocking there. When Makhosi came back, his hands were like decaying logs. He told us about Madante between bouts of raw, painful coughs, how when he was under the earth he forgot everything. He said all he knew inside that mine was the terrible pounding of the hammer around him, sometimes even inside him, like he had swallowed it. (p 23)

Bulawayo wrote this book with every ounce of her blood, the prose is so intense and personal, especially when she is writing about America, the protagonist’s adopted land. Bulawayo’s mind is a riot; it is as if she is a brainy lunatic. I love her quiet confidence, she does not italicize African terms and words, does not go all out to explain them either, reader do the research. I love that.

bulawayoIn We Need New Names, Bulawayo recreates the death of childhood innocence expertly. The details, seamy and dirty, seep out like shy determined children peeping at the world from behind walls of harried, abused mothers and at the end of the book, the portrait is complete – of human triumph over utter devastation. Rich complex imagery expertly folds into the reader’s consciousness in a manner that is just a wee bit more than matter-of-factly. The children’s studied indifference to pain is deliberate, as if to hunt, haunt and hurt the reader. It is what it is. Here are children raising themselves with the help of their mothers. In Bulawayo’s world, the fathers are absent, whenever they are around, they are no-good.

Bulawayo builds each character brick by brick like a master-builder and when she is done you are awed by the muscle of her gift. Bulawayo’s humor is quiet but insistent and once you think about it you burst out laughing in the darkness.  Here is a hilarious riff on the absurdity of imperial domination:

If you are stealing something it’s better if it’s small and hideable or something you can eat quickly and be done with, like guavas. That way, people can’t see you with the thing to be reminded that you are a shameless thief and that you stole it from them, so I don’t know what the white people were trying to do, stealing not just a tiny piece, but a whole country. (p 20)

And the entire book is exquisite prose-poetry; here are my two favorite lines:

Paradise is all tin and stretches out in the sun like a wet sheepskin nailed on the ground to dry; the shacks are the muddy color of dirty puddles after the rains. (p 34)

And:

It’s light rain, the kind that licks you. We sit in it and smell the delicious earth around us. (p 89)

Steely-eyed and square-jawed, this pretty book that snarls takes careful aim at NGOs, liberal do-gooders and displays Bono-charity devastation on everyone’s conscience with exquisite attention to detail. Here is the new church, the new Christianity run amok. And her eyes do not miss Black Africa’s share of the caricature, of charlatanry. In this book, the new Christianity and AIDS link arms to bulldoze communities and countries. With the awesome power of words, Bulawayo performs a rare feat of bringing AIDS into the reader’s living room:

We don’t speak. We just peer in the tired light at the bundle of bones, at the shrunken head, at the wavy hair, most of it fallen off, at the face that is all points and edges from bones jutting out, the pinkish-reddish lips, the ugly sores, the skin sticking to the bone like somebody ironed it on, the hands and feet like claws. I know then that what really makes a person’s face is the meat; once that melts away, you are left with something nobody can even recognize. (p 101)

We Need New Names seems to go nowhere and it is on purpose. Like a hungry, angry urchin, it sort of wanders around with a certain poetry, the reader follows these children of many wars, wandering, wondering, what manner of God would allow this perversion? Bulawayo is the master artist of grief. This is a complex book, just like life. Here she documents the coming of the Chinese to Africa – the new conquerors:

It’s just madness inside Shanghai; machines hoist things in their terrible jaws, machines maul the earth, machines grind rocks, machines belch clouds of smoke, machines iron the ground. Everywhere machines. The Chinese men are all over the place in orange uniforms and yellow helmets; there’s not that many of them but from the way they are running around, you’d think they are a field of corn. And then there are the black men, who are working in regular clothes – torn T-shirts, vests, shorts, trousers cut at the knees, overalls, flip-flops, tennis shoes. (p 42)

Dambudzo Marechera lives in this book, primly flicking ash off the cigarette he bummed off his white benefactors. Bulawayo is edgy, unflinching, eyes dead set on your conscience until you gasp and look away in shame and disgust. This book can “pinch a rock and make it wince”, so says the book. The book makes it clear: The poor have inherited a new burden after apartheid and post-colonialism – home grown tyranny. Africa’s leaders are in a hurry to build Paris out of the slums, on the backs of the dead poor. Bulawayo describes the bulldozing of a shanty town in a voice so clinical you hurt from the pain. Yes, much of black rule is black on black crime. Bulawayo is supercilious, kneading condescension into the reader’s consciousness. You learn to hate Africa’s benefactors, as poverty monkeys for the NGO cameras. Fuck Bono, her muse seems to mutter in rage. Bulawayo’s skeptical eyes see everything and point out all the adjectives, Africa is about pejoratives and isms: Commercialism, capitalism, consumerism, rampant consumption and materialism, the clutter. There is a looming devastation; Africa is the nuclear waste dump of the West’s offal and detritus, a hellhole where the West’s bad ideas and products go to die.

Exile awaits migrating sprits as Africa empties herself of her beautiful children. When Darling the protagonist escapes Paradise for America, she soon finds that suffering and despair are universal conditions of mankind, exile is not much better than the hell that was Paradise in Africa. The second half of this book about life in America is what the gifted writer and fellow Zimbabwean Brian Chikwava should have written instead of his Harare North. Here, Bulawayo’s prose fairly sings, breaks into a beautiful trot and belts out haunting truths about life in Babylon for many immigrants. Even the entry is jarring:

A few days before I left, Mother took me to Vodloza, who made me smoke from a gourd, and I sneezed and sneezed and he smiled and said, The ancestors are your angels, they will bear you to America. Then he spilled tobacco on the earth and said to someone I could not see: Open the way for your wandering calf, you, Vusamazulu, pave the skies, summon your fathers, Mpabanga and Nqabayezwe and Mahlathini, and draw your mighty spears to clear the paths and protect the child from dark spirits on her journey. Deliver her well to that strange land where you and those before you never dreamed of setting foot. (p 150)

Finally he tied a bone attached to a rainbow-colored string around my waist and said, This is your weapon, it will fight off all evil in that America, never ever take it off, you hear? But then when I got to America the airport dog barked and barked and sniffed me, and the woman in the uniform took me aside and waved the stick around me and the stick made a nting-nting sound and the woman said, Are you carrying any weapons? And I nodded and showed them my weapon from Vodloza, and Aunt Fostalina said, What is this crap? And took it off and threw it in a bin, Now I have no weapon to fight evil in America.

The transition from Africa to America is expertly handled. The cultural shifts are jarring and alarming even. Even in America Bulawayo’s muse only sees darkness; there is little joy here, as if childhood trauma conferred a certain form of depression on her characters. But still there is much to laugh about. Bulawayo offers an unintended but hilarious update on Wole Soyinka’s epic poem Telephone Conversation in which Bulawayo explores the cultural and linguistic conflicts between immigrants and Americans as they negotiate the new land. (p 197) There is a good section in the book where there is an intense confrontation between two erstwhile friends; the African in the Diaspora (Darling), and the African at home (Chipo). This is simply brilliant writing, period; the most brilliant conversation on the anxieties of 21st century immigration I have ever read, again, this section of the book is Chikwava’s Harare North with depth.

Here is coming of age in America:

We are cruising like that and I’m being forced to listen to this stupid Rihanna song that everybody at school used to play like it was an anthem or something. Well, maybe the song isn’t stupid, it’s only that I just got generally sick of that whole Rihanna business, the way she was on the news and everything, I know her crazy boyfriend beat her up but I don’t think she had to be all over, like her face was a humanitarian crisis, like it was the fucking Sudan. (p 218)

Here is alienation:

No matter how green the maize look in America, it is not real. They call it corn here, and it comes out all wrong, like small, sweet, too soft. I don’t even bother with it anymore because eating it is really a disappointing thing, it feels like I’m just insulting my teeth. (p 164)

Here is longing:

The uncles and aunts bring goat insides and cook ezangaphathi and sadza and mbhida and occasionally they will bring amacimbi, which is my number one favorite relish, umfushwa, and other foods from home, and people descend on the food like they haven’t eaten all their lives. They tear off the sthwala with their bare hands, hastily roll and dip it in relish and pause briefly to look at one another before shoving it in their mouths. Then they carefully chew, tilting their heads to the side as if the food speaks and they are listening to the taste, and then their faces light up. (p 161)

Here is culture clash:

When the microwave says nting, fat boy TK takes out a pizza and eats it. When the microwave says nting, he takes out the chicken wings. And then it’s the burritos and hot dogs. Eat, eat, eat. All that food TK eats in one day, me and Mother and Mother of Bones would eat in maybe two or three days back home. (pp. 156-157)

Now, that is brilliant, delectable writing. It gets better; you must read two chapters, How They Left and How They Lived. Bulawayo lapses into haunting, almost hallucinatory prose-poetry, the emotion and passion shake you to your core. She grieves and grieves and grieves and she will not be consoled, oh she grieves, this child that saw something awful. Read those chapters to the most stone-hearted immigration official in America and political asylum is yours. The words seep into your bones and slap you awake. Suddenly you just want to go home, except no one knows anymore where is home, the passages are so deeply emotive. America the hopeful morphs into America the prison. Illegal immigration is the lot of many immigrants and Bulawayo handles it beautifully.  It is the truth, for many immigrants, exile in America is a long lament and Bulawayo beats the drums for the living dead.

Let me just put it out there: This is probably the best book I have read in a very long time, perhaps in a decade, certainly the most poignant ode to identity, alienation and longing. You simply fall in love with the writing and the characters. Boundaries, communities and nations fascinate Bulawayo endlessly and she plumbs their depths and boundaries honestly and with conviction.  By the way, the characters text and IM – in an African novel, wow, what a concept. We Need New Names is the face of today’s fiction ported to yesterday’s media – the book.

There is not a whole lot to not like about the book. It is well designed and even though I had an advance review copy, there were precious few edits which I am sure would have been taken care of in the final copy. There is a sense though in which Bulawayo does not much depart from the protest art of post-colonialist literature. The book could fairly be called a political statement posing as fiction. But it is funny nonetheless even when Bulawayo is being supercilious:

I’m supposed to start teaching him my language because he says he and his brother are going to my country so he can shoot an elephant, something he has dreamed of doing ever since he was a boy. I don’t know where my language comes in – like does he want to ask the elephant if he wants to be killed or something? (p 268)

Bulawayo’s world-view is out there for all to see, she doesn’t pretend that this is just fiction and one must shy away from those things.

You should read this stunning book along with Chika Unigwe’s equally stunning essay in Aeon magazine, Losing my voice.  In this intensely personal and evocative essay Unigwe gives voice to the deep anxieties faced by many immigrants like her as they came face to face with the dislocation from home. Unigwe’s experience is immediately before the muscular bringing down of all walls by the Internet and social media, both works complement each other greatly, in style, outlook and vision. The difference is that while one senses that even beyond We Need New Names, the protagonists may be still immersed in despair, Unigwe’s story ends in hope and triumph, a warrior overcoming her fears and finding the light switch in the dark. But the pain in Unigwe’s journey is heartrending:

When I left Nigeria for Belgium, I made my husband’s home my own. But homesickness lodged like a stone inside me… When I began to write again, I discovered that I was not writing the kind of fiction I would have written back home. Certainly not at first. I wrote about displacement and sorrow. The voices of immigrants filled my head and spilled out on several pages of short stories and then a novel, The Phoenix. My characters were mostly melancholic women unable to return home but lacking the tools (or perhaps the temperament) to fit into their new home. They were victims browbeaten into silence by an alien culture and an alien climate. Perhaps it was me wanting to pass on what I had suffered to someone else. Maybe it is human nature to seek revenge even when there is none to be sought.”

The writer Taiye Selasi (of Ghana Must Go) has also forcefully fought against the pigeon-holing of “Africans” into predictable labels – and stereotypes. Under her fierce and passionate watch, the term Afropolitan has taken wings, as in, we are the sum of our life’s experience. Read her powerful and evocative essay, Bye-Bye Barber, and her powerful memoir-essay on being an African  and you will get the sense that a generation of Africans is breaking free from the literature of Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye. I don’t really care much for labels (Chimamanda Adichie has Nigerpolitans in her new book, Americanah) but I think it is a good thing that these writers are resisting pigeonholes.

We Need New Names is not a perfect book (but then, is there a perfect book?). Take this passage for instance:

When America put up the big reward for bin Laden, we made spears out of branches and went hunting for him. We had just appeared in Paradise and we needed new games while we waited for our parents to take us back to our real homes. At first we banged on the tin shacks yelling for bin Laden to come out, and when he didn’t we ran to the bushes at the end of the shanty, We looked in the thickets; climbed trees, looked under rocks, We searched everywhere. Then we went and climbed Fambeki, but by the time we got to the top, we were hot and bored. It was like looking for air; there was just no bin Laden. (pp. 288-289)

It is funny, but then if the book’s characters were about 14 years old in 2009 (when Rihanna was mauled by Chris Brown) they would probably have been too young in 2001 (when 9/11 happened),  to be that politically savvy. Who cares? I am smitten.

Finally, I must return to my anxieties about the single story, of despair, gore and war as I expressed in my essay, The Caine Prize: How not to write about Africa. This is what I said with regard to the shortlisted stories of the 2011 Caine Prize which Bulawayo eventually won, and I stand by it:

The Caine Prize for African Writing has been great for African literature by showcasing some truly good works by African writers. The good news is that the Caine Prize is here to stay. The bad news is that someone is going to win the Caine Prize this year. This is a shame; having read the stories on the short-list I conclude that a successful African writer must be clinically depressed, chronicling in excruciating detail, every open sore of Africa, apologies to Wole Soyinka. The creation of a Prize for “African writing” may have created the unintended effect of breeding writers willing to stereotype Africa for glory.

Of Bulawayo’s entry, I said this:

Zimbabwe’s NoViolet Bulawayo has a fly-ridden piece, Hitting Budapest, about a roaming band of urchins, one of them impregnated by her grandfather – at age ten… Bulawayo would be my pick for the prize. She sure can write, unfortunately her muse insists on sniffing around Africa’s sewers… The tragedy is that these are good writers showcasing good prose and great dialogue.  But to the extent that literature documents the lived life, they are stuck in the fog of stereotypes.

For too long, there has been a disturbing trend in African literature in which Africa’s history is being distorted by a powerful minority of mercenary Diaspora African writers. Postcolonial African literature has been grossly distorted and unduly influenced by the self-serving narrative-for-rent hawked by this contingent of writers. Using their access to good publishers, their mediocre thoughts hide behind pretty covers to assault Africa’s sensibilities. I remain deeply concerned about the reality that much of African literature is defined by a certain type of fiction, as articulated in books, much of it predictable poverty porn. I propose again that those who seek to catalogue the robust range of Africa’s stories must in addition to books, look to Twitter, Facebook, online journals and blogs for relief. The book alone is a wretched barometer for gauging Africa’s anxieties and triumphs. The sum total of those stories shortlisted for the 2011 Caine Prize stamped a pejorative on Black Africa and I had a huge problem with that. Apparently the Caine Prize organizers were concerned enough to declare a moratorium on submissions that smelt of poverty porn in 2012. I am happy that they listened to these concerns. Bulawayo’s debut novel in my view does not qualify as poverty porn. Everything depends on context, taken as a whole it tells a powerful story of hell, identity, alienation, longing and the restlessness of life’s journeys in both worlds – Black Africa and the West. Bulawayo proves with stunning literary muscle that there suffering and savagery are universal dysfunctions. Bulawayo will be back with more stories. This reader can’t wait.

[Guest Blog Post - Professor Pius Adesanmi] Dowry: Managing Africa’s Many Lovers

By Professor Pius Adesanmi

Winner, the Penguin Prize for African Writing

Author of  You’re Not a Country, Africa!

(Keynote lecture delivered at the annual conference of the African Studies Course Union, University of Toronto, February 15, 2013)

I’d like to thank the African Studies Course Union of the University of Toronto for the honour of being asked to deliver the keynote lecture at your annual conference. Special thanks are due to Ms Lili Nkunzimana, President of the ASCU, for her solicitude and the impeccable efficiency with which she organized my trip here today. Her last name tells me she is Francophone so I can comfortably say in my other language, Mademoiselle Lili, merci beaucoup. Je vous en sais gré! We learn all the time. It was only after I received your invitation that it occurred to me that I was hearing for the first time about an African Studies Course Union in a Canadian University. Naturally, I dug around a little bit. I am grateful to Professor Thomas Tiéku of the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, whose prestigious African Studies Seminar Series invited me here for a lecture just this past November, for giving me useful tips about your set up. However, I must say that if another University of Toronto academic unit invites me for yet another lecture in the next couple of months, you will have to start paying territorial fees to my employers at Carleton University and ownership fees to my country, Nigeria.

Because Professor Tiéku is always extremely busy crisscrossing Africa in matters of international mediation and capacity building for regional institutions (he cannot be with us this evening because he is on his way to Ethiopia), I was pleased that he found the time, between connecting flights in the continent, to warn me in an email that you “are super serious people” (I’m quoting him) and that your “conferences are usually attended by senior people” (again I’m quoting him). As it happens, Lili sent a programme which confirmed Professor Tiéku’s hints about the prestige of your events. I gasped in pleasant surprise when I noticed that your post-keynote lecture panel boasts such eminent colleagues as Professors George Elliot Clarke and Neil ten Kortenaar. That makes Professor Tiéku a master of understatement and the understated. By “senior people”, who would have imagined he was talking about George Elliott Clarke, one of Canada’s finest and most decorated contemporary poets, and Neil ten Kortenaar, one of the finest scholars of African literatures in this country? He should have warned me that you would go to the very top of the seniority shelf to assemble this panel. I thank these two illustrious colleagues for the privilege of their co-presence on this stage.

Dunno. Maybe it is completely fortuitous. Maybe the quiet hands of some benevolent ancestors willed it, designed it to happen this way. But I’m sure it has not escaped any of you that you  have asked me to reflect on Africa and the Black Diaspora today, February 15, merely a day after the entire world celebrated the feast of love known as Valentine’s day. No, I am not grumbling that you deprived me the opportunity of attending to matters of the heart yesterday as I had to spend Valentine’s day revising and cleaning up this lecture instead of buying roses and making arrangements for a candlelit dinner in a cozy, chandeliered environment. Don’t ask me how she reacted to seeing me glued to a computer on Valentine’s day. I won’t tell you.

Anyway, I am not complaining. I am just drawing your attention to the uncanny coincidence that I am delivering a lecture about love and lovers – Africa’s surfeit of lovers and the implications of that love affair for the Black Diaspora – only a day after the feast of love. Love is indeed in the air these days. Because I am a Nigerian and we are not usually accused by the rest of Africa of being dominant and having a tendency to suck the oxygen out of the room, I am not going to tell you proudly and boastfully that we have only just won the African Cup of Nations, the continent’s most prestigious soccer competition, and are therefore enjoying our moment as the continent’s beautiful bride within an overall atmospherics of continental love.

If you are still wondering what love’s got to do with it (apologies to Swiss singer, Tina Turner), a look at the title of this lecture would convince you that we are here to reflect on and share the love. You must know that he who talks dowry talks about transactions and imaginaries of love; about matters of the heart; and about a particular mode of translating that human arrangement into culturally-sanctioned nuptials in certain cultures. Dowry? In Africa? Those of you with an ear for nuance and distinction ought to be worried by now. Isn’t dowry mainly a Southeast Asian, especially Indian affair? Does this professor know what he is talking about?

I do. Admittedly, dowry is very often used whenever the speaker means bride price in many of the Englishes you hear in sub-Saharan Africa, that is not what is happening here. I have not fallen prey to that commonplace confusion. I am talking about dowry – money, goods, or estate that a woman brings to her husband at marriage – because that, precisely, has been the mode of Africa’s transactions with the throngs of suitors, fiancés, and lovers that fate, history, and oftentimes, self-inflicted vulnerabilities have thrown across her path in the last five hundred years and counting.

Indeed, it is safe to say that no continent has enjoyed more professions of love than Africa in all of human history. I don’t make this sweeping assertion lightly. In other continents, the conquered were very often spared the nicety and the hypocrisy of pretense. For instance, I am not aware that the European hardened criminals, condemned prisoners, and nut cases who would become the nemesis of the Aborigenes in Australia went there professing love for anything or anybody other than themselves. And we don’t even need to cite the case of our friends here in America. Didn’t Friar Bartolomé de Las Casas, that tireless chronicler of the Americas who wrote A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, inform us that Hatuey, a famous Indian Chief from the island of Hispaniola, declared before he was burned by the Spaniards that he would rather go to hell if heaven was where the European Christian conquerors of the Americas went? There is definitely no love lost between the violated owner of the land and the European immigrant in this picture. The more than five hundred pages of Hernan Cortes’s Letters from Mexico, translated and edited by Anthony Pagden, are a veritable testimony to this absence of love, pretext, and hypocrisy between conqueror and conquered in America.

The scenario was slightly different in Africa. The land and people were fictioned as a receptive female subject to be taken, penetrated, and had in the imaginaries of those driven to encounter the Other by the curiosities unleashed by the spirit of the Enlightenment. The dominant idiom of this taking, this penetrating, this having, was love. I am not so sure, for instance, that King Mutesa of Buganda shares Hatuey sentiments when he encounters Europe, at least not if we are to believe one of the most memorable fictional refractions of that historical encounter between African and European. I am talking about David Rubadiri’s great poem, “Stanley Meets Mutesa”. Permit me to cite the powerful last verse of the poem:

The gate of reeds is flung open,

There is silence

But only a moment’s silence-

A silence of assessment.

The tall black king steps forward,

He towers over the thin bearded white man,

Then grabbing his lean white hand

Manages to whisper

“Mtu Mweupe Karibu”

White man you are welcome.

The gate of polished reed closes behind them

And the West is let in.

White man you are welcome! Love, my friends, is in the air. In Africa, nobody is hurrying to hell to avoid contact with European Christians in heaven. If you are wondering why love is in the air, you have to consider the entire modes of discourse which preceded and framed this encounter. For such a framing of the politics of encounter, let us go to Cardinal Verdier, Archbishop of Paris in the heyday of empire and a staunch opponent of fascism. Describing World War II as a “crusade”, Cardinal Verdier enthused that “we are struggling to preserve the freedom of people throughout the world, whether they be great or small peoples, and to preserve their possessions and their very lives. No other war has had aims that are more spiritual, moral, and, in sum, more Christian”. Now, this is all very beautiful. You can’t possibly fault these sentiments. The problem begins once Cardinal Verdier thinks beyond the platitude that he calls “peoples”. Once he logs into more specific referents such as colour and geography, his humanism takes on the dimension of ecstatic love, hence this famous statement of his about the project of love that was the civilizing mission of France in Africa:

“Nothing is more moving than this gesture of the Frenchman, taking his black brother by the hand and helping him to rise. This hierarchic but nonetheless black collaboration, this fraternal love stooping toward the blacks to measure their possibilities of thinking and feeling…this art, in a word, of helping them progress through wise development of their personality toward an improved physical, social and moral well-being; this is how France’s colonizing mission on the black continent appears to us.”

Although our Roman Catholic Cardinal was talking about fraternal love in his framing of French colonialism and the subsequent régimes of coloniality it spawned, history teaches us that Africa was the object of all the manifestations of that intense human emotion throughout her history of encounter with conquerors. Name any kind of love – fraternal, agape, carnal – and you are sure to encounter a very rich cast of characters, sallying forth from their European homelands in waves after the Portuguese blazed the trail in the 15th century, for picaresque adventures of love in Africa. So, in a way, Wole Soyinka is only partially right to have insisted in his latest book, Of Africa, that Africa possesses one unremarked distinction of having not been the subject of claims of discovery like the Americas or Australasia. Writes Soyinka:

“No one actually claims to have “discovered” Africa. Neither the continent as an entity nor indeed any of her later offspring – the modern states – celebrates the equivalent of America’s Columbus day. This gives it a self-constitutive identity, an unstated autochthony that is denied other continents and subcontinents. The narrative history of encounters with Africa does not dispute with others or revise itself over the “discovery” of Africa… Africa appears to have been “known about”, speculated over, explored both in actuality and fantasy, even mapped – Greeks, Jews, Arabs, Phoenicians, etc, took their turns – but no narrative has come down to us that actually lays personal or racial claim to the discovery of the continent.”

I say Soyinka is only partially right because Africa has a second distinction that even the Nobel laureate appears not to have noticed. She is the only continent whose modes of encounter with and insertion into modernity were fictioned almost exclusively through registers of love by those with a superior capacity to narrativize and globalize those love stories. Let me emphasize this point: Africa is humanity’s only labour of love. No greater love hath the Arab invader, the European explorer, slaver, colonizer, missionary, captain of industry, corporate CEO, Multi-National Corporation CEO, humanitarian aid worker, Christian charity worker, NGO worker, expert, expatriate, Hollywood celebrity serial child adopter; no greater love hath all these characters for Africa that they gave up the comforts of Arabia and Europe and came to risk mosquitoes and malaria in the heart of darkness. Even this imperative of love accounted for the obduracy of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan on the question of sanctions against apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. So great was their love for black South Africans that these two leaders of the free world opposed sanctions against the apartheid state for fear that their beloved blacks would suffer disproportionately.

These lovers introduced dowry as the only mode of transaction with the beautiful bride on whose account they travelled. Africa has been paying this dowry to her numerous lovers in the last five hundred years of her history. She has paid in cash and kind. She has paid dowries of land and territory to these lovers; she has paid dowries of copper, gold, diamonds, cocoa, coffee, rubber, ivory, coltan, uranium, crude oil. Africa is the bride fated to pay expensive dowry to lovers and fiancés who do not mind polyandry. Never mind the rivalry between today’s princes charming –America, Europe, China – seeking Africa’s hand in marriage. So long as the dowry payments continue to flow from Africa, these guys don’t mind polyandry.  Sometimes, Africa’s dowry payment has a name, a face, black flesh, and red blood. Patrice Lumumba was dowry and so were Eduardo Mondlane, Steve Biko, and Thomas Sankara.

Other times, the dowry is neither quantifiable nor measurable because it operates mostly as emotional jouissance for the career lover of Africa. The humanitarian aid worker, the Christian charity worker, the NGO development volunteer, the Hollywood celebrity serial child adopter, all kinds of organizations without borders, Bono, Jeffrey Sachs, Angelina Jolie, and Madonna are all career lovers of the continent functioning within a mechanism I have referred to in previous lectures and essays as the Mercy Industrial Complex. This category of Africa’s lovers does not demand the sort of dowry exacted by the colonizer or the CEOs of Shell Petroleum, Halliburton, and Siemens. Their dowry lies in the unmappable emotional satisfaction of the messianic complex. Another child adopted away from the poverty of mealie in Malawi offers more than an occasion for media razzmatazz. To the Hollywood celebrity serial child adopter, the gesture offers the psychic satisfaction of the hand that giveth.

Other times still, the dowry régime has yielded consequences that have altered the course of history forever. The lover of Africa who was a slaver carried his human dowry across the Atlantic for more than three hundred years. At the purely economic level, Eric Williams assures us in his monumentally important book, Capitalism and Slavery, that the labour of that human dowry paid by Africa informed the complexion of capitalism as we came to know it. In other words, Africa’s dowry produced a black diaspora in such a way as to profoundly inflect the topography of wealth creation and accumulation in the West.

Now, this is where this dowry business really gets interesting. We know that to create a diaspora is to create novel cultural life-forms, new imaginaries, new modes of being and apprehension, new modalities of sentience that are not just locked in the politics of emplantment in a new world but must also contend with that which cannot be disappeared: home. “That’s all it takes really, pressure, and time,” says Red in one of my favorite films of all times, The Shawshank Redemption. Pressure and time may dissolve the concrete geographical essence of home for the diaspora population but they never really empty it of psychic content, symbolic force, and matricial value. They never empty it of its capacity to mobilize and interpellate the diaspora population affectively in terms of articulations of identity. This explains why registers of tracery and connections underwrite the cultures of the black diaspora, of any diaspora: roots and routes, origins, sources, memory, remembering, re-membering become crucial to a telos of subjectivity that Brent Hayes Edwards refers to as “the practice of diaspora” in his magnificent book of the same title.

To animate the emotion of “home” or “source” despite the wear and tear placed on memory by pressure and time, to articulate modes of being in the present nurtured by the political and philosophical resonances of origins naturally involves a scrutiny of the transaction between the self-professed lover of Africa and the dowry-paying bride. This query is an epistemological obligation for the black diaspora population. Was dowry taken at gunpoint by a lover who would accept it only in human form capable of working on his plantations in the Americas or did Africa, the mesmerized bride, offer that dowry too quickly and too enthusiastically, carried away by gifts of rum, mirrors, and other industrial products dangled before her by the lover from across the seas?

The answer which various generations of black diaspora intellectuals have found for these questions have had profound implications for the genre of self-fashioning and self-writing known as the return narrative. If you look at a certain black radical tradition of home and memory, which encompasses the divergent and disparate intellection and praxes of, say, W.E.B du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley, Aimé Césaire, Léon-Gontran Damas, and Molefi Kete Asante, you will encounter imaginaries of Africa and return narratives which devolve from what appears to be a clear conviction that Europe exacted that dowry at gunpoint. It is not for nothing that Bob Marley’s Buffalo soldiers were “stolen from Africa”, not sold in Africa by Africans. And we know who Bob Marley is accusing of theft. No text articulates this position better than Césaire’s slim but powerful book, Discourse on Colonialism. For Césaire, the dowry was forcibly taken not just by Europe but also by the particular kind of Europe that the other encountered: a Europe that was at her most rapaciously and brutally capitalistic.

There is a second model associated notably with the Henry Louis Gates of the Wonders of the African World fame. I call it the dirty linen model. This model somewhat shifts the responsibility for slavery from the lover of Africa who went in search of slaves to the beautiful bride, Africa, who is deemed to have been too eager to offer the dowry. This model, obviously, has spawned more problematic imaginaries of Africa in the diasporic imagination. Lingering resentment of the home that sold you – if that is how you elect to see it – into slavery hardly allows for the romanticized memory-making of the first tradition. When Léon-Gontran Damas, one of the three founding fathers of Négritude, sings, “give me back my black dolls/so that I may play with them/the naïve games of my instinct,” I don’t think Henry Louis Gates would supply any chorus to that song. Rather, I imagine him quipping: pray, Monsieur Damas, how did your black dolls get to the Americas in the first place?

Despites these tensions, something unites these two modes of diasporic engagement of Africa and that is the desire to make Africa mean, to make her fundamentally mean something. Whether you are claiming Africa radically, romanticizing her, and longing for the day that your soul shall make the return journey to Guinée, like le vieux Médouze does in Euzhan Palcy’s great film, Sugar Cane Alley; whether you are probing history and memory in order to establish what you call Africa’s complicity in and responsibility for slavery, as is the case with Henry Louis Gates and those of his persuasion, you are involved, as a black diasporic subject, in a quest for meaning marked by an initial anxiety of contact. The anxiety here is not akin to the silence of assessment that brokered the encounter between Stanley and Mutesa. Rather, this is an anxiety spawned and fed by the fear and the undecidabilities of the unknown. She is been gone for more than three hundred years this black diasporic sister. Africa is now a narrative to her and she is apprehensive of what this narrative might portend. In a keynote lecture I delivered to the annual conference of the Stanford Forum for African Studies at Stanford University last year, I tried to map this anxiety using the example of Richard Wright. Permit me to quote from this lecture at some length:

“This anxiety is captured most vividly in the opening page of Richard Wright’s Black Power. “Now that your desk is clear, why don’t you go to Africa”,  Dorothy Padmore tells Mr. Wright. “Africa?” Mr. Wright’s dumbfoundment is italicized in the text. Then this bit of introspection: “Africa”, I repeated the word to myself (N.B: Africa is still only a word) then paused as something strange and disturbing stirred slowly in the depths of me. I am African! I’m of African descent… Yet I’d never seen Africa; I’d never really known any Africans; I’d hardly ever thought of Africa”. The entire opening section of Black Power is a paean to the anxiety of contact.”

The anxiety of contact, the fear of the unknown, which makes a dumfounded Richard Wright exclaim –Africa?- on hearing that word is also at the root of the torn and divided consciousness which powers Countee Cullens’s famous poem, “Heritage”. The poem speaks for itself and we need not remind ourselves more than its first stanza here:

What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?

The black Canadian novelist, Dionne Brand, who figures black diasporic anxieties as “a tear in the world”, underscores the double consciousnes in Cullens’s poem more poignantly. The business of remembering and re-membering that tear in the world of the Diasporic sons and daughters of Africa often involves, among other gestures of reconnection, symbolic voyages to Africa to visit the sites of memory. Those voyages to the Atlantic slave coast of Africa, those emotional narratives about returnee sons and daughters breaking down in tears in Gorée, Elmina, Cape Coast, and Badagry, are all part of a multilayered ritual of reconnection. There is, however, a problem with this mode of re-entry. If you explore the wealth of documentaries of re-entry, the literature, and even accounts that one collects in fraternal encounters with members of the black diaspora community, you will discover that the Africa that is most sought after is largely a synchronic one, imagined as ancestral, fixed in her past and ancient grandness.

Irrespective of the actualities of the continent, Africa is where you go to find your history. Lagos, Accra, Dakar, Bamako, and Luanda are just locations of passage, intrusions or distractions that you must deal with before your grand encounter with the sites of memory. On arrival from the United States, from Canada, from the Caribbean, Africa’s capital cities offer you an airport and a hotel to spend the night and prepare your trip to Africa – the Africa that is history, the Africa that is memory, the Africa that is ancient. You hardly have time to notice or connect with the postmodern whirl around you. You are in a hurry to get to sites of psychic communion with Kunta Kinte and Olaudah Equiano. You are more interested in Kumbi Saleh than Accra. Askia the Great and Mansa Kankan Musa speak to you more than Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the insipid Goodluck Jonathan. The African Union and NEPAD are ancient Greek to you. You are looking for slave forts and slave routes and you don’t want Africa’s present all around you to get in the way. What accounts for this apparent fixation with the part of Africa that is historic as opposed to her actualities and contemporaneous vistas of meaning in the diasporic imagination? Does this harbor a desire to reconnect with Africa precisely at the point at which one left in the 16th century?

I think something deeper is going on and it is related to the postcolonial forms of dowry that Africa is paying to a nebulous lover we shall describe as Western desire for want of a better descriptor. I am talking about the desire which Chinua Achebe famously describes in his Conrad essay, “An Image of Africa”. Writes Achebe: “Quite simply it is the desire — one might indeed say the need — in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest.” The dowry of the image or the dowry of the single story – apologies to Chimamanda Adichie – is what Africa now pays to this lover, Western desire. Now, this is a much powerful lover, with considerable technologies of dissemination.

With considerable impunity, this lover takes only the single story of poverty, hunger, and disease and broadcasts it in Western imagination as Africa’s present. Mr. Western Desire singlehandedly determines what he wants to consume of Africa. A budding American scholar of African literatures and cultures, Mr. David Mastey, is currently working on a doctoral dissertation on the privileging and consumption of African child soldier narratives in the United States. Mr. Mastey is working under my supervision and I am learning a lot from his work and inquiry into the hunger for African child soldier stories by the American public. There is a desire for the single story of trauma and vulnerability and Africa pays that dowry willy-nilly. It doesn’t even matter whether what is at issue concerns Africa or not, she is the continent that must keep on giving a singular idea of herself to feed Western desire. Witness Gail Collins, a columnist for The New York Times, assessing the Lance Armstrong tragedy in a January edition of her column:

“There’s always a chance. Armstrong could demonstrate his remorse by dedicating the rest of his life to fighting rural poverty in an extremely remote section of Africa, preferably one where residents are limited to a quart of water a day. His fans would come flocking back, although Armstrong would hardly notice because the critical part of the deal would be staying in Niger or Burkina Faso forever.”

Now, how did this columnist make the leap from Lance Armstrong to the idea of rural poverty in Africa? You could essay the explanation that deep in her subconscious lies the idea of Africa as a site of redemption for Western rejects and abjects but that would be cold comfort. It doesn’t account for the reflex. That reference is gratuitous and silly but such, often, is the first point of contact with what is constructed as Africa’s present for her sons and daughters in the Diaspora. Everywhere the Black Canadian or the African American turns to in terms of the imagery of Africa that is fed into Western imagination and consciousness, they encounter a depressing tableau of abjection, trauma, and tragedy. Africa’s past, recycled and romanticized in robust traditions of black intellection and identity making, comes to represent – at least in the diasporic imagination – a safe haven from the monolithically constructed ugliness of the continent’s present.

If you are an African American or a Black Canadian beginning to take a very serious interest in Africa, Gail Collins just made Niger and Burkina Faso (trust me, she won’t write about Burkina Faso’s recent story of triumph in soccer) very unpalatable for you. If your interest in Africa survives your encounter with Collins’s column, chances are you would prefer Négritude’s Africa of beautiful bucolic black dolls of the ancient times to Collins’s Africa of contemporary misery. And if you persist in tracing your origin, it is unlikely now you will claim to have discovered that your ancestors came from Burkina Faso or Niger. I wouldn’t blame you if you rigged things in favour of Botswana.

Sometimes, the single story of the African present comes from her own sons and daughters in the diaspora. Witness the damage done by Keith Richburg in his 1997 book, Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa. This is one angry black man who spends years covering some of the continent’s most brutal conflicts for The Washington Post and arrived at the conclusion that he is extremely lucky that those African savages sold his ancestors into slavery. At least they are now Americans and have escaped Africa’s horrendous present. Make no mistake about this, I may grumble about Mr. Richburg’s book but I do perfectly understand where he is coming from. In fact, a Nigerian is not in the position to grumble too loudly about Mr. Richburg. To grumble too much is to elicit the question: so what have you guys made of fifty years of the Nigerian present? Have you not produced your own brood of postcolonial black Nigerian lovers of Nigeria who are now exacting dowry from the Nigerian people, leaving them in unbelievable poverty and corruption even with so much oil wealth? If you look too closely at Nigeria’s present as it has been produced since 1999 by Africa’s most corrupt and most cruel ruling elite, it is not too difficult to understand why a Black Diasporic subject may want to have nothing to do with the African present.

The responsibility of Africa’s ruling class in producing a present that could be so unpalatable for our Black diasporic cousins aside, what does Africa try to do about this postmodern dowry of the singular image that she keeps paying to the much more determined lover that is Western desire? How does she struggle to get past the impunity of silly and gratuitous negative referencing as exemplified by Gail Collins? Africa could offer counter-narratives into which the Black diaspora could plug for glimpses of a present much richer than what the single stories present. Despite the nightmare that is her ruling elite, this is what my country, Nigeria, has achieved for instance with the phenomenon that is Nollywood. I believe it is no news to anyone in this audience that Nollywood is the world’s third largest movie industry. And you also know, I presume, that Nollywood movies are not just immensely popular across Africa, they constitute a new cultural bridge between Africa and her diaspora. In Canada, in the United States, and across the Caribbean, Nollywood offers counter-narratives of the African present to the Black diaspora.

Sometimes the counter-narrative of the present comes in the shape of youth culture and agency. The Azonto dance, for instance, originates from Ghana, sweeps through the rest of the continent, especially Nigeria, and has become a cultural connecting point with the continent for young black and African diasporans in the West. I mention Nollywood and Azonto because Africans, hung up on science and technology, often underestimate the power of culture to globalize every area of their genius, including their technological innovations. There is no better narrative of the Japanese people – and her technology – than the statement that Sushi makes on Western and non-Western palates alike. Never underestimate what Gangnam style is doing for the South Korean brand on the global stage. Who in the West is developing a taste for Korean cars and technology after encountering Korea through Gangnam style? That is what culture has the potential and capacity to do.

The bitter truth, however, is that counter-narratives of the African present function in asymmetrical power relations with narratives of impunity which insist on Africa as a single story. Nollywood may have made inroads in Canada, for instance, and may have even gone beyond the black Canadian community since Nollywood movies are now often represented in Canadian film festivals, all it takes to roll back the gains is one powerful Canadian single story about Africa. Consider something as simple as language. The linguistic diversity of Nigeria, Ghana and other African countries is shown even through the deployment of various Englishes. Then one Canadian novel is published. This novel talks about language but constantly hints at “dialects”. For the perceptive reader, language comes across as an intrusion into a world of dialects. Language is only comfortable in its world whenever the plot shifts to Canada. Then this Canadian novel goes ahead and wins the 2012 Scotia Bank Giller Prize, by far Canada’s most prestigious literary prize.

That novel is 419 by Will Ferguson. Mr Ferguson is a travel writer. He has travelled extensively and published four travel books. He did not travel to Nigeria or Africa to research his novel. Africa is the place you can represent with impunity, especially if you have expatriate friends in Africa who “know” the culture. Says Mr. Ferguson:

“I was fortunate to have several superb early readers who provided insights, advice, and corrections: Kirsten Olson; Jacqueline Ford, who has travelled extensively in the francophone region of West Africa; Kathy Robson, who has lived and worked in Nigeria; and Helen Chatburn-Ojehomon, who is married to a Nigerian citizen and working in Ibadan, north of Lagos. Many thanks to all of them for the feedback! The depictions of Nigerian culture and customs are solely my responsibility…Helen and Kathy in particular gave me excellent advice on the English spoken in Nigeria but in the end I found the richness of the dialect too difficult to capture on the page. Instead, I added only the slightest touch, to give readers just a hint of the full flavor.”

I guess it is too much to expect Mr. Ferguson to get off his butt and go to Nigeria for this gigantic project instead of relying on a handful of expatriates for expertise on “Nigerian culture and customs?” There is mention of more sources on his website but I found none when I visited it. Well, let us examine the quality of the expertise offered Mr. Ferguson by his expatriate knowers of Nigerian culture and customs. No Nigerian would read this howler on page 117 by the omniscient narrator – with strong hints of authorial intrusion – without risking a heart attack: “Egobia was from the Yoruba language, the language Winston spoke with his grandparents. Ego meant “money,” and bia meant “come to me,” making Egobia more an incantation than an actual name. “Money come.””

The mislabeling of two Igbo words as Yoruba is not a one-time occurrence in the novel. Make no mistake about the gravity of this howler. There is a Sergeant Brisebois in the novel. As Canadian readers of the novel, this is the equivalent of your being told by the narrator that the last name, Brisebois, is from two Anglo-Canadian words, “briser” and “bois”. Imagine what our French friends from Québec would have done to Mr. Ferguson if this had happened. Sadly, there are more howlers in the novel. Of the January 1966 coup, Mr. Ferguson’s omniscient narrator informs his Canadian readers that this was “the same coup that left Nigeria’s prime minister dead and the regional premiers rounded up and imprisoned.” I wonder who, among his “superb early readers”, told Mr. Ferguson that Samuel Ladoke Akintola, the Premier of the Western region, was rounded up and imprisoned. Somehow, none of Mr Ferguson’s expatriate experts of Nigerian “culture and customs”, none of his editors at Viking Canada, none of the judges of the Giller Prize caught any of these howlers. I wager that Mr. Ferguson could very well have written that “Ego” and “bia” are two Gikuyu, Swahili, or Lingala words and nobody would have noticed. In Africa, we are interchangeable.

Yet, this is the canonized cultural artifact, an award-winning novel, that will shape Nigeria and Africa in the Canadian imagination, carrying the imprimatur of the Giller Prize and the considerable capital that comes with it, in the foreseeable future. Can Nollywood as a counter-narrative stack up to a novel that has won the Giller Prize in Canada? No matter how well spoken Desmond Elliot, Ramsey Nouah, and Genevieve Nnaji are, they and their ilk are now fixed for Canadian consumption as a bunch of dialect-speaking Africans.

When a black Canadian picks up this novel in a Chapters book store and encounters “Nigerian culture and customs” described by a powerful Canadian writer relying mostly on the second hand accounts of his expatriate friends, would this black Canadian wonder if Mr. Ferguson would not have spent months in France immersing himself in the culture and the language of that country if he was writing a novel about France? Would this black Canadian want to move beyond this novel to ascertain 419 is not Nigeria’s greatest innovation as Mr. Ferguson claims? And, most importantly, would the black Canadian understand that the Nigeria trapped in the 399 pages of this prize-winning Canadian novel is yet another dowry paid by Africa to one of her lovers in 2012?

I thank you for your time.

For Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani: Between her America and her Nigeria

In America, all men are believed to be created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. But Nigerians are brought up to believe that our society consists of higher and lesser beings. Some are born to own and enjoy, while others are born to toil and endure.

-        Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

The Nigerian writer, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is at it again. Her February 9, 2013 op-ed piece in the New York Times (In Nigeria, You’re Either Somebody or Nobody) in which she referred to some Nigerian house helps as “smelly” and “feral” is living rent-free in my head. I wish it would just go away. Nwaubani’s piece, on the fate of “househelps” or “servants” in Nigeria, is a profound commentary on how the West continues to view much of Africa, with the active connivance of many African writers, who traipse the West, hawking tales of grime, gore, wars and rapes – what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the single story” of Africa in this riveting video. I would only add to Adichie’s profound observations that it just seems that it is mostly African writers propagating the “single story.” Imagine the New York Times publishing a piece by a white author that refers to her help as “smelly” and “feral.” Heads would roll – as they should.

adaobi-192x300Let me also observe that research would show that the vast majority of essays in Western newspapers written by African writers are narrow in range, oscillating between protest anthems and Stepin Fetchit silliness. Nwaubani’s essay is groveling Stepin Fetchit Blackface pantomime designed specifically to gain space in a Western newspaper – for pennies. It is especially tragic how she has trivialized an important subject. Our writers need to own some responsibility for how we are viewed in the West. Some of that may be changing; many writers are shunning the West and her appetite for silliness, and writing and publishing their own stories themselves. Fame is not everything. Indeed, the writer Teju Cole has distinguished himself by his thoughtful provocative pieces about his world, our world, that display a wide range of interests and anxieties. You may not always agree with Cole but you come away wishing many African writers would look out the window and write about the world as Cole writes in this intriguing piece about the African writer and US president, Barack Hussein Obama and his unmanned drones.

Okay, let me take a deep breath and start over. Generalizations aside, Nwaubani’s essay, as appalling as it is, (yes it is, folks, it is awful, let’s not pretend otherwise) does serve the purpose of depicting much of Nigeria’s middle class as crass, narcissistic and shallow apostles of materialism, mimic people, in the habit of treating “the help” as feral simians, sub-humans not to be allowed in their living rooms, except to clean them, definitely not to be allowed to use their china. Is this a fair assessment? Who knows? Nwaubani may have unwittingly started an intra-class war. On social media, depending on where you end up, she is either an unsophisticated villain according to her literary peers, or a heroine, according to the moneyed class who race to London and America for premium ice cream and return to find that the “help” has made off with their jewelry and Euros. For the latter subclass, you only have to go to Linda Ikeji’s blog (here) to read the comments. In broken sentence after broken sentence, the mostly anti-intellectual crowd (“the thing is too long jor!”) offers high praise and  unrestrained glee at every sentence in Nwaubani’s essay.

How bad is Nwaubani’s essay? It is bad, really bad. Where should we start? There is the naïveté in assigning silly utopian qualities to America:

“Bigots and racists exist in America, without a doubt, but America today is a more civilized place than Nigeria. Not because of its infrastructure or schools or welfare system. But because the principle of equality was laid out way back in its Declaration of Independence.”

You wonder if she deliberately wrote a damning indictment of the Nigerian moneyed class as vacuous, unfeeling and materialistic, considering this stunning outburst which makes this reader want to scream, you are shitting me!:

My father detested it when our househelps sang. Each time a new one arrived, my siblings and I spent the first few evenings as emissaries from the living room, where our family watched TV after dinner, to the kitchen, where the househelps washed dishes or waited to be summoned.

Then there is the patronizing condescension:

“Some years ago, I made a decision to start treating domestic workers as “somebodys.” I said “please” and “thank you” and “if you don’t mind.” I smiled for no reason. But I was only confusing them; they knew how society worked. They knew that somebodys gave orders and kicked them around. Anyone who related to them as an equal was no longer deserving of respect. Thus, the vicious cycle of oppression goes on and on.”

And then there is this, and words simply fail this reader who gasps, Is Nwaubani for real?

Melancholic singing was not the only trait they had in common. They all gave off a feral scent, which never failed to tell the tale each time they abandoned the wooden stools set aside for them and relaxed on our sofas while we were out. They all displayed a bottomless hunger that could never be satisfied, no matter how much you heaped on their plates or what quantity of our leftovers they cleaned out.

childpoverty use thisSo, yes, I was appalled by what I thought was a shallow, poorly thought out essay that only served to diminish Nwaubani and all those like her that belong in that “high society” class of “the feral help stinks.” However after going through the comments in Linda Ikeji’s blog, I am beginning to think that Nwaubani may have unwittingly started a debate, even as she’s exposed her own narcissism. Everything has to have context. I have been away from Nigeria for decades and each time I visit, I am reminded of that fact. The things I witness when I visit sometimes make me shudder and the things I say as a result amuse my hosts. And their eyes go, “Dis one don loss for America!”

As Ebere Nwiro points out on ThisDay, here, child labor is a huge problem in Nigeria. Nwiro points out that what happens to the children of the poor and the dispossessed in many of those homes like those of the Nwaubani’s is unspeakable.

The Nigerian NGO’s Report reveals that a staggering 15 million children under the age of 14 are working across Nigeria. Many of these children are exposed to long hours of work in dangerous and unhealthy environments, carrying too much responsibility for their age. Working in these hazardous conditions with little food, small pay, no education and no medical care establishes a cycle of child rights violation.

Nwaubani missed an opportunity to showcase to the world the plight of poor children in Nigeria, In Nigeria, millions of children are simply born into wars that they did not ask for. In an unregulated labor market that is generally abusive of adults, children are worse off. Many are beaten, starved, yes, physically and emotionally abused by unfeeling adults. And many of them are fated to attend the schools depicted in this horrific video. Poor adults who serve as “househelps” fare slightly better. Compared to the US, where I could never afford help, labor is cheap in Nigeria. And those with the means take advantage. Drivers routinely ferry the middle class to parties and drinking joints and wait in the cars for hours on end until “oga and madam” are ready to go back home, or to the next joint. As Nwaubani points out, many of these children come from the hinterlands, places of little hope. As horrible as it sounds, for many of them, in a country like Nigeria, ruled by the unfeeling, stepping into the dangers of indentured servitude may be their best way out. Many have struck it rich by stealing from their masters and escaping into the darkness. Labor is largely unregulated in Nigeria and abusive child labor is the big gorilla in Nigeria’s living room. If this was the issue Nwaubani was trying to highlight, she chose a strange way to do so.

hausa ng_children_childlabourAgain, if the New York Times had published an essay that described an American socio-economic class as “smelly” and “feral”, heads would have rolled. This is an outrage. But I have us only to blame. Nwaubani is smirking quietly somewhere, perhaps nursing a drink prepared by a “feral smelly help”; she knows the drill. This is all noise-making; it will pass. And she will live to write another silly piece again for the gleeful West. She knows that Nigerians are long on emotional outbursts and chatter but short on enforcing laws and abiding by good structures. In the absence of unenforceable laws, the hell that the dispossessed go through in Nwaubani’s Nigeria will continue. That is how we roll.

This is not the first time Nwaubani has gotten folks baying and howling for her head. She is a darling of Western newspapers because she routinely sends them absurd howlers that exaggerate her intellectual challenges and amplify Nigeria’s woes. Here is a piece she wrote for the New York Times, titled, In Africa, The Nobel Laureate’s Curse, in which she famously pronounced, “Ngugi, Achebe and Soyinka are certainly masters, but of an earnest and sober style.” As if that was not bad enough, she dismissed Ngugi’s call for writers to write in indigenous languages by uttering this baffling one:

Many fans have extolled his brave decision to write in his mother tongue, Kikuyu, instead of English. If he truly desires a Nobel, I can’t help but wish him one. But I shudder to imagine how many African writers would be inspired by the prize to copy him. Instead of acclaimed Nigerian writers, we would have acclaimed Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa writers. We suffer enough from tribal differences already. This is not the kind of variety we need.

This exasperating opinion inspired vigorous rebuttals like these ones from writers and blogs: Carmen McCain, Chielozona Eze, Chuma NwokoloKinna Reads, Nana Fredua-Agyeman on ImageNations, Kola Tubosun on NigeriansTalk, and Molara Wood. An uncharacteristically angry Eze, seeming to speak for the group railed: “To me though, what began as a promising essay somehow turned into a mishmash of cowardly ideas, the core of which sought to suggest that it is separatist for a writer to write in his native language or even to claim that he is a writer from his ethnic group.”

To be fair to Nwaubani, she does think a lot about these things and she is never shy about sharing her views, as in this piece in the UK Guardian about Nigeria’s reaction to the BBC documentary on Makoko, that squalid place where some of these “househelps” come from. In responding to the yelps of racism, etc, by many Nigerian intellectuals of stature, she said this:

The Nigerian obsession with image often approaches neurotic proportions. What people think of us appears to take manic precedence over who we really are. You might imagine that the rational response to some of the infamies we are accused of across the globe would be: “Are we really like this? If we are, then let’s do something about it – quick.” Instead, we perpetually harangue and speechify to “correct” the world’s impressions of us. If it isn’t moaning about the depiction of Nigerians as criminals in the movie District 9, it is berating Hillary Clinton for daring to describe the situation in our country as heartbreaking and our leadership as a failure, or boycotting Oprah for warning against Nigerian 419 scams on her show.

When all of the dust settles, it is quite possible that Nwaubani is in her own way, an incredibly honest commentator on Nigeria’s current condition. She had to know she was indicting herself and her family in this shame that is child slave-labor. There is no excuse for what happens to thousands of children in Nigeria daily, none whatsoever. There is no excuse for what passes for democracy in today’s Nigeria, none whatsoever. There may be an explanation; which is that we are undergoing a perverse form of Darwinism, the rich eating the poor. Our ruling and moneyed class is doing to Nigerians what the colonialists would not have dared do to them. Black-on-black crime is what I call it. At some point, the rich will run out of the poor to feast on. Maybe then, like Nwaubani’s America that was “founded” by those who saw the original owners as game to be hunted down and annihilated, maybe then we will all live in peace and liberty and prosperity. For now, the beat goes on.

Chika Ezeanya on Olaudah Equiano: Before We Set Sail

The writer speaks out of real or imagined experience, tales do not spring from nothingness. And often, the reader studies fiction closely – for the truth. Works of fiction tell us stories of an era and complement history books. Yes, there is this compartmentalization; there are history books and there are novels and it is not often that you find a historian who tries fiction to document a lived life, writing history, so to speak. I recently got lucky; I just finished reading Before We Set Sail, a historical fiction by the historian, Chika Ezeanya. It is a novel based on the imagined life in Africa, of the freed slave Olaudah Equiano. Equiano, aka Gustavus Vassa (1745-1797) hardly needs an introduction; as a freed slave, he actively advocated for the abolition of the slave trade. In his lifetime he was variously an author and entrepreneur who travelled widely around the world. He wrote an autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, in which he maintained that he was a child slave from Igboland in Nigeria who eventually bought his freedom.

Equiano may be dead but he lives on not only through a vast volume of work devoted to his life, but thanks to controversy about his place of birth and the authenticity of his narrative as a child slave from today’s Eastern Nigeria. One school of thought asserts that Equiano was most probably born in the United States, not in Igboland as he claims in his autobiography. These scholars argue that much of his narrative is based on secondary sources. The most persistent of these “birthers” is Vincent Carretta who tried to make the case that Equiano was born in South Carolina, in a 1999 essay Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa? New Light on Eighteenth-Century Question of Identity. He extends his analysis into his biography of Equiano, Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man. Jim Egan’s incisive review of Carretta’s book sheds more light on the issue. Skepticism about Equiano’s narrative has been met with an equally vigorous push-back from several scholars. Ike Anya’s feisty essay describes with some hilarity the fireworks that ensued when the two opposing forces met. Here is an analysis that lays out the argument for whether or not he was born in Africa.

In writing the book, Ezeanya sought to fill that gap in Equiano’s narrative, growing up as a child in Igboland, being captured as a child slave and sojourning in several places before being sold off and shipped to the West Indies. According to Ezeanya, there is little in terms of that aspect of Equiano’s life that is documented elsewhere. What do I think of Ezeanya’s work? I loved it. In my judgment, Ezeanya pulled off this ambitious project rather nicely. She combines her muscular skills as a historian with a gift for storytelling to produce a suspense-filled, engaging and informative novel. Ezeanya also wisely sidesteps controversy about Equiano’s place of birth and with the aid of deft research and sleuthing cobbles together a story about what life must have looked like for Equiano or any child in his circumstances in Eastern Nigeria during that era. That is the issue, an undue obsession about Equiano’s true origin misses the fact that these awful events happened to someone and to a people. Ezeanya has a useful book trailer on YouTube where she provides a context for the book. Biko Agozino who reviewed the book here gets to the heart of what I admire most about Ezeanya’s novel, which is that this is not yet another hagiography of Africa penned by a starry-eyed clueless Pan Africanist:

 [Ezeanya] displays evidence of thorough historical research on what Cheikh Anta Diop theorized as pre-colonial black Africa. The only distinction here to her credit is that Diop painted a Negritude picture of an improbable civilization that appeared so perfect that there were no villains while Ezeanya shocks the reader into accepting the obvious reality that there is no such thing as a perfect civilization in a history characterized by widespread violence and terrorism. Readers who expect to find an un-spoilt innocence in pre-colonial Africa will be disillusioned to find that there were already unscrupulous people driven by greed to seek to profit from the sorrows of their fellows. Similarly, those seeking the heart of darkness in the pre-colonial epoch would be shamed into finding a thriving civilization in the hinterland.

Agozino is spot on. In Before We Set Sail, Equiano the young protagonist leads the reader through several civilizations, cultures and geographic states in parts of what is today’s Nigeria, beginning with his home town which he calls Essaka from where he and his sister are abducted into slavery. Written with pride and understated passion, the book is a quietly bold and successful attempt to assert a particular narrative because as Chinua Achebe reminds us in the East African proverb, until the lion tells the story of the hunt, the hunt will always be glorified by the hunter. Ezeanya helps Equiano tell his story and assert Black Africa’s humanity and civilization with defiance and pride. In the process, the reader learns a lot about the Black Africa of the mid 1700s through the eyes of this book and Ezeanya’s heart and soul.

I loved the prose. My best line: “I stared at the ground as my tears made balls out of the mud.” (p 69) Nice. Ezeanya’s imagination is vivid, you can feel the ambience, the atmosphere; ancient groves of malevolent deities come alive and in some passages you are filled with an intimidating spiritual presence. The pacing is exquisite, it would probably make a good movie script. Ezeanya’s depiction of commerce at the Bende slave fair shook me to my roots and the savagery will stay with me for a very long time. Ezeanya does a marvelous job at capturing the times and the good and the bad. These were medieval times, commerce was robust and cowrie shells and slaves were used as currency.  It was also a highly organized patriarchy in which men spoke and women and children were mostly seen not heard. But it is a thriving place that the story describes, there is sadness and joy, and in the story of the abduction of Equiano and his sister Ezinne (at ages 11 and 8 respectively) we see children enduring heartbreaking loss and we are strangely diminished. The reader learns that Igboland was a civilization whose people were filled with the knowledge of genetics and science. Even before the coming of the white man, the men had access to guns which indicates that there was inter-state commerce.

The research is exquisite, awe-inspiring. Ezeanya invests her creative energies in developing with great attention to detail, a few major characters like Didi, easily the best female lead character in the book. Like Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Equiano masterfully appropriates the English language as his own.  There are so many lovely stories within stories in this feisty book, including one that explains the origin of the four market days in Igboland. That fable alone is worth the price of the book. More importantly, in this book, one comes face to face with a certain Africa that has been relegated to the background of history in the race to stereotype and diminish her worth. We see thriving industries, astute businessmen and women negotiating deals with the best (or worst) of the West. We see a vibrant, highly organized workforce of slaves and apprentices Iron smiths and apprentices. Ezeanya makes the crucial point that the Igbo had slaves, that indeed there was a thriving slave trade before the coming of the white man. Beyond the clinical banality of commerce, the book also offers powerful evocative testimony to the efficacy of spiritual priests and indigenous healers.

Before We Set Sail is not the poverty porn that characterizes much of of what is referred to as African writing; instead Ezeanya pens a wondrous tale of Equiano’s childhood with loving parents, living in harmony with siblings and relatives in a land thriving with commerce and industry. Ezeanya pulls this off with a writing style that hearkens to Achebe’s, words steeped deeply in a way of life that seems now to be eluding a people long used to being uncritically assimilated into Western ways:

Just as I have brought my son to you here today, so Ijeenu your great-grandfather was taken by his own father to somebody who agreed to train him. Today, you have the ways of Akputakpu in your blood. I ask only that you do unto me as someone else did to your own great-grandfather — teach my son the ways of Akputakpu so he can teach his children and his children’s children. Let the kite perch and let the eagle perch. If one rejects the perching of the other, may his wings be broken. (p 59)

Ezeanya frequent deployment of proverbs and parables to convey the book’s burden reminds us of the Igbo saying:  Proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten. Equiano puts it beautifully in the book:

Father had often warned me when I engaged in rough play with older boys that “the crab says it has no business with any play that involved the twisting of arms.” Our education in Essaka, although not written like the Aro people or the British and people of the New World, involved the heavy use of proverbs, idioms and such wisdom packed in short, easy-to-remember sentences. From one proverb, one could write thousands of volumes such as the works of Plato, St. Augustine or, more recently, John Locke. (p 129)

This book is all about history, in delectable doses. Readers will find invaluable  insights into the Ekpe secret society, the ancient writing nsibidi or nsibiri, the treatment of biracial children in Calabar (they were disposed of like twins), etc.  We also learn about many dysfunctions and issues that are  with us today, for example, marital abuse, and the West’s reluctance to effect technology transfer (like rum manufacture). The hunger for Western consumer goods heated up the slave trade (not much different than today, many consumers might as well be slaves), and we observe ruefully how the wholesale assimilation into a Western culture turns a people into caricature-consumers as gaudy ostentation is bought with hundreds of slaves.

It is not a perfect book. For one thing, I am surprised and disappointed that such an important book has been so poorly publicized. Before We Set Sail is published by The History Society of Africa and is available in both kindle and paperback at amazon.com and other leading book stores.  You can read excerpts at www.beforewesetsail.com. Go find a copy and enjoy yourself. There are minor editing issues and sometimes, the prose becomes awkward and ungainly like a civil servant’s memo.  The book is rich with profound sayings, many awkwardly translated, for example, “Show me one living person who doesn’t have one problem or the other? Is there anybody whose anus you could look at and not find pieces of shit?” (p 22) This is not so much a criticism but an observation of how things get lost in the translation because of transitions like the forced voyage to the new land and the unlearning of one’s ancestral language. When Equiano reflects on “the fattening rooms of Calabar” one soon realizes that the term is a misnomer. If the dialogue is sometimes stilted, it is consistent with the style of the flamboyant Equiano. Before We Set Sail is technically a novel, but the absence of a bibliography is disappointing. A bibliography would have been helpful. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun comes to mind as a worthy example; it has about 30 helpful references on the Nigerian civil war. And yes, my pet peeve: Nigerian words were painstakingly italicized as if to hard-code our otherness.

All in all, Ezeanya spoke to me in this book. I read the book  at a time when I was reflecting on the notion of identity, chafing at the realization that even as color confounds, Africa is fast becoming a pejorative used to lump together for nefarious reasons, scores of nations and cultures and languages. Did Africans sell off fellow Africans as slaves? Did these people see themselves as monolithic Africans or as distinct nations warring each other for spoils and profits? Much of the contemporary commentary on Africa is superficial only because good scholars have bought into the myth of a monolithic Africa. Ezeanya brilliantly rejects that narrative and offers a uniquely creative version  of world history that doubles as an enduring celebration of the humanity of a people long hunted and haunted by forces beyond their control. All through this lovely book, nothing tells of the abiding dignity and pride of black Africa more than these resounding lines by a defiant Equiano:

The strength of my nation in farming is profound; my people never lacked food, and the rarity of ill-health among my people is direct testimony to the wealth of our diet, and our industriousness. We cultivated yam, our chief staple in several varieties; also, maize, beans, fruits of diverse kinds, assorted vegetables, and other crops made their way to our tables every mealtime and to the market every market day. Fish, game and certain edible insects are found in abundance in my part of the world, and provided the nourishment we needed from time to time. (p 29-30)

Hear! Hear! I love this book.

This writing life: Ranting, cutting, grunting and pasting

For you…

“Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.”
– Lawrence Kasdan

The other day my friend was bemoaning a writing slump. The words were stuck somewhere, refusing all entreaties to come out – and play. My friend is a fairly prolific writer; multitasking on a book, a blog that could use some more tending and an active Twitter and Facebook account. If my friend’s tweets and Facebook postings were cobbled together, the result would run into thousands of words that make delicious sense. This is the same for many other folks that I know who are regularly afflicted with anxieties about that affliction called the writer’s block. They should perhaps get off Facebook and Twitter to write what the world considers writing. I hope they do not flee into the dying warmth of books. That would be sad because like my friend, they are a lovely, vibrant presence on social media, coolly cerebral with enough wit and zing to make us grateful readers always wanting more. But like a happy spinster who is not happy until she bows to the dictates of tradition and immerses herself in an unhappy marriage, many of today’s writers are not complete until they have filled the spaces of tradition. They must write that book, maintain that blog that defines and completes them if they are to remain current in that coveted coven of writers.

If you are a writer, it is easy to understand my friend’s anxieties about (not) writing. One must write to be called a writer. Even in the 21st century, in the age of the Internet, one must write in the right places to be called a real writer. Even as the book is dying, the first and best space that establishes a writer’s cred is the book. Conventional wisdom says you are not a real writer until you have written a book. I do book reviews; as long as I fawn over a writer’s works, I am safe, but I always get the “Go and write your own book!” venom spat at me whenever I sheepishly admit that perhaps a book I just read is not to my personal taste. I have never written my own book; I have contributed pieces to a number of books. However, I prefer the digital space, it responds instantly to the immediacy of my thoughts. What I have to say should not have to wait to be cloistered in a book. I write nonstop and all my writings floating freely on the Internet would fill several books. But I am the first to agree that I am not a writer, certainly not in the conventional sense. I am a reader who writes, so there. I have previously said that I will never write a book; scratch that, I am feverishly writing a book of awsome prose. This has nothing to do with the fact that next year’s NLNG prize, a mere $100,000, will be for prose (whatever that means). I intend to enter for the competition. And I expect to win.

I do maintain a blog. This blog. If my blog is feeling neglected, it is because this is the first time in a long time that I have written my own blog post. In my defense, I was occupied elsewhere, I fell in love with a certain campaign for the presidency of the United States and I could not stop obsessing, reading and writing about it. I could not. Actually, I was propelled not so much by love, but by rage, a certain burning anger about the sense of entitlement of the other, that had declared me the other. I wanted to make this so right. President Barack Hussein Obama had to win this for humanity. I found a spot under an e-tree and I kept reading, writing and ranting about my world, the world I would leave our children in. The polls held me spellbound; I trolled the Internet looking for polls that would tell me what I wanted to hear, and I hissed and snorted with derision at those that told me that well, my Obama was toast. In my rage, I became the other, snarling, hissing, and foaming in the mouth like a venomous snake that had fatally bitten itself. In the end Nate Silver was right to the last dot, and America proved why it is perhaps the greatest nation on earth; she broke down under the withering sun-rays of my glare and elected the right person to the White House. That Tuesday night ended my long vigil of cutting, snorting, grunting and pasting war missiles on Twitter, Facebook and listservs. My audience endured this avalanche of venom, glee, data (yes, Nate Silver is the man, when it comes to accurate polling data) that kept me hostage to my own fears and desires. I could not physically write, but some would say I was writing. If I cobbled together all I have “written” in the past several months, it would be an embarrassing pastiche of borrowed rage. It is over (Obama won, yay!!!), and I feel better. So I did not write anything original in that time period, but I was busy doing my best to rescue our presidency from those who do not see us as Americans. Actually, come to think of it. that is not correct; I managed to write reams on Facebook and Twitter about Chinua Achebe’s new book, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra. I should cobble together all my tweets and Facebook posts about it into one essay and see if it makes sense. Now that’s a thought. Nah, I think I’ll simply keep reading.

Reading is easier for me than writing. Yes, writing has been hard for me in the past few months but I have managed to read. Most of what I have read has been about identity and our shared humanity. So, I read Chinua Achebe’s memoir, and Chika Ezeanya’s Before We Set Sail, an awesome historical fiction about Olaudah Equiano. I also read Uche Nduka’s lovely book of poetry, Ijele and Wole Soyinka’s new book, Of Africa. Achebe’s book as we all know caused a furor among Nigerians because of his views on the hell that was Biafra. It is probably the only book that I know that was reviewed by people who are yet to read the book, a big shame. I also took a detour into unfamiliar territory and devoured Lara Daniels’ romance novella, The Officer’s Bride. There was no rhyme or reason for why I chose these books; they just happened to be around, and I grabbed them to calm my nerves in the searing heat of the campaigns. I am back now, I am feeling a lot better and I promise to write more often in the traditional places where people expect my opinions. I took a lot of notes in the e-margins of these books (yes, Kindle is great like that) and I hope to cobble together my opinions on as many of these books as I can mutter. Pray that I get this done before the next presidential campaign.

In other news, a big congratulations to Chika Unigwe for winning the NLNG Prize for literature, a prize that is growing in stature and dollars. I am happy to see that the sponsors of the prize have stuck with a vision, mostly from listening to often biting criticisms. That is how it should be. The prize is still a work in progress and I shall have a lot to say down the road.  Unigwe’s victory was also a commentary on identity and porous walls. The NLNG Prize in granting eligibility to writers in the Diaspora has ensured that no Nigerian writer subject to the debilitating mediocrity of most of Nigerian publishers will ever taste that prize. Mediocrity does not compete well with imported excellence. And again, I am not referring to the Nigerian writer. Speaking of which I know of many great Nigerians on Facebook and on Twitter who should be writers based on their postings. Tell them they are writers and they embrace writer’s block.  I am back here I think, but I can’t promise I’ll stay here forever. I wail wherever dawn meets me. Let’s just make this simple, don’t wait for my blog posts, instead, follow me on twitter and on Facebook. I accept all comers.

I am enjoying reading the works of African writers, I wolf them down any and everywhere I can find them. They are doing for me, what Soyinka and Achebe’s generation did for me in my childhood. They are different writers and thinkers but they were the Internet warriors of my time. Their generation of writers taught and entertained my generation – in the absence of the mystery and magic of technology, computers and the Internet. As a teenager, I loved Soyinka’s the Jero plays, and Ake, that wondrous book ranks up there on my list of memoirs. Soyinka is a genius as a playwright, however much of his poetry does not speak to me. There are many other poets of his generation that do (JP Clark, Awoonor Williams, Okogbule Wonodi for instance); nothing against his genius, just a personal preference. My lover swoons each time she reads Telephone Conversation. Whenever I am headed to the doghouse, if I read it to her, it sometimes earns me a reprieve. I really do not much care for Soyinka’s prose; it is opaque when it should not be. How many PhD theses have been written on that (in) famous line in The Interpreters, Metal on concrete jars my drink lobes?

My favorite Achebe book is Things Fall Apart, followed by No Longer at Ease, A Man of the People, Arrow of God in no particular order. I don’t much care for Anthills of the Savannah. I love his essays,. Many people I respect have convinced me that in a technical sense at least, Arrow of God is Achebe’s best book. My dad, Papalolo, the autodidact swears by A Man of the People. He also loved No Longer at Ease. He admired the new bourgeoisie, the new intellectuals coming back home from England in those big ships and he was amused no end by their antics. I remember him, glass in hand (filled with Star Lager) twirling an imaginary key ring in his hand and going, “Sam Old chap, how’s the car behaving?” That was perhaps paraphrased from No Longer at Ease. My dad always reminds me that if I had not been born, he would have ended up in England like the Soyinkas and Achebes, and returned from England dressed in a winter coat and gloves! He also loved TM Aluko’s works, especially One Man One Wife and One Man One Matchet, don’t ask me why. Those were the days. Whenever I remember Achebe, I remember my dad Papalolo and the power of words, how one man’s words far away could connect me and my dad and bond us over a shared passion. I do love my dad and many of my stories come from him, especially Cowfoot by Candlelight. I have said he was an autodidact, he did not advance past the 8th grade but the quality of the education of his time was such that he could today put many PhDs to shame when it comes to reading and writing. Rant over. And you, my friend, this is a long rambling way of saying, keep writing. I enjoy your writing. And you know that.

More on reparations and all that jazz

Professor Skip Gates recently re-ignited an old controversy by stating in a New York Times op-ed piece that Africans are also culpable in the shame that was the transatlantic slave trade because they were active participants who relied on the trade for revenue. I agree with Gates. To the extent that African states sold off Africans, they are just as culpable as the Western states that bought Africans as slaves.  That they are too destitute to pay should not absolve them from culpability and responsibility.

Should Africa be compensated for slavery? Slavery was horrible. It is perhaps the everlasting perversion of this evil that a reparations program is virtually impossible to implement. I do not believe that the West should stop giving aid to Africa; however, it is fair to say that over 90 percent of the aid is being stolen or wasted. At the very least, Western donors should invest in meaningful accountability measures to ensure that these funds are going to the intended targets. In the meantime, what is happening in most of black Africa is black on black slavery. In Gates’ essay, he shares this gem:

“Did these Africans know how harsh slavery was in the New World? Actually, many elite Africans visited Europe in that era, and they did so on slave ships following the prevailing winds through the New World… African monarchs also sent their children along these same slave routes to be educated in Europe.”

This mirrors what is going on today in Nigeria. Today, the Nigerian intellectual and political elite preside over decaying classrooms that are too good for their children, administer hospitals that are not good enough for their hogs and have built palaces on what were once parks and zoos. They and their children have to flee the hell they built to go taste a bit of heaven in Europe and America.  These leaders should be shot.

A while back I watched Gates’ documentary on the slave kingdoms and I remember an engaging, and effective presentation. In West Africa, African narrators described to Gates and emotional African American tourists how Africans captured other Africans from the hinterlands to the coast and sold them to the white man for profit. It is a harrowing narrative and we must be filled with compassion for Professor Gates whose great great grandmother came from those parts as a slave. But then, as some scholars have asked fairly, were these Africans? In other words, did they see themselves as selling off their brothers and sisters? My view is that they were selling off enemy captives. You don’t sell your brother. Identity is dynamic. How “Africans” saw themselves then is different from how “Africans” see themselves today. That would need to be factored into any discussion of the role of people of African descent in the slave trade.

What does it mean to be African? My grandmother died in the late seventies not knowing she was African. She died not knowing she was Nigerian. She did have a strong sense of self and of community. Her friends and enemies were close by; in nearby hamlets and villages, where strange people lived with strange customs. Her daughter, my mother married one of those strange people, my father, who came from the village next door, strange people who ate strange things and did stranger things. You could walk from my father’s village to my maternal land in twenty minutes if you took the little path. My father loved to crack ribald jokes at the expense of another village next door. In those times, I could see him going next door to capture slaves. They were not his relatives. They were simply black.

The myth of a monolithic Africa is an invention of the other to compromise our humanity. Color confounds and confuses everybody apparently.  We are suffering the crimes of a construct that never existed, save in the minds of Westerners. An entire continent of (former) states has now been lumped into one big fat state called Africa. The unintended purpose of this broad brush has been to further dehumanize people of color. At the forefront of this pack of the prejudiced are Western liberal do-gooders who rush to douse any debate with patronizing platitudes about our humanity. The subtext: Africans did some awful things but they lack the complexity to be responsible for their actions; they had no idea, poor cute Africans.

 The other point that is not made is that despite the protestations of even the most rabid Pan-Africanists, Africans have been assimilated by the dominant culture. The dominant culture says a drop of black blood in you makes you black. That rule is the most effective and unchallenged rejection of our humanity, a permanent stamp on our “other” passport. Why is Skip Gates black? Why is he not white? Because the dominant culture says he is not. Now, that is racist. Let the man be whatever he wants to be. Not that he minds being black, but the world is browning. Screw boundaries. The Man Above is not through with us yet. He is too busy laughing his racist head off.

Lola Shoneyin: Loving Baba Segi’s Wives

 Reprint: First published in Next Newspapers, December 2010

The writer Lola Shoneyin lives life joyously on her own terms, tastefully wearing her smarts and sensuality in a world bound in rigid emotional ropes of hypocrisy. Her poetry is scrumptious, turning cold rocks into sniveling lovers. She wields words like fierce weapons against the past tense posing for tradition. This thinker of Nigerian extraction is ahead of her time in promulgating innovative ideas and in the way she deploys her myriad energies to the arduous task of jump-starting courageous conversations in a complex society like Nigeria

Cassava Republic has just released Shoneyin’s novel, ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’. I adore this book. From start to finish, it is a triumph of life over adversity, a joyful ode to the sensual mystery and resilience of the human spirit. I love this book. Shoneyin brings together her unique poetic senses and her love of the human story and wraps up a great tale with muscular prose.  Politely defiant, Shoneyin bends every cultural artefact and taboo in her brainy sensual path. This is a soap opera between the covers. I love the author’s bold use of language and imagery. She teases, she taunts, she soothes with her words. This is a rebel gleefully tugging at silly clay boundaries. Every other page hides sentences that desire to stir your consciousness – and your loins. Nothing is taboo for Shoneyin; she is eclectic in a brilliant near-reckless manner. Her words are defiant, and drunk with the sweet musky smell of primal sex. Sexual tension keeps the pages erect and thirsty for lusty sex. And the curses and trash talking rain down freely, Nigerian style.You might as well be riding around in a bolekaja enjoying Nigerian life at its most impish.

In ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’, Bolanle, a university graduate joins Baba Segi’s household as the fourth wife. Using this canvas, the author inspects Nigeria’s motley issues, as if from a dirty window. It is pretty, ugly, and riotous and secrets do not stay hidden for too long. Nigeria is a market and everything is sold in the open. In the process, we are entertained. Shoneyin taps furiously and insistently on social issues, prying their doors open for the reader to confront. Issues like marital abuse, rape, sexuality, infidelity the relentless march and meanness of the new Christianity, the ravages of a soulless consumer society and the resulting mimicry of the other as in women bleaching their skins to look attractive. There is an abundance of misogyny, and patriarchy reigns supreme. Sons are a premium over daughters and well sought after and celebrated by the society. Baba Segi is a loving father, if a bit of a buffoon and a crude lover. He is an unattractive man who has a disgusting habit of losing his bodily fluids when he is stressed. But he is a good provider and the women humour him, to a point. Women and children cope by manipulating men – with mixed and unintended results.

Shoneyin addresses the mystery and complexity of relationships and sexuality from a woman’s perspective. Not many would agree with her sympathetic, almost defiant take on the issue but she does give a powerful voice to those whose crime is to be different from the tyrannical majority. In that respect, compassion gushes from her pen. In the crush of issues like arranged marriages and the expectation that women and children are chattels beholden to men, there is a lesson here: Women dream also of the same pleasures and desires that men take sometimes violently.

The book gains confidence and traction with the turning of each page, however, it was hard following the chapters as the points of view changed. It stretches credulity to imagine Bolanle the fourth wife as a university graduate married to a semi-illiterate polygamist. She does not present herself as learned. The wives’ characters could have been fleshed out a bit more robustly. In a few instances, the dialogue was awkward. My worst line: “Well, you know before you wrap leaves around liquidised beans one must ensure that the ingredients are complete.” (p221) It is the worst translation of a proverb I have ever read.  The book is partly a conversation about paternalism and misogyny but it comes across as hostile to men. Baba Segi is depicted as a hapless buffoon who loses his bodily functions under stress. Men are typically depicted as bumbling idiots with balls for brains and the book gleefully lobs insults: “Men are nothing. They are fools. The penis between their legs is all they are useful for. And even then, if not that women needed their seed for children, it would be better to sit on a finger of green plantain.” Regardless, the book will keep a reader thinking for a long time. Not many would agree with the too-tidy ending, life is too complex for that. But who cares? I love this book.


 

San Ysidro Windsong

for you, my friend, you who paid the ultimate price… for a dream deferred…

It is today in America. And it is tomorrow in Nigeria. The heart aches for Nigeria, for home. Africa comes calling and I must go touch the eaves of the ancient caves that guard my umbilical cord. I am fleeing the darkness of a dying winter, chasing the promise of spring. I am escaping darkness, racing, fluttering heart, to the sun where my ancestors sit waiting for me.  I am racing to the sun where my mother stands pretending to tend the cooking pot, eyes roving the skies for the white man’s bird that will drop me, restless son, onto her aching laps. The wandering disease attacks me violently and I must go. I must go bathe in the stream of the forbidden fish. I must drink deep from the palm wine of the palm tree that never dies, air-conditioned coven of witches and wizards. I must walk through the little path where my grand father is buried and go feed my mother’s people in the smoky pantheon where dignity fights a ferocious battle with poverty. My stomach, hostel of the white man’s food will collapse in peppery shock, my cells will protest the invasion of harsh peppers, but I will sit down in my mother’s smoke-drenched kitchen and eat everything that flows from the pot that sits on the tripod of firewood that cooks wonders. Izuma of the stout bush that cannot be felled, I come to you; your little boy in the blue suit, shivering in the summer sun is home, to you. Izuma of the endless savannah, hold me. Your little boy is back.

My friend, a thousand stories invade my aching head, a thousand stories collapse in my aching head, and in my aching head, a thousand stories morph into a giant lie.  And they call it fiction. There are no mysteries, only lies. Warriors and poets jump out of digital vinyl in pretty lock step, at ease with the white man’s digital 0s and 1s. Baba the prophet dressed in his underwear and marijuana smoke hangs laconically from the door of the overloaded molue bus, and wails his vision in a voice crisp and guttural, in the voice of the masquerade that just escaped the anthills of the playground of my childhood. And with Baba’s horn, you can taste Lagos heavy with the smell of sex, shit, blood and petrol. The poet leans on his solo horn wailing sad sorrow, soaking my cells with songs of promise and sadness. And you can taste Lagos heavy with the smell of sex, shit, blood and petrol. I close my eyes and the women of Africa arise from digital vinyl, they rise as one from the rivers of Africa and their dance tells the story that I know by heart. I close my eyes and my heart races to the playground where I performed dark sensuous experiments with Angelina:

If your eyes squint hard
 until the blood points the way to the anthill
  that houses the cheer leaders of the spirit world
   you will see them…
    dancing, dancing, dancing.
 
Hear the horns
 teasing the envious skies.
Hear the drums chasing the dancers’ feet.
Feel the dancers’ feet chasing the drums until
 the eyes get all confused.
 
And every night
 we will go to sleep with the dream that you handed us…
And suddenly things don’t hurt nearly as much.

Many moons have passed through the big river of this life and I have not spoken to you my friend. You are sad and I cannot help you. But you say it is well. Here, if you come close to me, sit by me, by this fireplace, home of the white man’s fake wood that burns at the flick of a switch, I shall tell you of my travels. And maybe, then, you’ll feel better. I have been to the white man’s planet. The white man lives in another planet. And he knows it. But he is not telling us. My mother, Izuma, conqueror of the stout bush told me that the white man knows where God is but he is not telling us black folks. The white man wants to protect God from us black folks because we may kill him in the rage of our condition. We are different from the white man and he knows it. But the white man humors us, assures us that we are the same; we are from the same planet. That, my friend, is a big lie. They are different people, from a different planet, white folks. They come from a planet where everything is different, even their rice is colored funny. We are not one with the white man; we are not of the same planet. But the not knowing keeps us apart from they that know. The white man is an alien nibbling delicately on what is called art in our planet.

And my friend, I shall die and come back, Phoenix, king of the ashes of exile and there shall be no nations, as we know it. There shall be no boundaries. Relationships will be strung tightly through lines that transport 0s and 1s to the conscience of liquid crystal displays. Relationships will pop at your monitor-mirror of a thousand uses, seeking warmth, seeking solace. There shall be no nations and no boundaries. And no moats, no waters will hold the flight of fear from the lands of shame and terror that bore us and tore us violently from our mothers’ umbilical cords. And you have not seen the flight of the fleet-footed from the cold and heat of evil lands. The worst is yet to come, my friend, the worst is yet to come.

And so, I am trapped in the white man’s capsule that flies a billion times faster than the angry catapult of my childhood. We are going west, chasing dawn, like a fool chases his shadow, I wonder if we’ll ever catch dawn. I just had breakfast in the east, now skinny little white women in uniform are offering me breakfast again. I gain a breakfast, gain three hours and I lose everything else. Deep in the bowels of the white man’s bird, I regale my fellow travelers with stories of exile in America’s Mississippi delta. I tell them of my days in the delta, trying to be a black student in a white school. I tell them of the white professor who literally patted me on the head and called me a handicapped child who needed special ramps into the highway of academic success. Because I am black. I tell them of the professor who would not talk to me in class even though class participation accounted for most of the grades. Because I am black. I tell them of the fear of soiling my pants as pot-bellied white men in white sheets and hoods gamboled merrily on the lawns of white fraternity houses at 2:00 a.m. while my ancient car threatened to sputter to a stop right before their salivating selves. I was afraid. Because I am black. Deep into the night, the scotch whiskey hissed through the rocks and raced through my arteries to calm my nerve cells and I held my fellow travelers hostage with tales of horror inflicted on me by their forefathers. The shame on their faces was enough reparations for me. There must be a God.

Dinner at the Gaslamp quarter in San Diego. Our dinner hosts have more money than they know what to do with. The prices on each of the appetizers will buy two month’s supply of egusi soup for my entire family. Our hosts push the menu in my face and they say order whatever you want. They show me the wines, with prices that drop my jaw to the floor and they say order what you want. It is a food lover’s heaven if you are from the West and love eating artwork. Me, I am dreaming of a big bowl of hot steaming pounded yam and ogbono soup choking in the wealth of stock fish, smoked fish, cowfoot, tripe, oxtail, and snail bigger than the ears of an elephant. But I am in San Diego, having dinner with wealthy attorneys who want to sell me what I don’t know and I must look sophisticated. I choose “pan-seared escargot and roasted fingerling potato” as my appetizer and “steak au poivre, pan seared 8 oz steak, cognac and white peppercorn sauce, pommes frites” as my entrée. For dessert, I ask for a glass of cognac. My friend, the African-American is moaning his displeasure; he doesn’t like the food and he wants to go to Burger King with me and wrap his gentle fingers around the biggest and juiciest burger that he can find. With French fries. And he wants to wash it down with fresh moonshine (American ogogoro), straight from the plains of St. Petersburg Florida. “Where are my fries?” he wails softly as the expensive artwork that passes for food is placed delicately before us. In the presence of expensive food that tastes like plastic credit cards, my thoughts race and I am thinking of my fate in my old age. Will my American children dump me in an old people’s home to die a slow death from eating alien meals? Will my “assisted living counselors” serve me pounded yam, with egusi and all the trimmings? Or will my meals come in the measured manner that lab rats are fed in biochemistry labs?

We are two Americans and we are going to do brunch and margaritas across the border in Tijuana, Mexico. We shall stop at the restaurant just across the border. They say we may cross the border without visas, without passports. We are Americans they say. All we need is our American driver’s license. I don’t believe it. I carry my American passport just in case my Nigerian accent mocks my claims of alien citizenship. My friend, the blonde one teases me about carrying my passport. She doesn’t have to worry, she is a pretty blonde American, she will travel the world naked and American marines will die defending her right to be naked. I am a different issue altogether. I am American on paper. And I am black.

The trolley takes us rolling past San Diego and gently coughs us up at the border in San Ysidro. I leave America behind just by the bridge where the one-man mariachi band trolls for dollars. My pretty blonde friend holds my hands as the taxi drivers hurl themselves at us hustling for fares. I hold her hand. She is afraid. I am afraid. We are both afraid for different reasons. We eat lunch in Tijuana, a meal that looks like the raw ingredients for rice and beans and stew. A mariachi band comes to our table and we request a song. The bandleader looks at us and asks if we want a song for lovers. We say no, our spouses would not like that. We want a happy song. And they sing for us a sad song.

We take the taxi back to the border. My friend has her driver’s license. I have my driver’s license and my American passport, just in case. When we get to customs, the American asks my friend, “Are you an American?” and she says, “Yes” and waves her driver’s license at him. He waves her into America. But she won’t go, she holds my hands still. She is afraid for me. I wave my driver’s license at the American and he ignores my license. My friend the pretty blonde is still holding my hand hostage when the American asks me, ‘Are you an American?” I hold on to my blonde friend’s hand and I say, “Yep!” and the American says, “Where were you born?” I say, “Lagos, Nigeria.” The American dons a wicked smirk and asks, “When did you get your U.S. citizenship?” and I say, “It has been a long time, I don’t remember, sometimes in the early nineties…” And he goes for what he thinks is the jugular and asks wickedly, “How many stripes are there in the American flag?” My rage wells up from within the bowels of my river of shame, I reach for my American passport in my back pocket and I fling it down on the idiot’s desk and I wail: “What a stupid question! I am not answering that! Here, I am an American, I am a dumb American, here is my passport, are you happy now? America is safer BECAUSE OF YOU! Are you happy now?” My friend the pretty blonde squeezes my hands tightly as if squeezing away my rage. They will arrest me if I don’t control myself. She mutters something about taking an anger management course. The stupid American grins even wider and waves me into America, with a smirk and says “Welcome home!” Welcome home! I am an American. I am a Nigerian. I am a human being. Let me in.

I am happy to leave Tijuana. In Tijuana I saw my past, my present and my future and my heart wept. My conscience died many times as little children, offspring of beggars tugged at my shirtsleeves and heart pleading for quarters. I reached out to hold one, just big enough to be my little boy and he scampered off, running from the alien intimacy and warmth of another human being. I think I shall go home and hug my boy.

So my friend, this is the season of the wandering disease. It has infected me and I must travel all over seeking solace in cold and hot places, looking for answers that elude me at home. Trapped in the grip of this disease that sends my restless soul shivering, I have been to places the beauty of which will haunt me forever. I have been to places, the sadness of which will haunt me forever. Be strong, my good friend. I must leave you again. I am going on this journey to where we came from. They have lampposts that have no lamps. They have telephones that have no voices, and roads with potholes that swallow cars the size of elephants. And everywhere marauders roam the land masquerading as policemen, soldiers, politicians, robbers, dinosaur-size mosquitoes and locusts, robbing and pillaging the sweat of our people. But it is still a beautiful place, the land of my birth. I shall eat simple meals, drink ogogoro from recycled soda bottles and if I am lucky I shall dance on the streets with Rex Lawson and Celestine Ukwu. Wait for me; I shall be back from this journey when my glands break free of the fever of the wandering disease. And I shall come back for you, lion cub. Farewell, lion cub, I shall miss you… And I wrote this song for you. I shall miss you, lion cub.

Now…
it is sun down at the ilo;
follow the dust storm
and you can’t miss the ilo…
the poetess with the flute
chases the masquerade
with her flute…
 
Now…
the flute taps a solo wail
points the masquerade’s feet
to the right address
on this tired, tired, earth.
Now…
Listen, listen to the air
the air is an orchestra
horns insistent
piercing the crisp silence
of an evening gone to bed.
 
Now…
hear the air wail…
the air… phoenix
is a talking drum
can you hear the air?
 
 Now…
listen to this…
the drummer’s insistent beat,
truth lands on concrete
bounces off nonchalant ears
but the truth has landed…
 
 Now…
close your eyes 1967
can you see him
masquerade…
breathing the fumes
of the anesthetic?
 
 Now…
hold this Fanta bottle
of ogogoro
to lips in shock
hold this last stick of Galleon
does the smoke shield your rage?
 
Now…
lean on this last wall
of dreams gone awry
belt out this last solo
song of the masquerade
music of our forefathers…
 
Now…
the trumpet must travel
burrowing through bridges
draped in the morning dew
of dawn… paying toll to no one…
 
And…
the children
they sat at your doorsteps
ears hoping for the footsteps
that will never walk this way again
 
 And…
the children
they sat at your doorsteps
ears hoping for the return
of the trumpet
that sells ogogoro
in Fanta bottles.

 

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