Ikhide

Father, Fighter, Lover

Category: Literature

On beauty and narrative in Jola Naibi’s Terra Cotta Beauty

I enjoyed reading Terra Cotta Beauty, Jola Naibi’s book of short stories. Yes, I enjoyed it a lot; it took me back to Lagos, the land of my birth. It is a quiet little persistent book. As I read, I grew to respect the book before me. The characters are well-developed and unlike the caricatures that characterize the products of poverty porn, they carry themselves with the dignity of thinking albeit long-suffering human beings. There are very few editorial issues in the book, a great feat for a self-published book. As literature goes, this is not what I would call a muscular literary work but it hit my hunger spot. I am happy.

So what is the book about? As far as I can tell, it is about life in Lagos in the nineties and possibly early 200o’s. If you don’t know where Lagos is, you can stop right here, it is okay. There are seven stories in the collection, each connected to each other in a clever and innovative way.TerraReal

Ol’boi, the first story, a thrilling story about family, the violence of robbery and corruption, starts out the collection with great promise:

“They had lived on that street for as long as he could remember. It was a short street that ended in a T-shape at a cement wall that shielded the backyard of another compound on another street. Everyone in the entire neighborhood dumped their rubbish at this end of the street. Very rarely the authorities would clear the trash, but most of the time there was a huge pile of garbage at the end of the street which stunk like rotten eggs.” (p 1)

A Laughing Matter, and Terra-Cotta Beauty, both offer a unique look into the tyranny of military dictatorships and patriarchy and the brave fight against both dysfunctions. They were my two favorite stories in the collection. Terra-Cotta Beauty, the piece that bears the book’s title is a lovely read, with pretty prose like this: “My mother… often smelled of the earth. It was the same matinal smell that my grandmother, who would end up raising me had.” (p 27)

Iridiscent hope is a travelogue of sorts as the main protagonist hawks her hope for a better life in Lagos and in her travels from home of the day to work, exposes the reader to the precariousness of hope, and life in Lagos. It was my least favorite story, it went nowhere fast and it read like reportage from a distracted journalist. By the way, you can read it here online on Africanwriter.com.

Running in the Wrong Direction is a moving commentary on migration, the search for meaning, peace and prosperity in life. It is ultimately a commentary on child labor and the plight of young children who are forced to leave the comfort of home to seek prosperity in the war that is the typical African city, this time, Lagos.

The Fire Starter uses an account of arson to paint a compelling portrait of class struggle. Well done.

The Sacred Geometry of Chance is down to earth African romance, shorn of the mimicry that is much of romance literature by many African authors. It is also a commentary on patriarchy, teen sexuality and pregnancy. It does go on too long and ends strangely, well, it does not end. I loved this line: “Until it jumps into hot water, a frog does not realize that there are two worlds.” (p 117) Now, that is good writing!

There is a good interview of Jola Naibi here. She writes beautifully, several passages in the book are full of gems like “He taught himself to read and write; whenever he saw books, his heart soared.” (p 92). You will not find the unctuous sermons that pass for literature in much of contemporary African literature, feminism, patriarchy, child and marital abuse, blah, blah, blah. She simply writes as she remembers. The issues are not the stories; they are part of the stories’ lives. Nice and refreshing.

Terra Cotta Beauty is not a perfect book. For one thing, it is a bit too restrained for my liking, somewhat of a victim to be liked by all, especially the West. Still, it is a good read; I recommend it highly, especially for teenagers and young adults. Illustrations, perhaps using pencil sketches would have been nice to break up the monotony of text and still my attention deficit disorder. Every now and then, the prose is too clinical, a mechanical clack clack clack of the keyboard – a writer, writing as if unsure of herself. Again, the use of italics for indigenous words rankles. Why capitalize molue in the 21st century? It is an English word, for heaven’s sakes. Google it.

naibi2Naibi deploys impeccable Pidgin English which she promptly italicizes and explains with standard English. I really hate that she does this.

“Wetin dey do you now? (“What is wrong with you?”), his companion spat at him. “You just dey do like person wen don lose im mama, you no hear de tin wey Ol’Boy talk—im say mission accomplished! So why you dey slack now?” (“What’s wrong with you?” “You are acting like someone who has lost his mother. You heard what Ol’Boi said—-mission accomplished! Why are you slacking?”) (p 93)

Again, I don’t like that Naibi italicizes the Pidgin English, and then helpfully translates it, presumably, to Western readers. It is what it is but I prefer this approach to the bastardization of pidgin preferred by Nigerian writers who write primarily for the West’s consumption. A lot is lost in the unnecessary translation. It is perhaps true that the paying audience is in the West and the writer is under a lot of pressure to get as wide an audience as possible, but there are unintended consequences. The writers of the West gained traction in other climes by being relentlessly insular even before the advent of Google. That insularity bred a nagging curiosity in readers. It is counter-intuitive but I suggest strongly that African writers need to find the muscle to be insular, to force Western readers to be curious enough to want to learn about African communities by getting off their duff and doing the research themselves. But then, we are not negotiating from a position of strength. They have the money and the publishing houses. This is why I love Facebook and Twitter; you can’t italicize egusi over there. At least not yet. Don’t mind me jor, Terra Cotta Beauty is a good read. Stop reading me and go buy a copy. Now. It is an order. LOL!

For “Allah Dey” Odunewu: Ikhide, Meet Chekhov

I once wrote some nonsense on Facebook right after my second glass of cognac, the sort that comes easily to me after ogogoro has started making me see tomorrow. It went something like this: “America. Night. The trees lean on the road, limbs gnarled with need, pawing weary cars, leaves whispering, ‘Oga sah! Anything for the boys?’” An impressed white writer who happened to be at home drinking also, asked me: “There is something Chekhovian in your use of language. Do you write short stories and, if so, was Chekhov an influence?”

I had heard of Chekhov, a great white writer who wrote many great things. All African writers are on first name basis with him including those who have never read Chinua Achebe. Over the years I have acquired Chekhov’s books hoping to bone up on them in case I get that all important call from The New Yorker for an interview in which a great legendary writer, say Salman Rushdie, would ask me questions on the post-Chekhovian influences in my profound works. Unfortunately, each time I try to read Chekhov; I fall asleep on his book. It is an embarrassing medical issue. Ben Okri’s books fill me with wonder also, that there are human beings on earth that have managed to finish one, just one of his books. I have all his books and I can assure the world that I have fallen asleep on every one of them, beginning with The Famished Road. Okri is a genius but many of his books are quite simply unreadable. I said it, sue me. Life is too short to be miserable just because you want to brag that you have read Okri.

So when the writer asked me about Chekhov’s influence on my works, I panicked. This man was going to disgrace me today on Facebook with over one thousand pair of amebo eyes watching gleefully. Before I could google Chekhov, my good friends, the writers Olu Oguibe and Obiwu Iwuanyanwu (Obiwu) rushed to my rescue. Well, sort of. They assured him that Ikhide would not know Chekhov from Czechoslovakia, that indeed my drunken words were influenced by ogogoro – my number one influence in life. I am not making this up, here is word for word what Obiwu wrote: “Now dem dey say na Chekhov dey make Ikhide write as im dey write! But no, no be Chekhov at all. Na Chike Offia im next door neighbor for Okpanam dey influence Ikhide im grammar! “Chike Offia! Right after that hurtful but awfully accurate analysis of the degree of my vacuity, my white friend immediately unfriended me on Facebook. Now, thanks to my friends Oguibe and Obiwu, I have no white friends on Facebook. With bad belle friends like those who needs enemies?

It took me exactly two weeks to finish reading Teju Cole’s Open City because every sentence required a visit to Google, all these dead white people that have written wondrous things and played heavenly music. My nightmare is that I will one day meet Teju Cole AND debate him on Alexander Solzhenitsyn and something called the Gulag Archipelago, gulp!

Whenever I am going anywhere stressful, like work, I always take Chinua Achebe’s Thing Fall Apart with me, don’t ask me why. One day, at the hospital, this doctor glances at the book and said casually, “I have read that book!” I was so excited, I almost wept with gratitude, why, a Westerner has actually read the greatest book ever written by a human being who happens to be African. I don’t know any white writer who can name an African writer besides Chinua Achebe. We should call them shallow insular illiterates. I am now studying important dead white writers because this newspaper would like to interview me (yes, I am a superstar, may your bad belle not kill you). If they ask me to talk about my literary influences and I respond truthfully, it would be full of nonsense: “Well, my most powerful literary influence is Achebe, followed by James Ngugi (that’s what we called him before he got confused and started writing in Swahili!). Also, my uncle Elephant taught me about the power of words especially after a very tall tumbler of apeteshie. My mother Izuma, Razor Blade of Nigeria taught me how a woman with the right words can get a tall strapping powerful man like my Papalolo flying across a room whimpering with hurt. And Alade Odunewu (Allah Dey!) and Andy Akporugo and the comics. Fearless Fang used to ride his elephant in Boom. There was Rabon Zollo and Lance Spearman And of course all the njakiri poets I have hung out with on the rugged streets of my village, prattle prattle prattle!” I can just imagine the pen in the interviewer’s hand freezing stiff with shock, her face going, “You are shitting me! YOU don’t know Chekhov?” Now, dear oyinbo interviewer, do you know “Allah de” Odumewu? Nonsense.

 

Essays from exile: The oporoko chronicles

for you Mrs. C!
Princess of  the Earl of Sandwich!
Your eyes are teasing me again…

I am hungry. Very hungry. And hunger drives my brain cells to a certain point of brilliance, that hell-nirvana that my adversaries, and quite a few friends, call stark raving, certified lunacy. And as always happens when hunger places my growling stomach under house arrest, I commence esoteric ruminations, thinking deeply profound thoughts, or as my detractors would say, hallucinating. I am wondering for instance, when will Chinua Achebe, the world’s greatest writer of all times, get the Nobel Prize for discovering the Internet? Achebe lives! Yes, when will that brooding god of the white man’s letters sue the United States Government for stealing his ideas about a world without boundaries? Achebe lives! It is a poorly kept secret that Chinua Achebe discovered the Internet but the white man took credit for it. Achebe lives!

The white man has what we in Africa would call chutzpah if we were Jewish. I can’t believe that the white man is claiming that he discovered the Internet. Hell, any dolt who has read Achebe’s legendary book Things Fall Apart will readily come to one incontrovertible conclusion: The Internet was a deep dark secret in Achebe’s fecund brain way before the CIA became three measly letters in Washington DC ’s bureaucratic alphabet soup. Alphabet soup! Sandwiches! Today is Monday! Yesterday was Sunday and on Friday, my lover cooked me a pot of fresh fish peppersoup and I forgot to eat it on Saturday because I hid it so well on Friday. I hid my lover’s peppersoup from my weekend friends, pretend food critics, interlopers whose job it is to fawn over my lover’s cooking while eating it all!nigerian-soup-ewedu-egusi

I am hungry. Very hungry. Where did I keep my lover’s peppersoup? I must be at that age when I must write down the exact location of all the good stuff that I have stashed away in all my hiding places. I know exactly what I have hidden from my friends, my children and my lover – assorted delicacies lovingly cooked for me by my lover, bars of ice cream, cookies, US dollars… But first I must remember the locations of all my hiding places. I tell you, the aging process is a humbling, if not humiliating experience. In the beginning of the beginning of the twilight of my life’s journey, I am wondering, what goes first after the flight of youth; sex or memory? It is a brilliant question, and I know the answer to the riddle. But first I must go fetch my answer from its hiding place. Along with my lover’s fresh fish peppersoup.

I am hungry. Very hungry. And profound thoughts come rushing at me like large Americans assaulting McDonalds’ at lunch time. I am thinking of lunch. White folks have sandwiches and they have recipes. Everything is calculated. My mother doesn’t do recipes. Never did. But man, she doled out pots of heavenly miracles from the bowels of that “kitchen” behind our compound. What passed for the kitchen of my childhood was severely allergic to things like measuring spoons and recipe books. My mother doesn’t do recipes. Never did. She cooked just like she lived her life; she made things up and it was a glorious mess. That delightfully chaotic tradition of making things up as life demands was passed on to my lover. For which I am immensely grateful. My lover doesn’t do recipes. Never did. Our kitchen in America does allow for fancy notions like measuring spoons, cutting boards and recipes. But my lover regards those notions er kitchen utensils as decorations. Show me a Nigerian woman who cooks egusi soup with a recipe and I’ll show you a white woman who garnishes her ogbono soup with carrots and cucumbers. No, my lover doesn’t do recipes, perish that thought. And like my mother’s cooking, my lover’s cooking reminds me every day that it would be sheer murder for her to divorce me.  If she deserts my sorry ass, who else will cook for me in the grand tradition of our ancestors?  I know this Nigerian dude who was embroiled in a bitter, nasty, divorce proceeding with his wife. He was willing to pay child support, alimony and all other forms of divorce ransom just to be free of his miserable marriage. Under one condition. He requested the court to grant him ogbono soup alimony from his wife. He made a strangely compelling case that his soon to be ex-wife had a moral, if not legal obligation to continue to provide him ogbono soup since he had become addicted to that sauce of gods. The judge granted him ogbono soup support on one condition – he had to provide his own pounded yam. He died a few months later of food poisoning. The ex-wife was never charged with murder – apparently the fool ate all the evidence before he died.

I am hungry. Very hungry. And I am thinking of the sandwich, that veritable substrate of multitaskers. I know now why the white man landed on the moon several moons before my people. It was all thanks to the sandwich. The white man discovered the sandwich. What has the sandwich got to do with the moon? I don’t know, I am hungry and hunger causes me to hallucinate. All I know is this: when the white man wanted to go to the moon, he created the sandwich. The sandwich fosters progress. You see, you can eat a sandwich and do other things at the same time, like drive, think, use the bathroom… Show me any Nigerian who landed on the moon after a meal of pounded yam and ogbono soup and I’ll show you someone suffering from the terminal stages of malaria. I can happily say that the Nigerian will never go to the moon. Because the pounded yam is like the jealous wife that our ancestors nicknamed “The Only One.” After a good meal, Americans like to indulge in a scrumptious dessert, like chocolate cake or ice cream. After a good meal of pounded yam, the only dessert you want between your lips is a toothpick. The pounded yam is delicious history posing as the present tense. The pounded yam was meant for farmers and warriors, not us, sedentary civil servants. We eat like farmers; we have no farms. But I love the pounded yam, nonetheless.

stockfis cod body-500x500It would be nice if our meals came in the form of sandwiches so we can get some serious work done and stuff our faces at the same time. But they do not. Who has ever heard of rice and stew sandwich? What would the bread be made of, scented banana leaves? Who would want to eat such a creation? Jeff, my American friend loves to drive his jalopy, eat a corned beef sandwich, play with his smartphone and talk to me while ogling scantily clad girls preening on the streets. All at the same time. Yet, he has had only four serious car accidents this year. Let me just observe that it would be extremely unwise to do anything else while attacking a mound of pounded yam and ogbono soup. Certainly not while driving. Indeed, the last Nigerian that tried to drive while eating pounded yam and ogbono soup did not live to repeat that foolishness. He died with his car wrapped around an Iroko tree. He died happy though. The dude died with a beautiful grin on his face, with a healthy ball of pounded yam coated in  egusi soup in each fist. Now, my people, that is how to die. After his death, his people went to the dibia, the wise man up the hills. And the dibia said that the fool deserved to die because he allowed his enemies to feed him pounded yam while driving his dilapidated Volkswagen Beetle on Nigeria’s death-traps euphemistically called roads.

I love ogbono soup, especially one stocked with chunks of smoked fish, tripe, ox-tail, cowfoot, snail and goat meat and stockfish. Panla! Oporoko! Stockfish!  Dried cod, aka stockfish comes from Norway and is compelling proof that the Norwegians are light-skinned descendants of our great country Nigeria. Stockfish has a distinct odor that some of its detractors have described with adjectives that are unfortunately unprintable. It is no secret that we Nigerians consume stockfish in great quantities. We normally cook it for a long time to soften it otherwise it would do great damage to your teeth. If you have teeth. I love stockfish, smell and all. It is an acquired taste, I must admit. And the smell, oh, the fragrance lingers on like a bad relationship and it clings to you all the way into corporate board rooms: Hear the white man ask “What is that interesting smell? Is that your cologne?”

I was in secondary school when the Nigerian Civil War ended. That war claimed a million people, thanks to the Western world’s generous insistence on supplying both sides with weapons of mass destruction. After the war, the West, eager to assuage its guilt in supervising a pogrom, embarked on a “rehabilitation” effort, a grand initiative which involved flooding us with bales of stockfish, bags of wheat and tons of powdered milk. I did not understand at the time why I was being “rehabilitated.” My side of Nigeria did not see a whole lot of that unfortunate war, but I was happy to humor white do-gooders by happily dining on tough strips of stockfish dried milk and “wheat” foo-foo. I quickly learnt that I had bad teeth plus I was lactose intolerant. I also found out that I could do a mean 100 yard sprint to the latrine after ingesting powdered milk. Every ten minutes. I should probably sue the white man for feeding me tubs of lactose intolerance. Except that the evidence is long gone down the latrines of my childhood.

As I was saying, it is impossible to do anything else after feasting on a mound of pounded yam. Well, anything else, except sleep. You have no doubt heard the story of the newly-wed Nigerian lady who complained to her mother that she was always physically exhausted because her husband was in the habit of demanding (and apparently getting) sex every night. Her mother assured her that if she fed her husband a mound of pounded yam every evening, the horny goat would go to sleep! It apparently worked because I can report that they are still happily married. Only in Nigeria. American women feign headaches to get out of having sex. Our women drug us to an impotent stupor with great balls of pounded yam!

I don’t take lunch to work. Well I did once. And the experience was a disaster. You see, I don’t care much for the sandwich. The whole concept of stuffing meat between slices of bread, I find quite fascinating. Not so our children. I can honestly say that our children are not Nigerians. I believe that my children were probably switched at birth; they have no genetic affinity for pounded yam. Instead they treat hamburgers and hotdogs with the reverence that I normally reserve for a bowl of piping hot rice and goat meat stew. Now, that is a meal! I wish it would come in a sandwich so I can get some work done in the office during my lunch break. My fellow workers come to work with their lunch boxes. They arrange their lunches in these cute little boxes like intricate art work – there is the sandwich, the potato chips, the carrots and the apple and sometimes the cookie (biscuit!). One day I brought my lunch to work in two Ovaltine tins. Ovaltine tins? Well, you are probably aware that the Nigerian is the world’s greatest recycler. Let me just say this: It is highly recommended that you do not assume that the ice cream container that resides in a Nigerian’s refrigerator houses ice cream. The jar container may have contained ice cream once upon a time but today, the real contents may be egusi, ogbono, peppersoup… I must be really hungry. Sigh!

Well, this one day, I took my lunch to work in two Ovaltine tins. One tin held my pounded yam and the other housed my ogbono soup. Man, my ogbono soup was chock full of strips of goat meat, smoked fish, stock fish, ox tail, cow foot, tripe, and snails the size of an elephant’s ear. Everything was fine in the office until I tried to microwave the ogbono soup. Someone in the office must have had major issues with the fragrance ensuing from my ogbono soup because that evil someone called the 911 emergency line. The ensuing fracas was a great theatrical production. You would have thought that terrorists were attacking America again. Specialized crisis teams swooped down on me and my ogbono soup; we are talking Hazardous Materials (HazMat) teams, fire trucks, ambulances, and grief counselors (some idiot apparently thought someone had died inside our office kitchenette). I would say more about this humiliating experience but my lawyers have asked me to refer all questions to them until the conclusion of a pending lawsuit where I am asking for a few hundred million dollars as compensation for the assault on my dignity. And I want my Ovaltine tin of ogbono soup back from the HazMat lab. Those assholes took my ogbono soup that houses my snails! It took a lot of ingenuity to smuggle those snails past Homeland Security at the airport.

So, acting on the advice of my lawyers, I don’t take lunch to work anymore. I do miss chomping on cow foot, ox tail and stockfish at lunch time. I don’t know what it is about the fragrance of stockfish that drives ordinarily reasonable Americans insane. I used to have an American room-mate, George Wallace, a quiet kid from rural Alabama; a kid used to chomping on chitterlings, the African-American cousin to ngwon-gwon that delectable dish of the gods that materializes from the offal of cows! Well, George Wallace was my room-mate until that fateful day when he walked in on me boiling stockfish. He walked out of my life in disgust, sputtering the sage words: “Damn! That shit stinks!” I love stockfish, but I won’t lie, that shit stinks! I know a highly revered Nigerian professor here in the United States who has banned the cooking of stockfish in his home. Apparently, his neighbors confronted him about a certain smell coming from his kitchen on certain evenings and accused him of trying to bring down the property value of their homes. One day, he overheard one of his neighbors thinking out aloud about calling Immigration on his illegal ass. So he stopped cooking stockfish and switched to eating sandwiches instead. Who wan die?egusi soup2

I am at work. I am hungry. I don’t want a sandwich. I remember; my lover is at home today! Today is her day off! There is a god! Suddenly a force jerks me up, hands me my car keys and my cellphone and shoves me out the door of my office. I am going home to eat! I wave my Blackberry at my colleagues, “I am going home for lunch! I’ll be right back! Call me on my cellphone if you need me! The brunette peers at me from the top of her horn-rimmed glasses like an all-knowing owl and her eyes tell me what she is thinking:

 “What is it with black men and sex? Can’t even wait to get home in the evening! Sheesh! Lawd have mercy! No wonder they never landed on the moon!”

I don’t care! I am going home to eat real food. Real food! Good sex! Who cares? Same difference!

My lover meets me at the door. She doesn’t seem too excited to see me!

  • Wetin you dey do for house? Why you nor call say you dey come house, abi dem don sack you again?
  • I dey hungry!
  • Dem nor get sandwich for una office?
  • I say I dey hungry!
  • Wetin u go chop!
  • Anything! Anything wen nor be sandwich!

I am hunched over heaping helpings of my lover’s cooking: fresh fish peppersoup, jollof rice, garnished with delectable strips of goat meat, tripe, ox tail, stockfish and snails the size of an elephant’s ears. Life is good. For one hour I am living an analog life in delightful defiance of the chaos of a digital world that was forced on us by thinkers like Chinua Achebe, people with over-sized brains. The delicacies of Africa soothe my stomach and dull my senses and I am now thinking rational albeit mundane thoughts. And I am thinking… What is all this about Chinua Achebe and the Internet? Did Philip Emeagwali really claim to be father of the Internet? Hmmmm! Did we pay our mortgage this month? What about last month?  My lover’s eyes hover over me, caring but anxious. She warns me about sauce dripping on to my white shirt. She worries, if I stain my shirt, I would have to change it and what would the amebos at work think – you went home to get “some” at lunch time! Who cares? My stomach just had sex! We are happy! Tell the amebos to go munch on a sandwich!

Epilogue – For Mamaput!

I wake up
deep in the bliss for the ignorant.
I pat my great stomach,
try to still the little lions
roaring away their message.

Lunch time!
Relax lions, I say
Your cage, my belle,
nor be sound proof!

Or do you insist on disgracing me
before these disinfected lords?
Well if you insist,
meet mama put, nomad,
hotel on ten toes,
magician-owner of a zillion hat tricks
that thrill the stomach’s heart.

Help me down, will you? she asks.
I love the smell of rice trapped in scented leaves.
And the bovine and Aquarian secrets
trapped in their own stews
are my delight!

Mama put
I hope all your particulars are correct,
I growl in mock cop style,
the style that warns molue driver
that particulars will never be correct
save that naira note
is completely lost
amidst the said particulars.
she replies in mock danfo driver fashion
resignation and hopelessness
all over her face.
I go try!

OK Mama put, put roun’about!
(that is the cow’s intestines for you)
put towel!
(tripe for you)

Put ponmo!
(that is the hide for you, very delicious!)
Mama put
your kidneys are too costly!
OK put one. One I say!
Abi na you go pay? What of your liver dem?
I hope dem nor rotten today?
Put one!

Cow leg? Cow’s legs, ke! Not today!
Tomorrow maybe. These legs are becoming too costly!
And besides they could be carcinogenic.
You know these cows certainly go places with those legs!

Mama put, how’s The Head of State today?
(that is the fish’s head for you, really delicious I tell you!)
Our Head of State dey, he’s fine, she replies coyly
OK just one!
Now, how much be my bill?
Three thousand Naira! Mamaput! You wan buy house
wit my money! Crook! Dreamer! Elemu!
Here’s your one thousand ojare!
If you don’t like my money give am to polis!

Notes:

The sandwich is a food item typically consisting of two slices of bread between which are laid one or more layers of meat, vegetable, cheese, or other fillings, together with optional or traditionally provided condiments, sauces, and other accompaniments. The sandwich was named after John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, an 18th-century English aristocrat, although it is unlikely to have been invented by him. It is said that Lord Sandwich was fond of this form of food because it allowed him to continue gambling while eating. The name of the earldom comes from that of the English village of Sandwich in Kent —from the Old English Sandwic, meaning “sand place”.

Source: Wikipedia.org, the free encyclopedia

 

America: The trees sing of home…

trees3America. Morning, the skies have dandruff, the trees are draped in white lace, there must be a wedding somewhere. Dawn peers at falling leaves, anxieties dyed deep into trees, beehives in the woods, masquerades, moody deities, mourning the day’s war. The skies weep white chalk, trees, raging totems, gnash the teeth of wailing children, and gnarled limbs wag effete fists at weeping women. Across the gulf in the woods the trees stare at the car, glum. They know. The heart is packed and ready. They don’t like this leaving.

Grey is the restlessness of trees in the fall, breaking the waters of the birth of the coming leaves, victors of the nights of fading lives. Today is a portrait; lovely are the colors of fall draping the shoulders of trees. Brown gods mug for the speed camera. The skies have eyes. I love you. Do you believe the wind’s rush, do you? The trees, brown ancestors, hug me close. Far from you, wood-warmth gives me goosebumps.

America. Night. Ogun’s axe shreds trees. Sango roars thunder on electric cables drowning under felled green. The apocalypse murders great intentions. The trees lean on the road, limbs gnarled with need, pawing weary cars, leaves whispering, “Oga sah! Anything for the boys?” America. Under smirking trees, panhandling speed cameras brandish brown envelopes, weapons cooing at the impatient.  The trees shield rage from the seer’s smirk. What is here has eaten the sweat of our rivers. And hope waves goodbye to the way it never was.

America. June 12. The road. Trees, green with envy, crouch, limbs cocked. Anxieties grit teeth in rage, hunting those who sold us mirages as bridges. Light races to life, and broken trees are mulch. Anxieties are dark roads, tree limbs, sentry glowering at lorries pregnant with someone’s dreams. Freak-clean highways etch sharp perspectives into post-card pretty skies. We marvel at the contrived beauty of force-planted trees. America. Trees, wise, mute, massed tight, leaf-green marble walls, racing dreams to the skies; arches, soothing vessels to mean salt-mines.

America. The sea calls. Wet waves, eyes of the salty mist, roar sweet thunder to fire. Trees lean on cars: “Pure water! Oga buy pure water!” In vain wet trees wring leaves dry. Under leaky canopies the rain sprays leaves on the foreheads of dancing cars.  Spring is here, I think, the trees are naked little boys chanting lustily “Mama anatago! O yo yo!” Trees1

America.  See the trees wearing a gele a minute, fallen gele on the dance floor brown odes to a wretched tailor. Dance with me, trees. Rituals rise, mumble curses and stumble over ablutions. Cuddle the morning. Roads carve catacombs into hills. Bored, trees loll, pride of lions. We are savages, we who nuke the world with unmanned drones and hypocrisy.

America. Morning. Rains drape trees in wet gloom-blankets. Glum lamp posts glare at autumn frog-marching the weary to winter’s chilly depths. And trees wipe brows with leaves. The sun streams through cold trees. Light races chills to winter. In the dying moon’s grin life lives on in the grief of the living departed. Did we not say this is not us?

America. Drop dead gorgeous day in my village. Windows frame the trees picture perfect. This is a day for the living. America took a shower at dawn. Squeaky clean trees shake wet auburn tresses and shower me with dew-drops. America is happy.

America. Pretty tonight. The trees, moody dominatrices of the ice storm lay out nightgowns and prepare to sleep. I’ll go lie down beside them. She who must be obeyed nags me out of dreams to fill hers.

America. Pretty in black. Shy trees peek out of Andy Warhol’s demons. Light races to life, broken trees mulch. Anxieties are dark roads, tree limbs, sentry glowering at lorries pregnant with someone’s dreams.

America. The seasons change. Always. Fall crouches in the trees, aching for falling brown leaves. The heart aches for you. Ink wears sleepy, moody trees. I wear you, road, like my favorite jeans, I know you, road. at the end of your dreams, she waits for me. Night has gone to bed with her issues. In this sun-soaked room, trees shield anxieties from life. And solitude is warmth for the weary.

America. Out in the mute woods, our trees are twerking, look at the spring in those moves. They must have had some last night. I am happy for them. Across the empty gulf in the woods the trees stare at the car, glum. They know. The heart is packed and ready. They don’t like this leaving.

Trees2America. Taking a walk through the little path to go see my mother’s people. Sleepy trees brush their teeth with chewing sticks. iPads in trees record our every move. By the water tap that spews only promises, trees clutch chewing sticks and gossip about their night. Dawn is sleepy. Lamp posts hold shy lights up to the moonlight. Trees hug sleepy skies. And homesick planes sail solo, fireflies roaming dark plains of exile. And you, did you sleep well?

 

[Guest Blog Post] Mike Ekunno: Foreign Gods, Inc. – Modern story of old conflicts

TITLE: Foreign Gods Inc.
AUTHOR: Okey Ndibe
PUBLISHER: Soho Press Inc.
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2014
PAGES: 332.

Foreign Gods Inc., Okey Ndibe’s second novel had its Nigerian release of sorts in December 2014, when its author had readings in Nigeria. The period coincided with a spike in the book’s ratings as it made many Best Books of 2014 lists. Now is therefore as germane a time as any other time to take a look at what the novel offers and l did that in the Christmas holiday ambience of Eastern Nigeria where much of the story is set.

foreign godsThe novel is about lke Uzondu’s scheme to steal the figurine of Ngene, his village, Utonki’s once powerful war deity and sell to a New York gallery from which the book derives its title. A degree-holder cab driver who had been serially scorned by American employers on account of his “accent”, Ike has fallen on hard times and the exotic heist appears just about perfect for a bail out. What would have acted as a moral fetter to the theft had been removed by the deity’s redundancy since “the pacification of Africa” by the colonialists. Ike arrives home ostensibly to visit with his widowed and long-neglected mother. He steps into the triangular entanglements woven by the clashes of the African traditional religion of his uncle, Osuakwu, the new Pentecostal faith of his mother and sister and the old orthodox faith he left behind. His proseletising nuclear family has made a switch to the venal brand of Pentecostalism which brainwashes lke’s plain mother into enmity with his idol-worshipping uncle and grandmother. The returnee lke brimming with American iconoclasm will have none of the old wife’s tale of witchcraft and is bent on fraternising with his uncle and granny. He visits Osuakwu at the shrine and partakes in the ceaseless flow of drinking and banter all the while eyeing his quarry. The night before his departure, he strikes and steals the sculpture of the deity but an unexpected hurdle awaits back in the US.

Foreign Gods is acknowledged as a heist story. But the heist only provides the narrative canvas against which Ndibe weaves a rich tapestry with spurs to immigrant identity crises, Nigerian corruption, Christian ideological differences with African traditional religion and the mercenary arm of Nigerian Pentecostalism. Like most heist stories, the reader wonders at what point the scheme will come unstuck. This forms the bait under-girding the narrative suspense and sustaining the reader’s interest. Reading Foreign Gods, you wonder whether Ike can pull off the heist successfully or there’d be a snafu. The latter has half a dozen means that could bring it about. Funding the trip is one. The deity fighting off the venal adventure is another. And then there could be other hurdles ranging from the Department of Customs’ sentinel for antiquities to the gallery developing cold feet. With other deities going for six figures at the New York gallery, the expected windfall is sufficient aphrodisiac for lke to brave these real and imagined obstacles. The author is able to bait the reader successfully till the end of the story. This is more than can be said for many Nigerian novelists who write as if they have recused their art from global standards of good story telling. Being suspenseful is not the work’s only plus. It tells a straightforward tale with a dominant protagonist who we follow without the distraction of too many sub plots, flashbacks and flash forwards. The main flashback to Rev. Stanton’s pioneer missionary work in Utonki is masterfully handled and made integral to the narrative mainstream. This contributes to the book’s uncomplicated enjoyment.

Stylistically, Foreign Gods is a reader’s delight once allowance is made for its grandiose diction. The author just manages to skirt the boundaries of bombast with his regular recourse to second degree synonyms. Given Ndibe’s pedigree in creative non-fiction, this is to be expected. It should have fallen to his editors to step down some of the diction and syntax to fiction’s mellow precincts. On pg. 271 we read: “Yet, his uncle was not only much older, he was also a man of meager musculature.” On pg. 295: “A sally of stench hit Ike’s nostrils the moment he opened the door to his apartment. It left a ghoulish impression, reminded him of feculent silt.” But it is not all bombast. Ndibe’s prose sings through the novel. On pg. 15:“Ahead, a long line of cars shat a smashed omelet of red brake lights.” And on pg. 146: “Why had he allowed his mother to drag him out to this shabby, ramshackle establishment and to peddle him to a lineup of women driven to insane distraction by dreams of American matrimony and dollars?”

For an African writer, the book is sparse on metaphors but in the dialogue at its Nigerian setting, we see a lot of the inventiveness associated with reporting non-traditional English speakers. A previous recriminatory critique of the novel by Isaac Attah Ogezi had matched a lot of Ndibe’s translated Igbo dialogues to Achebe’s masterful transliterations. This will be addressed at the end of this review. For now, it suffices to observe that the concern of the author, an acclaimed wordsmith in his own right, with grammatical propriety or lack thereof in his characters shows forth in the portrayals of the grammatical inadequacies of Pastor Uka and Chief Iba, the local government chairman in Utonki. This is a subtle sign of authorial intrusion as Ndibe tars those characters he wishes to villainise first with bad English. Foreign Gods’ nay Ndibe’s villains invariably speak bad English. If not, Chief Iba’s grammatical deficiencies would beggar credulity for a man who passed through secondary school as Ike’s classmate. This is aside the unlikelihood of two Igbo pals chatting in English Language in their village homes. Also, whatever may be said for Pentecostal preachers, bad grammar is surely one of their least deficiencies. These Ndibe’s detours to social commentary will be fully examined under message. While yet on style, Foreign Gods’ obvious Americanese is not necessarily wrong as it shows consistency in this throughout the book. However when viewed through a strictly Naija-centric prism, this becomes an issue since the default mode in our educational system and publishing house styles is the UK English. But nobody can blame Ndibe for America’s muscle in a uni-polar world which obtrudes every one of Uncle Sam’s ways including spellings into our daily lives. However young and uncritical Nigerian readers are bound to get their spellings mixed up with this insidious American linguistic flotilla. If the book gets away with its obvious Americanese, it cannot escape its Nigerianese. Standing fan/mirror are erroneously used instead of stand fan/mirror (see pp. 44, 95, 260.). Also zinc-roofed is used instead of corrugated iron sheet roofing (See pp.90, 275.).

okeygoodMessage-wise, Foreign Gods is, maybe, the fictional extension of its author’s well-known pet peeves. Ndibe is perhaps, Nigeria’s most polemical op-ed writer. His tirades against an underwhelming Nigerian state are well known. It would be inconceivable for such a person to pen fiction in which his real life concerns were not reflected. There’s yet no universal consensus around fiction’s role, even duty, to purvey a message but even art for art’s sake is a message on its own. It is how the message is mediated in a work of art that separates the amateur from the virtuoso. Ndibe does not spare the corrupt Nigerian system in Foreign Gods. Ike’s home coming to pilfer Ngene provides the perfect setting for the reader to experience Nigeria through the protagonist. And Ndibe did not disappoint. Corruption is what welcomes every visitor to Nigeria right from the airport and Ndibe emblazons this in both Ike’s arrival and departure. The customs and immigrations desks brazenly ask for bribes and display mannerlessness. However, the salient aspect of bribery serving as penalty for criminal infraction may have been unwittingly portrayed in Ike’s importation of commercial quantity gift items and seeking to export a piece of antiquity without license. Both are offenses under the law but instead of having the law take its course, its human agents in Nigeria privatise the criminal justice system. The fact that Ike was committing an offence but nonetheless feeling sanctimonious towards bribe-taking officials, is perhaps, one of the ironies of Nigeria’s corruption conundrum. The privatisation of punishment through bribe collection may therefore not be altogether misplaced in so far as it acts as marginal disincentive to crime. But the economic importance of bribery can wait for another forum. However, the same thinly-veiled social commentary on demerits without a thought spared for merits is discernible in the characterisation of Pastor Uka, the Pentecostal pastor, without any redeeming feature. Without going outside to purloin positive roles of Pentecostal ministries, is it not within the possibility threshold of the novel’s plot to imagine that Pastor Uka could have played some good roles in giving Ike’s mother some emotional stilts to make meaning of her miserable existence? In any case, not being imbeciles, she and the other proselytes to the new sect were fully compos mentisin respect of value judgements about their old Roman Catholicism and mercenary Pentecostalism. Another school of thought may hold that Ike has little moral grounds to despise a religious community that had provided a support system (for whatever it is worth) around his hapless mother while he made out with American gold-digging vixens. Again this channels the pot-calling-kettle-black conundrum of Ike’s airport experiences with the Customs.

No review of Foreign Gods can afford to overlook Isaac Attah Ogezi’s critique. In his deceptively-titled: “On the Fringes of Existence: the Immigrant Question in Ndibe’s Foreign Gods Inc.”,Ogezi went to great lengths to show similarities in phraseology and use of adages between passages in Foreign Gods and Chinua Achebe’s works. Ndibe in his riposte dismissed Ogezi’s critique as “jejune” saying that most of the expressions belong to the public domain in the lgbo comity of adages and expressions. After reading the novel, neither accuser nor accused would be totally wrong. While nobody can accuse Ndibe of plagiarism, what may be at issue here is a case of literary conduction with Achebe. This is the literary equivalent of the phenomenon in Physics whereby a piece of iron develops magnetism after being stroked in the magnetic field of a magnet. Ndibe enjoyed mental and physical affinity with the late literary icon and it is not inconceivable that the mentor spat into the protégé’s pen’s mouth, to paraphrase another Igbo expression. Plagiarism that is not of exact words can be tricky as thoughts cannot be plagiarised. Also proverbs, adages and sayings come in standard forms but when translating to English, differences should be noticed between an earlier work and a later one. Achebe’s classic trilogy has almost entered public domain status and many African writers unconsciously write like him. But nobody should give the impression that all there are to the smorgasbord of Igbo colloquialisms don’t go beyond:“am l speaking with water in my mouth” and “slapping thunder into one’s eyes”.

Mike Ekunno is a freelance book editor and creative writer. Mike writes fiction for fun and creative non fiction for rage. Only search engines have called him a poet which elicits a smirk from him. His writings have berthed in The Transnational, The Hamilton Stone Review, The African Roar Anthology 2013, Warscapes, bioStories, BRICKrhetoric, Dark Matter Journal, Cigale Literary Magazine, Thrice Fiction Magazine, Middle Gray Magazine, Miracle e-zine, Sentinel Literary Quarterly, Ascent Aspirations Magazine, The Muse, Bullet Pen and Storymoja, the last two coming with wins in continent-wide contests. He enjoys Old Testament stories when not reading creatively or writing

Good night, Ginger…

Ginger is dead. Ginger died just before bedtime. We were devastated. Our children, they wailed and they wailed and they wailed, they would not be consoled. Our household poured ashes on herself and everywhere was cold as warmth fled in hot pursuit of Ginger’s beautiful spirit. We called our friends to come help us with yet another rite of passage. Our friends rushed by in the night to comfort us and to take the children away from our house, the pantheon of death. Heartbroken, our children piled into our friends’ minivan, the one with the DVD player mounted on its ceiling. Grief brings so much sadness out of children and they lean on creature comforts for succor.  Our son took his teddy bear, our other son took his PlayStation videogame, our daughter took her laptop and our other daughter took her pretty dresses to go play house over at our friends’ house. Our friends waved us goodbye and they said, don’t worry, the children will be alright, tomorrow they will have fun, they will go to the mall and they will go to the playground that comforts sad children. And the children’s smiles strolled past tear-stained cheeks; this is one promise that will be kept. And my wife and I, we stayed behind to prepare Ginger for the final journey. Children should never participate in the rituals of death. It is not nice. And it is taboo.

 Ginger is dead. Ginger looked nice in death, finally at peace from a restless, restless world. My wife and I, we slept the sleep of travelers carrying a ship of problems on our teeny chests. Come dawn, I slipped out of sleep and my lover’s arms and stepped out of the house to wait for the pall bearers. They will come for Ginger and I can only watch the beginning of the journey. I will not go with Ginger. We live in America but we are Nigerians and our customs die hard. Elders don’t go to the burial ground. The pall bearers will come for Ginger and I shall go back inside to my lover and the rest of our life’s challenges. Life goes on. The rumble of the truck’s engine announces the coming of the pall bearers, dispatch riders of the final journey. The truck rumbles to a stop at our house and wordlessly, two pall bearers step out, two princes of the age group that buries people and their garbage. They say not a word to me and as silently as they come they leave with Ginger. The darkness swallows my sighs. I have seen many deaths. I have seen many births. Been there, done that. But this one hurts because our children hurt. The seasons change and the seasons change and after a while you get used to the changing of the seasons. Been there, done that. But this one hurts because our children hurt. I step back in the house and I think I need a stiff drink but it is just dawn, who drinks in America at dawn? I shall miss Ginger. But old men don’t think about these things. What if your emotions betray your hurt and you cry who will pay the fines to greedy elders? I can’t afford a fine; hell, I haven’t paid my mortgage this month.

Ginger is dead. I step into our bedroom. My life’s companion is sitting up waiting for me. She is not happy. She should be sad. And she is sad. Because Ginger is gone. She asks: Did the trash truck come already, I was asleep. Yes, I say. Did you take out the trash? Yes, I say. Yes, the trash truck came. Did they take Ginger? Yes, they took Ginger. Listen to me, she says, this is the last time those children will have pets in this house, do you hear me? We are Africans, we are not white people! I am tired of burying rats! Ginger was not a rat, I wail, grief overwhelming my judgment, Ginger was a gerbil! Same difference, she counters, Ginger was a rat! I am tired of burying pets, she moans, America is hard enough without pets, no more fish, no more rats, no more gerbils, no more hamsters! And the day you bring a dog into this house, that day you have chosen between me and an animal!

Ginger is dead. In the darkness, I hold on to my lover hoping for the sound of Ginger rolling his wheel in his cage once my lover’s rage stops rumbling. I need a drink but it is too early in America for a drink.

 

 

 

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

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

– Uche Nduka in an interview with Uche Peter Umez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Professor Pius Adesanmi

Winner, the Penguin Prize for African Writing

Author of You’re Not a Country, Africa!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wish you successful deliberations in this conference.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this is really beautiful:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A poet?” someone said.

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

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

#GBAM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okey Ndibe’s Foreign Gods, Inc.: Of moral absolutism and fallen gods

foreign godsIf I had words, I would tell you stories that would make the wind weep.

         – Foreign Gods, Inc. Okey Ndibe

There is a particularly farcical, definitely quixotic misadventure that Professor Wole Soyinka narrates in his memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn. In  the late seventies, convinced that the Ori Olokun, a bronze artifact needed to be rescued from Brazil and returned home to Nigeria, Soyinka set about the “rescue” with hilarious results. He goes to Brazil and manages to bring home what turns out to be a fake, clay replica of the real deal. The real Ori Olokun was cooling its heels, under lock and key, in an air-conditioned museum in London. The farce is entertainingly re-narrated by Matt Steinglass in this brutal but entertaining review of Soyinka’s memoir.

Foreign Gods, Inc., Okey Ndibe’s new thriller of a fiction relives the farce in reverse. This time, Ike Uzondu, the protagonist, a highly educated Nigerian immigrant living a life he detests as a near-bankrupt, somewhat alcoholic cab driver in New York decides to go to his ancestral home in Nigeria, steal the totem of the god Ngene, “that ancient god of war named after a moody mud-colored river” and return to America in triumph where presumably Mark Gruels an art dealer would willingly pay a huge sum of money for it.  Things do not end well, but you will have to read the book, you will enjoy this well-paced thriller. It is good writing and anyone that has followed Ndibe will not be disappointed. In Foreign Gods, Inc. Ndibe proves to be a master story-teller. Good for him. On the Internet, and everywhere the written word resides, Ndibe rules the waves of Nigerian social commentary. A superb writer with a keen social conscience, his scathing essays drive Nigeria’s thieving ruling class up the walls of their stolen mansions. Whenever he visits Nigeria, it is unusual that he is not accosted by the goons of  the ruling class du jour. Few know however that Ndibe is also a fiction writer who has one novel, Arrows of Rain under his belt. You should read Foreign Gods, Inc.; it is an important, engaging, and fun addition to literature.

There are many reasons to like Foreign Gods, Inc. From the first page, Ndibe employs many literary tricks to hold the reader’s fickle attention to the end. A great first chapter sprints confidently into the second and so on to create a well-paced book that managed to keep my attention away from the neediness of social media. Ndibe has a fine mind, and a social conscience; from Babylon to Africa, Ndibe’s voice rises to a roar of rage at his ancestors’ condition. Ndibe is Achebe’s Obierika, endlessly thinking about these things, he interrogates both the material and the spiritual, what some might call superstition. And he does it with the grace of someone imbued with enough self-confidence to defend his ancestors’ dignity and eroding way of life. Foreign Gods, Inc. functions as social commentary, and examines, in a counter-intuitive way, the role of the African intellectual in the mess that is today’s Africa. Think about it, Soyinka wanted to return the Ori Olokun from its air-conditioned vault to a life of certain destitution where museums can be filthy, empty rooms attended to by termites; Ike wanted to return home to steal an artifact and sell to the white man. To hell with moral absolutism. Man must wack. The farce lives.

For Ndibe’s Foreign Gods, Inc., the subtext is greed, we are selling our gods, no, we have sold our gods. His rage is coolly turned on Nigeria. We see a Nigeria ravaged by rank consumerism and organized religion, especially the new Christianity of “prosperity” churches. Her people, poor and rich, are thus united by a crushing poverty – of spirit and ideas (see “healing mystery lake video”). Ndibe weeps over a dying world and seems helpless as alien gods and thieving pastors rifle through the remains of a yard sale from hell. The new religion teaches us to think only in black and white, light and darkness. Ndibe chronicles the devastation. The pastor is not a man of God but a man of fraud. 419 pastors have infected Nigeria. His analysis of the devastation wreaked on Nigeria by the new Christianity is worth the price of the book. He also riffs on the Babylon that is the protagonist’s America. Culture shocks peek out of the civil, unctuous airs of Manhattan. The high rises bow to greed. This is also a story about identity and belonging, a novel about our America, their America. “And then there was Derek Jeter pitching some credit card. Ike had dozed off. He startled awake as a sports reporter screeched about the Yankees’ tie-breaking home run in the second game of a split doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park.” (Kindle Locations 263-264). Ndibe knows his America.

Foreign Gods, Inc. is about a duel between Africa (Ike Uzondu) and the West (Mark Gruels). The Vampire strike the Empire. Or not. Numerous confrontations in the book heightened a luscious, ever present tension. All through the myriad drama, the book manages not to be drowned by the prattle of too many characters. Also, Ndibe captures, perhaps unwittingly the trademark superciliousness of the self-absorbed African writer bereft of a moral filter. He addresses many conventional issues that preoccupy African writers; the indignity of destitution, corruption, misogyny, women and children as chattel, the ravages of drug trafficking, patriarchy, capitalism, consumerism, the banality of our dreams, etc. Still, for the most part, funny, well-crafted lines jostle with important history. He chronicles with a war-weary eye the corruption in the land. My favorite lines advertise the gentrification going on in Nigeria’s rural areas: “The house behind seemed to stand on heels and peer into his mother’s backyard. Zinc-roofed concrete houses stood where mud houses used to be. Several buildings sported satellite dishes or television antennas.” (Kindle Locations 1238-1239). Nice.

Yes, Ndibe pens beautiful prose; he writes memorable lines like this: “The last scene he remembered was the clarity of the dawn sky in Amsterdam, a wide blue dome with no cloud puffs in sight. As the plane ascended, he looked out the window at the immensity of the sky. Then, casting his eyes down, he saw the vast mat of the landscape, the streets of Amsterdam marked off by geometric patterns amid marshes and expanses of green. Seen from the heights, the rugged beauty of the unfurled scene seemed unbearable, and he shut his eyes.” (Kindle Locations 1005-1008) Nice.

The book is a touching tale told with uncommon dignity, coolly narrated with a matter-of-fact but engaging cadence. Ndibe writes about an era in America when folks still walked into a travel agency and bought an air ticket, a time of emails and whatnot. Ndibe knows America with all its grittiness. The dialogue is great, you want to eavesdrop on a deadly serious account of a journey that is gripping in parts. Even though, the trademark superciliousness of the African writer towards West colors the book, however this time it is turned inwards also. We are making progress.

okeygoodIt would be interesting to study Ndibe’s Foreign Gods Inc. side by side with Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah and reconcile their perspectives on race, America and relationships. The books do complement each other in the interesting conversations on African-American and African relationships. The marriage of convenience (for the coveted green card) between Ike and Bernita, the African American was the War of the Roses with lots of sex and drinking in the numerous intermissions. Like Americanah, Foreign Gods, Inc. is about class; touching is the class difference between Ike and Bernita, the marriage a perverse symbiotic relationship, each in the marriage for different reasons. Like Americanah, Foreign Gods, Inc. also examines the tensions between Nigerians in the Diaspora and Nigerians at home. To Ndibe’s credit, he does spare the reader another conversation on the politics of hair.

Ike’s world is grim and filled with the grit of despair, of “creditors… disconcerting mail: late-payment reminders, disconnection warnings, cancellation threats, repossession notices, eviction slips… an ever-present frowsy smell… a commingling of spilled liquor, urine, cigarette smoke, perfumes, and the rich, leafy scent of marijuana.” (Kindle Locations 577-585).  You can smell America.  You can also smell the eaves of Ndibe’s earth, “…memories of the nights during childhood when he could not sleep unless cuddled up against her body, which reeked of smoky wood, warm like sun-baked clay.” (Kindle Locations 662-663). Anxieties, identities, issues clashing in powerful paragraphs. Ike is living a life of seedy desperation, on the edge of a capitalist nightmare, sourcing for funds as hustlers would say in Nigeria, feeding twin monsters, American style capitalism, and that Nigerian scourge called the extended family system. Like Obi in No Longer at Ease, the end will be inglorious.

adichieAmericanah

Foreign Gods, Inc. is not a perfect book, of course, says the cliché. The editing is not the best. Ndibe is a master of words, however, in a few places, the editing clamps restraints on him, it is as if he is communicating in a different voice, you can barely recognize him. Thanks to the editing, with Nigerian words much is lost in translation. We need indigenous Nigerian editors in these Western publishing houses, they don’t quite get us. It can be irritating; Nigerian terms are italicized and eroticized, it is a wonder there is no glossary explaining Kalu Mazi.

Foreign Gods Inc. is burdened by a structural flaw; there is a confused timeline of events. In one instance, in Ike’s village, a group is watching a 1991 game NBA championship game between the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers. It seems unlikely that even in the remotest of Nigerian villages, this would be happening in 2006. One can only surmise that the manuscript was first conceived in the nineties, with the plots and characters and ambience evolving to meet a fast changing world (emails, cell phones etc.).  In another example, the pastor rides around in a Peugeot 504. In the late 2000’s it seems unlikely for a prosperity pastor to own that model, he would have had to search far and wide to locate one. Attempts to make the story more contemporary are thus subverted and ambushed by traces of (ancient) history. The world is moving too fast for our writers, it is not their fault. Books are struggling with the interactive and addictive nature of social media. And losing. A book is so 20th century: You cannot swipe, LOL, LIKE, CLICK, talk to a book. A book knows it all. A book lectures. Like a 20th century headmaster. In the 21st century, the book is a dying sage on the stage. Long live the Internet.

Finally, Ndibe will have to contend with many readers who will undoubtedly ask legitimate questions about the heavy presence of Chinua Achebe’s ghost between the sheets of Foreign Gods, Inc. Ndibe’s unpretentious prose highlights effectively, in my view, the utter banality of life for many immigrants in the West. But then there are transitions in the prose that offer strong whiffs of Achebe’s many works of fiction:

“Look at this,” his uncle had said, pulling up his undershirt to expose a gash in his belly. Osuakwu paused, running his fingers along the singed, darkened scar. “First, the white man forced me to go to Burma to fight in a war that had nothing to do with me. It was a quarrel between different white brothers. And then the white man gave me this as payment.” (Kindle Locations 1000-1003)

achebeChapter 10 has strong echoes of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. Scholars may have a field day interpreting this. Again, the language reminds one eerily of Achebe. Characters like Unoka, Uchendu, Okonkwo, Obierika, etc. seem to make loud cameo appearances in the book’s characters. There is even an interpreter that is ridiculed by “a proud loquacious oaf.” Chapter 14 suffers immensely from Achebe’s spirit, it is as if one is reading passages knighted by a composite influence of Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, Arrow of God, and A Man of the People;  here, Ndibe is Achebe with a cell phone. Like Achebe’s books, here, there is a surplus of parables and tales. It is as if you are reading Achebe, so many parallels. Osuakwu is Ike’s uncle. Uchendu was Okonkwo’s uncle. The beauty of spirituality of the Igbo is captured, but one hears Arrow of God. In the conversation between Ike and Big Ed, the Jamaican immigrant, one is reminded of Uchendu’s admonition of Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart

What do I think? Foreign Gods, Inc. is a great outing that will be remembered and defined by its relationship with virtually all of Chinua Achebe’s works of fiction, and not always in a good way. Devotees of Achebe will see his spirit everywhere. Ndibe made a strategic decision, it seems, some would say, a strategic mistake to be heavily influenced by Achebe’s works. Achebe is everywhere, delete the cellphones and the emails and you almost find yourself chanting, “Kotma of the ashy buttocks.” And so, Foreign Gods, Inc. will be important for at least one reason that Ndibe probably never envisioned, its relationship with Achebe’s works. Scholars will spend countless hours debating at what point an influence gets acknowledged. There is no science to this; it is a matter of personal judgment. It should have been a simple fix, Ndibe should have openly acknowledged Achebe’s influence in the book and given him some credit – upfront. Achebe does get a nod in the “acknowledgments” section but only in a vague, “he was my mentor, and I love him so, sense.” An upfront acknowledgment would have been sufficient for me. Still it did not rob me of the fun of reading about “buttocks” in Foreign Gods Inc. and chuckling about the court messengers in Things Fall Apart being ridiculed by the prisoners:

 “Kotma of the ash buttocks,

He is fit to be a slave.

The white man has no sense,

He is fit to be a slave.”

Achebe, Chinua (2010-10-06). Things Fall Apart: (Kindle Locations 1903-1904).

I have said my own.

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