Ikhide

Father, Fighter, Lover

Category: Nigeria

Tobore Ovuorie’s story: Fact or fiction?

On January 23, 2014, Premium Times of Nigeria shocked the world with a horrific story under the screaming banner: INVESTIGATION: Inside Nigeria’s Ruthless Human Trafficking Mafia. It is a horrible story and I am saddened but not surprised that the Nigerian authorities are indifferent to any attempts to investigate the serious claims in the story. In a sane country, all sorts of investigations would commence, the nation would be in a turmoil. A young reporter, Tobore Ovuorie, outraged and inspired by a friend’s experience as a prostitute in Europe, having been shipped there by some wicked madam in Nigeria decides to go undercover to study and expose the crime syndicate(s) hawking this sordid tale.

Tobore Ovuorie (whose twitter handle is @DaughterOfMit) is enthusiastic, if anything else, as evinced by her vociferous testimonies on her timeline. If her narrative turns out to be true, Ovuorie and her sponsors (Premium Times and The Zam Chronicle deserve the Pulitzer. And her sponsors deserve to be censored for reckless endangerment of a reporter. As far as I can tell, Ovuorie is walking the streets of Nigeria unprotected after making serious claims against powerful interests. It is a mystery to me why she so brazenly attached her name to the story. If indeed there is a mafia, she is being quixotic and reckless to boot. She could be badly hurt or killed. As for the external sponsor of the adventure, The Zam Chronicle based in Amsterdam, it seems highly unusual for a Western outfit to sign on to such a risky venture without putting many things in place to minimize actuarial risk, the financial consequences may be too much to bear. What if she had been murdered? Her family could have sued the sponsors.

It is a shocking story on many levels. The scale of human trafficking of young girls to Europe for prostitution is big “multibillion dollar” business. There is an added horrific dimension; young people are being killed for their organs. There are beheadings, I mean, Ovuorie witnessed murders on at least two occasions. In one particularly horrific episode, early on in the journey, two girls are casually beheaded before her eyes. When this story broke, it went viral on social media, many of us rightfully traumatized and enraged by what this young reporter had gone through. The poet Emman Shehu put the story up on his wall. Please go read it and pay particular attention to the comments by his Facebook friends (here). Many are concerned, but there are a few skeptics and they back up their skepticism with reasonable questions that need to be responded to. One Hasan Gimba seems to sum up the cynics concerns reproduced verbatim thus:

“I concur with Bedu and those who see this story as the fiction it ought to be. In the first place, a cub reporter knows better than to embark on such “investigative voyage” with an identity, in this case, phone with informations. 2. Without it (phone, which, in the fashion of Nick Carter, conveniently refused to “charge”) she was at a loss as to how to contact Reece (implying she could not access her phonebook) but was able to give her number to a driver who eventually took her to the one she had “practiced” with but “recognised” her from her facebook picture. If she had her number offhead, she wouldn’t have regaled us with the fear of how to contact who. 3. A “soldier” running after you, yet the “crowd” failed to help him? 4. And for God’s sake, despite unleashed corruption in our country, view our security forces with some fairness. Nigerian soldiers guarding a human abbatoir in the middle of the forest? Nigerian soldiers and police escorting pick-pocket trainees to the training field? And this kind of chumminess and banter with the customs, is too hilarius to be true. Human trafficking sure takes place but not in this fabulous nollywood style! Haba! This is a script for Mercy Johnson, whose body contours immensely qualify her to be a “special force”.”

I must say at the onset I was one of those openly upset by Ovuorie’s story. I had to do a closer reading of the story thanks to the goading of a Facebook friend of mine, Lesley Gene Agams who seemed skeptical and asked my thoughts openly after I had posted the report along with a long wail about how bad Nigeria is. Here is the exchange:

Lesley Gene Agams: Ikhide you are a literary critic, what do you make of this type of ‘investigative journalism’? I would really like to know.

Ikhide R. Ikheloa: I am not a literary critic, I am a noisy reader, thank you. I have to say, to be frank, I stayed up all night, all the sentences in my head, trying to figure out the question: How can this be real, even in Nigeria? Why have the authorities not stormed the places she seemed to know geographically? We will never know for many reasons, we don’t bother investigating stuff. I have done some investigations myself (Abani, Emeagwali) but on my own time. You know what, journalists are lazy, most of the “investigations” were cut and paste jobs of my work. So we will never know.

I will say that human trafficking is real and brutal, I come from Edo State and it is a major source of revenue. What is happening to girls from my ancestral land (Italy, etc.) is beyond the speaking of it. Even if only half of it is true, it should horrify us and galvanize us to action. Chika Unigwe has done excellent literary work on the subject of human trafficking and prostitution in Europe.

Even if it is fiction, it is rooted in harsh, harsh, brutal reality. You have no idea how bad things are in Nigeria. I know someone who could tell you about extra judicial executions by the Nigerian police. Human life is nothing to us.

Please do not come for my head. I am not about to declare the story a fabrication, only Ovuorie knows. I just don’t know who and what to believe anymore. I have so many questions that I would love Premium Times and the government of Nigeria to clear up in everyone’s interest. Please take a closer look at the story. These are some of my questions:

1. Why is the Nigerian Police silent on this story? Ovuorie seems to know many geographic details of the places where she was taken to and where she witnessed horrific crimes. She knows names of important personalities, there is even a name of a policeman provided. Has Premium Times contacted the Nigerian authorities? What is the status, if any, of the investigation? She mentions specific geographic locations, for example: “The party is held at a gorgeous residence along the Agunyi Ironsi Way in Maitama, Abuja.” And the Police is silent? Where is the outrage? “The policeman doesn’t even bother to cover his name badge: Babatunde Ajala, it reads.”

2. When she witnessed the beheading of two abducted girls, she had her phone (or seemed to). Who did she text? Who did she call? Forensic experts can learn a lot from these transcripts.

3. At what point did she and her sponsors realize that this was possibly an unwise venture and she needed to be rescued? Where there any discussions about this?

4. I am having trouble believing that she did not text any of the pictures that were in her cellphone to someone else. That just seems unlikely. Does anyone have pictures or anything?

5. How sophisticated can this syndicate be if they allow the girls keep their cellphones and presumably let them continue to chat with the outside world? There are so many tracking devices on a cellphone, you wonder if and why the game plan of the reporter did not include these free tools. I was recently in Abeokuta, where GPS works; I imagine depending on the phone there were  GPS mapping tools available to Ovuorie.

6. Ovuorie seemed close to the two girls who were beheaded, does she have their phone numbers? Can they be traced back to their families? Why are people silent about all this?

7. The report talks of a “multibillion dollar syndicate” but the “syndicate” doesn’t appear very sophisticated, a reporter walks the streets asking for the leader and is promptly hooked up with one, gains the trust of the syndicate and along with the other “abducted girls” has access to her cellphone and even a charger. Interesting, but then we are talking about Nigeria. Nothing seems to stretch credulity:

“As we are about to leave, I lose my phone to the army officer. Searching all of us, he has taken Isoken’s phone already and she has pointed at me to divert attention from herself, saying I had a phone too. He takes mine at gunpoint. I can only thank the heavens that it is dead. I had been upset because it didn’t charge the previous night, but the fact that it won’t switch on is my second lucky break: it has a lot of pictures and conversations I have recorded in the camp. The disadvantage of losing my phone is that I can’t contact our colleague Reece, who is to help me once I get to Cotonou.”

I desperately want to believe this story but there are so many problems with the story, Lesley is right, if this was a work of fiction I would savage it with my unsolicited personal opinions. For one thing, the end is too neat, too tidy, it screams “contrived.” But again, we are talking about Nigeria. I tire sha. Somebody do something, say something, what happened here? There are many reasons to confront this story, its veracity being the least, but still a crucial reason to deal with it. The credibility of a nation is pretty much gone, but once our journalists lose their credibility, it is all over.

We need answers, lots of answers. What just happened here? I have said my own.

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.

Guest Blog Post by Adeshina Afolayan: Is ASUU a union of role models?

Dr. Adeshina Afolayan teaches philosophy at the University of Ibadan and a card-carrying member of Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU).

‘Dele, it is time to go wash the plates,’ the mother said to her son.

‘My teacher said I must always do my assignment first thing when I get home,’ Dele replied, already opening his books.

‘But I need those plates to make your food now,’ the mother shouted, already exasperated. This isn’t the first time Dele would be contradicting her with what his teacher said.

‘Mummy, my teacher said if I want to be a great person, I must always do my school assignment before any other thing.’ His head was buried in his book, and his pencil was already furiously scribbling.

I’m certain only few parents will not recognise this scene. It plays out in many homes where the teachers used to wield an enormous influence over the students. Yes: used to. It would seem, quite tragically, that this incidence is now restricted to the kindergartens and nursery schools, if at all. Teachers have been demystified. The implication of this demystification is that we are no longer the custodians of higher education values that parents can conveniently relinquish the care of their children to. We have abdicated our role as the second agent of socialisation; we have become unscrupulous. We can no longer be trusted!

I can already feel the hostilities bristling. And this time, I may have more than university lecturers to contend with. Of course, I know there are good teachers who are role models for their respective students. But I speak to an overwhelming preponderance in the question that my title raises. That ought to be the norm in an institution meant to cultivate the future. And how is ‘preponderance’ measured? In the reflection of what our students are able to do, how far they are able to go in life, what values they embrace, what they are able to do with their education. Now, when you look at the state studentship has fallen into in Nigeria, what do you come out with? We have a mirror reflection of what the teachers have also become. I suspect Fela just came into your mind. It’s impossible not to remember him and his prognosis of what lecturers have become. The Ivory Towers are no longer edifying; so many values have broken down. We now have only a fraction of our students to celebrate; the majority have been lost to valuelessness. Generalisations? Crucify me if you can.

I am not afraid the fingers point at me too. I am raising a self-reflexive issue that lumps me within the framework of educational rot I am pointing at. Epimenides, the Cretan philosopher, gave historical and philosophical credence to the paradox of self-reflexivity. Epimenides is reputed to have made the allegation that ‘All Cretans are liars.’ If what he says is true, then it must be a lie because he is also a Cretan! I will leave the reader to decide whether I am also guilty of the self-reflexive paradox. I am an ASUU member, and I am no saint. I am involved. My lecture attendance is less than a hundred percent, sometimes my scripts don’t get graded on time, I’ve never been subjected to the assessment of my students, some of the students claim that I am too stern and distant, one of them even accused me of sexual harassment before (and you don’t need to bother about my statement of innocence; I leave that too to your judgment).

Yet, in spite of my involvement in the higher educational issues that impugn ASUU’s credentials, I suspect that I am not Epimenides and these issues transcend me. I will phrase my concern in this piece as a question: Is ASUU a body of teachers or educators? Are we role models who practice what we teach or we are just rote facilitators? I see ASUU not only as a trade union but as a professional body with the same weight of professional responsibility as the Nigerian Medical Association, the Nigerian Institute of Safety Professionals, Pharmacist Council of Nigeria, Council for the Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria and the Nigerian Institute of Building. This analogy is deliberately. It seems to me that these professional bodies cannot afford to be restricted to the minima of check off dues and traditional unionism. Their responsibility demands more: They are life professionals. ASUU should not be less. We mould lives. We prepare future leaders. We stand in the breach of national reckoning. We speak to countless future and generations. That’s what makes teaching a spiritual endeavour; we are not less priestly than the Pope. We owe it to those whose future depends on us to monitor and circumscribe our professional products as best as we can. Don’t tell me we are trying; we haven’t tried enough. Check the evidence!

Unionism has happened to ASUU so much so that it seems to have torpedoed our professional vigilance. This is the paradox for me—ASUU is a professional body which seems to have somehow lost its professional credentials. It is a professional body which somehow has succumbed to series of unprofessional activities that in no way flatter ASUU’s lip-service to being the guardian of higher educational values in Nigeria. Consider two issues. First: teachers now poach on the students they are supposed to be educating. Second: As a professional body, ASUU has now become a body of teachers who hide under the protective might of their union to perpetrate and perpetuate gross misconduct. These two issues coalesce to ensure that character and learning—the deep motto of the University of Ibadan—has become a surface slogan in almost all universities in Nigeria. And ASUU is responsible. Forget about the Federal Government for now, abeg! Why? Apart from the student body, we are the next significant constituent of the university. When we stand in the class to teach, what do the students perceive? I am not raising a philosophical question; yet it is difficult not to distil a philosophical implication from how a student relates with his/her lecturers in four or five years. We seem to have inverted Thomas Szasz’s maxim: We now wield maximal power and minimal authority. Doesn’t this justify our students perceiving us as a pathetic bunch of intellectuals? Aren’t they justified to ask whether we can actually educate them or impart character? Shouldn’t they repeat Fela’s song to us?

ASUU is a powerful body, but in a negative sort of way. Yet we are intellectuals and that ought to count for a whole lot of creative responses to what our roles ought to be in the society. We stand at a juncture when we should confront our demystification. We ought to come under interrogation of ourselves by ourselves. I suspect it would be too much to task ASUU with the responsibility of refurbishing its members’ characters; but we can monitor them beyond the circumscription of unionism. This will constitute the first step in balancing the proportion between the good and the bad. ASUU has a serious task to build a preponderance of role models if we want the society to take us serious. Let me shock you—in conclusion: If we continue complacent, then we are looking at the end of the university as we have come to know it consequent on our failure as life-minders.

Asa asked a fundamentally question in ‘Fire on the Mountain’: Who’s responsible for what we teach our children? Is it the Internet or the stars on television? Does ASUU have a role to play? Can we initiate a paradigm shift in the future? Can parents trust us with the future of their children? I don’t think so, at least not when there is still a raging and unchecked fire on the mountain! I will return again.

Molara Wood’s Indigo: Enchanting Seasons

He wore one of his special embroidered dashiki tops that must have been high fashion when I was a girl. Now it spoke only of longevity.

                                  – Wood, Molara (2013-07-11). Indigo (Kindle Locations 374-375).

There are many reasons why you should read Indigo, Molara Wood’s delightful and enchanting debut collection of short stories. First, Wood is a great story teller with a distinctly inimitable voice and it shows in this book. Second, Indigo is quite simply good writing, one that should be required reading in creative writing classes. As a writer, for Wood, the gift of beautiful writing is not enough, she models hard work. Wood is uncompromising when it comes to the written word; everything must be in place or the sentence won’t see the light of day.  Third, Wood ensures that in her stories, you will be entertained in the grand tradition of the oral storytellers of Africa, Wood proves masterfully that the short story lives and lives well. Nigeria is a land of storytellers; judging from this collection, Wood is a worthy ambassador of Nigeria. It helps that virtually all the stories in Indigo have been vetted externally and subjected to rigorous editorial reviews. Several are award-winning and previously published in reputable journals and books.

Seventeen stories make up Indigo. Using these engaging stories as robust, throaty vehicles of entertainment and enlightenment, Wood addresses a legion of topics expertly and in an orderly manner. The reader is not overwhelmed. These are not unctuous social commentaries pretending to be short stories. The stories are mostly narratives of triumph over adversity in the face of unconventional wars. Wood deftly avoids poverty porn and frees the reader to reflect, unsolicited, on the issues of contemporary Africa. What I really love about Indigo is this: Several stories are simply stories, like comfort food, you sit at Wood’s feet and just listen to a good story. This Wood does with her brainy, wry wit and signature tart prose; sentences are little daggers she throws at pressure points to get the desired reaction. The missiles, tightly wound, with Molara-esque attitude, fly off the pages and assault the senses in a gently seething riot of colors. As a luscious side benefit, I swooned over the stunning cover art, ‘Pensiveness by the legendary Muraina Oyelami embedded in Eazy Gbodiyan’s and Victor Ehikhamenor’s brilliant Indigo cloth themed cover designs.

Indigo CoverThe book takes off, guns blazing, starting with Indigo, the title story, a touching tale about childlessness, societal expectations and culture clashes. And so the feast of words, carefully spun together begins. There is an abundance of impish lines to keep the reader engaged in this feisty book:

‘Shhh!’ Bola’s aunt, in whose arms the baby nestled, placed a finger to lips that seemed to occupy half her face. Her baggy boubou attire did nothing to hide the tyre-like circumference of her midriff. A mole perched on top of her left earlobe like an audacious fly. (Kindle Locations 56-59).

Throughout the book, Wood mostly appropriates the English language as her own. There are so many stories to fall in love with here. Read Gani’s Fall, a sly conversation about patriarchy and polygamy – and a delightful fable about an impish alliance among wives in a polygamous home, and laugh your ribs out. The language soars on the wings of a vivid imagination; a lovelorn woman complains of longing for the husband and you sigh as she moans about his absence from her bed, “he hardly ever darkened my doorway.”

Here are my favorite lines:

The widow next door to him in the village does his laundry for him. Some whisper that she does more. (Kindle Locations 375-376).

And:

The family cat, ever sluggish, rediscovered speed and tore away. (Kindle Locations 320-321).

You must read Night Market. In this gorgeous story, all of Nigeria’s dysfunctions spill out into the streets with an African American spouse as a deeply disturbed witness to the mayhem – and, oh yes, there’s a little bit of magic realism thrown in:

‘Ah,’ piped up Chinyere, ‘people go to di night market to buy and sell. The road shrink, true. But the road between heaven and earth open wide at the night market . Animals turn into human beings to buy and sell, ghosts come to buy and sell. Dead children sef, even come to buy…’ (Kindle Locations 733-735)

Kelemo’s Woman reminds the reader of Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah. It is a play on gender relations slyly presented as a short story around a military coup. Some of the dialogue seem eerily prophetic given Nigeria’s current challenges:

This country is being run to the ground, and soldiers will only speed up the burial. You, me, and others like us, are going to have to fight – and sacrifice – to turn around the course of this nation! (Kindle Locations 992-993).

Night market

In A Small Miracle, Wood displays her gift for good dialogue and for arranging words on the palette like the diviner’s cowries. Beautiful Game is quite simply a beautiful story. England and soccer come alive in the hands of immigrants. In In Name Only, a story about a sham marriage to legalize residency in England is expertly used to showcase life as an immigrant in moody Babylon. In Leaving Oxford Street and The Last Bus Stop, the Nouveaux rich, social climbers and dreamers wallow in fashion statements, dreams of wealth, and the forced mediocrity of relocation. I was moved by In the Time of Job, a pretty story about immigration and an unlikely friendship among two people from opposite sides of the ocean.

The Scarcity of Common Goods is probably my most favorite story. I love how Wood weaves class issues, infidelity and societal expectations into a most unusual tale. But then Smoking Bamboo has to be the best love story I have read in a long time. Here, Wood’s imagination soars gently and rests firmly on the reader’s own imagination. It is a truly authentic and wondrous story swimming mostly in awesome prose-poetry. Still Wood manages to talk to us about the ravages of war and drug and alcohol addiction on communities.  It is also about migration – the endless restless quest for peace, prosperity and happiness. The character Amugbo reminds the reader of Unoka in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. You don’t want this story to end, this pretty but sad tale of a wind-swept, war-ravaged land filled with women and children only. And one drugged man. Smoking Bamboo alone is worth the price of the book. Hear Wood:

When Angelina stepped in her delicate manner on the moist earth her toenails crimson, I thought babies would fall from the sky. And I saw the fierceness with which Amugbo’s bloodshot eyes lit upon her. I had seen it coming days before when in my mind’s eye I saw a great bird whose wings swept the air up and down, beating sprays out of clouds that hung heavy in the late morning sky. The wings went still over our ravine , cosseted by an endless canopy of trees. Avian eyes observed water vapours rising in airy steams from the gorge to be sucked into ravenous clouds. (Kindle Locations 2127-2131).

And the song “Angelina, Angelina, o ti lọọ wa ju!” took me back many decades when High life music ruled Nigeria’s dance floors. Oh Nigeria!

There is one sense in which Indigo is an important book; Its treatment of gender relations, patriarchy, and polygamy.  I found myself thinking of similar themes in the books and essays of writers like Lola Shoneyin, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chika Unigwe, Taiye Selasie, NoViolet Bulawayo, etc. It would make for an interesting and valuable scholarship to study the works of all these thinkers in in relation to patriarchy, gender tensions and related anxieties. I previously shared my views on Adichie’s approach (here). I would say, compared to Adichie, Wood’s approach is more subtle, more sophisticated and definitely more respectful. Unlike Adichie’s Americanah, Indigo deploys less of caricatures to describe patriarchy and make her points about gender issues.

The book is not without its flaws (yes, I know, no book is perfect): Sometimes the purpose of the English language is to remind us of how much we have lost in the translation of our lives into that of the other. Wood is mostly successful in appropriating the English language as if it is Nigerian but some translations of indigenous proverbs are awkwardly done, like: “The child does not recognise the enchanted herb; and so calls it a vegetable.” The reader yearns for a crisper version. Or blessed silence. Stories like Fear Hill and Trial by Water read like promising works in progress. Written in Stone is perhaps, the most ambitious – and the most flawed.  It is a bold attempt at historical fiction that is compromised by a certain looseness with historical facts and a disconnectedness that makes it read like two halves of two unrelated stories. It has the protagonist coming upon written communication in the caves of walls in 1879. In English. Historians would no doubt find that improbable in Nigeria, if not inaccurate. I would have loved a collaboration between Wood and a gifted illustrator like Victor Ehikhamenor to make the stories more alive and give them an additional dimension, it is just as well, the stories engaged me nonetheless.

The 21st century is reshaping the role of the book with spectacular muscle. Devotees of Wood will instantly recognize most of these stories; over the years she has been prolific on the Internet and social media, giving of her gifts pretty much freely. I easily found half of the stories on the Internet. I see profound opportunities on the Internet for thinkers like Wood whose gifts are hobbled by the lack of a robust publishing industry in Black Africa. However, worldwide, relying solely on the book to access the reading audience is becoming a problem. The book is fast becoming primarily an archive of sorts.

Molara Wood PHOTO by TY Bello (2)As a near-aside, Wood has a legion of followers in the literary world but many readers will not recognize her.  Well, she is arguably one of the most influential of what would probably be referred to as the fourth generation of writers – an enigmatic and elusive group of writers in their late thirties to early fifties range who have quietly redefined contemporary African literature as we know it today by moving it with brawn and brain into the digital world. Much is known about the older generation and the very young generation, but very little is known of this quiet but powerful group, on whose laps it fell to, in effect, digitize African literature. There are too many names to mention, but they are finally stepping out of the shadows and writing books. It’s a good thing.

Wood’s passion for African literature is legendary; courageous and visionary, in the early 2000s, she dropped everything in London and moved back to Nigeria to help found NEXT newspapers, one of the most exciting acts of journalism to ever come out of Africa. At NEXT, she nurtured many of us as our editor and kept us in line with her keen eye, passion for the word, and a punishing work ethic. When the NEXT experiment folded, she remained in Nigeria where she continues to be a mover and a shaker in literary circles.  For thinkers like Wood and her generation of writers, the book as a medium of communication is a wretched vehicle for their gifts, the Internet is their book, literally. You would have to go to the Internet to get a sense of Wood’s contribution to the literary arts. There, she and many literary leaders daily supervise the new literary genre that features the real-time collision and collusion of reader and writer. One day, it will be possible to make money of this emerging genre. And it would be because of the visionary work of Wood’s generation. Google her. But first you must read Indigo. Oh, and I learnt a new word. Rill. Google it. After you are through googling Molara Wood.

10 points on the ASUU wahala: It is all about the data and communications

Nigeria is on my mind. Specifically, I am thinking of the crippling strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) that is almost six months now. It is common knowledge that the situation in the campuses is grim (see a grisly report by ThisDay here, sobering pictures from a “NEEDS assessment” here, and these particularly upsetting photos on Linda Ikeji’s blog, of university facilities in utter disrepair). I have weighed in on numerous times, since 2009 (read my last rant here). The situation is dire and both ASUU and the federal government are fiddling. Meanwhile Nigerian students are at home. Well, not all of them. Private universities are still in session.

ASUU was created for good reason and at a time when Nigeria had very few universities, all of them government funded. Today, there are more than ten times that many universities, several of them privately owned (ironically by the thieves that ran the public universities aground). ASUU as a central force is a behemoth that must go. There is a compelling reason why ASUU must be disbanded at the national level and strengthened at each institution. A cookie-cutter approach to advocacy using strikes that shut down all public universities while the private universities stay open introduces an inequity. It is this: The children of the poor are disproportionately impacted by these shut-downs since they are the ones most likely to attend the public, decaying tertiary institutions. The children of the rich are either in private schools or abroad in good schools.  Indeed it is the case that the children of many professors do not attend public universities. They are either in private institutions or abroad. It is the truth. Your guess is as good as mine as to how they can afford to raise their kids in private schools or abroad. They can’t. They do. This is all so sad. And Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the man who gave me a free and appropriate primary education turns in his grave. The legacy of Nigerian leaders will be to prove through corruption and incompetence, that a free and appropriate public education is a myth.  It is a shame that no one on either side seems to give a tinker’s cuss about this. Our leaders have lost the plot. Elsewhere real leaders are dreaming of and implementing the classroom of the future, It is called Skype. It is free, Ask our children. They would know. They live there freely. On Skype.

I must concede, as many people keep reminding me, that I am not there in Nigeria and much of what I have been saying is informed by my stay in the West where as an educational administrator, I have everything at my disposal to ensure that every child in my local community has access to a free and appropriate public education, in a wholesome and nurturing classroom. I will also concede that in that respect, coming from a different culture, I would be at sea in Nigeria, and with my imported ideas, I would fail. For good reason. There are clearly serious challenges in Nigeria’s educational sector that are exacerbated by poor attitudes among labor, management and government. Many of us who have spoken out loudly against the deleterious antics and tactics of ASUU (largely Diasporans) have strained to offer common-sense suggestions, but have been met with comical retorts. This is a crying shame.

Regardless of where you are, there are certain things that must happen, to maintain an appropriate standard of education. With the current ASUU wahala, all sides appear unwilling or unable to learn anything new and refreshing. No one is willing to accept responsibility, and in my view, ASUU is the worst culprit. Let me simply observe that these dysfunctions did not start yesterday, they were already manifesting themselves robustly in my time at the University of Benin, Benin City, in the late seventies. It is hugely hypocritical for anyone now to suddenly wake up, look around and smell decay. And by the way, ASUU, Ikhide has been telling you to clean up something as simple as your website since 2009, yet not a typo has been touched. What gives Ikhide or anyone the confidence that anything will change when you get some more money? The culture of abuse and mediocrity is pervasive. There needs to be a Needs Assessment done in that area. Seriously.

It is really all about data and with respect to financial data; there is not a whole lot to see from anywhere that would inform good decision making and objective analysis. What little has been only proves that funding for the university infrastructure is beyond woeful; it is appalling and disgraceful by any standard. Focusing strictly on the decayed infrastructure, inspired by the (lack of) data and transparency that we have witnessed on the ASUU government tug of war, here are my closing thoughts:

1. There should be an annual Needs Assessment done on each university institution. There is a structural and systemic way to do this. It is called a yearly capital budget and a capital improvement plan which is an annually updated Multi-year strategic plan that, using demographic and revenue projections anticipates an institution’s capital needs. This document is typically a volume of data and visioning and implementation prose that is designed with multiple audiences in mind.

2. There should also be a facilities maintenance budget in the annual operating budget that funds maintenance workers, supplies, contractual obligations and maintenance equipment (if it is not budgeted out of the capital budget).

3. Again, a university is a university anywhere in the world and it must be kept up to acceptable standards. No one is going to cut you slack because you are in Africa, what does that even mean? There should be guidelines: How much should it cost to build a classroom? That is easily attained. In my community here in the US, one classroom costs $500,000. It is expensive I know, but there are code specifications that must be adhered to, technology upgrades that are mandated by law, etc. and of course, labor is prohibitive in the US. I say to ASUU and management: You must know your numbers; how many students are projected to come in next year, the next 10 years? Are the facilities capable of absorbing them? If you don’t know these things, you are driving blind. Data. Demographics. Start simple. How many students do we have today? Add a multiplier for each year. In the long run, hire experts in demography.

4.Example, in our local school district here in the United States, we are faced with capacity issues. In the next several years, thousands of kids are coming in, most of them elementary school kids. The school system has done a Needs Assessment and has figured it will cost about $600 million to get the classrooms. They might either tax the citizens or borrow the money by floating bonds or a combination. Floating bonds might cost $50-60 million annually for 20 years. There is a communications plan that includes a document that breaks everything down and there was a press conference trumpeting this initiative. The local government will fund some, but the school district needs help from the state. Collaboration is crucial. The unions were of course standing with management and politicians at the conference. You need information and mass communication experts. All this beret wearing, comrade calling, hands pumping the air nonsense belongs in the Cold War era. Get an attitude update, while you are at it.

5. Facilities management is expensive. A new building that is not maintained will give you the kinds of horrid pictures of Nigeria’s institutions that have shocked the world. There is no going around this. You will need an army of maintenance workers for every institution, with teams parked in every facility.  A roof leak should not last a day; you are asking for trouble.

6. Competition will force a culture change. There is ample dysfunction on all sides. Clearly ASUU has its challenges, government is clueless, corrupt and inattentive, and management is comically imperial and inattentive. If they all had to compete for attention and resources, if they had to face daily parents, politicians and others armed with reams of data asking hard questions they would all sit up.

7. I cannot overemphasize this: The top-down approach, the overly central bureaucracy is killing Nigeria, ASUU, education, health, and pretty much everything that sustains nations. ASUU and university governance and management must be decentralized. I would restructure the National Universities Commission (NUC) to be truly independent and robust  (read this good editorial on NUC and ASUU’s expose on the TETFUND) and make it truly an office that ensures adequate standards, accountability and oversight.

8. Nigeria urgently needs a Marshall plan to restore tertiary institutions (actually all institutions) to acceptable standards. There are huge capacity issues, and near-insurmountable infrastructure (renovation and modernization) issues. We are talking about a huge infusion of cash and a lot of work being done in a fairly short period of time. That would require expertise and an existing structure and infrastructure that can absorb the build-up. I would not release a penny to the tertiary institutions without a road map to the future that includes structural changes that will make our universities real universities, one that protects staff and students. Doing anything less would be irresponsible. And while we are at it, where is the vision? Have we looked at other innovative approaches to building institutions? Should we build smaller, more manageable institutions? What is wrong with a small community university that is well-run, meets all established standards and is wholesome and welcoming to students, faculty and staff? Why don’t we build institutions that amplify our strengths (that rugged individualism) and minimize our weaknesses?

9. This is about mass communication. Remember, Achebe keeps reminding us, until the lion tells his own story, the hunt will always be glorified by the hunter. In the 21st century, you can do it yourself. And it is cheap. I say to ASUU, get a blog, get a Facebook account, get a Twitter account and post what you need to post to as many people as you want. ASUU is blessed with many people I know who are some of the world’s best recognized experts at Internet technology and social media. One of them is Dr. Obododinma Oha. I don’t know of any scholar that is as good as that man when it comes to using technology and social media for sharing his art and communicating with the world. He is at the University of Ibadan.  And before you start saying, no light, no water, armed robbers, e gba mi, etc., this blog was created for me by Kola Tubosun, over the phone and on chat; he dreamed of it, designed it and created it for me. For free. I don’t know how these things work. Ask him. He is in Nigeria in the Lagos-Ibadan axis. We have a lot of resources, we have incredibly gifted people, there is this thing that happens to us once it is not our personal initiative. ASUU is losing the PR war because its strategy belongs in the 60’s which is simply this – wear an ill-fitting French suit, call yourself a comrade, make some horrid noises, etc. They are not going to win with such ancient methods. They need to partner with young folks, they need to get rid of patriarchy, gerontocracy and misogyny, and invest in a real PR machine.  That website is their enemy, trust me. It is not helping.

10. We know why we should invest in schools and a quality education for the children of our communities. It is about community, it is also about the health and national security of a nation, as has been said ad nauseam. I must admit I am pessimistic. Can it be done? Yes. In Nigeria? Yes. Look to the prosperity churches in Nigeria. They have everything I have just talked about. Do you know why? They know the meaning of competition. They have functioning and impressive websites. Do you know why? They know the meaning of competition. If they don’t compete, they die. Like our universities. Again, imagine how perversely efficient Nigerian prosperity churches are. There is a motivation. Competition to “save souls” because each “saved soul” is dollars. Ka ching! Ka ching! Imagine if the federal government owned the churches. The congregants would be at home half the time! I have said my own.

        Notes: The full report on the Needs Assessment on Nigeria’s universities may be accessed here.  The 2009 ASUU- Government agreement may be accessed here. The January 12, 2012 memorandum may be accessed here. Professor Bolaji Aluko’s website is useful for monitoring information and data on the ASUU wahala (here).

Afam Akeh: Letter Home & Biafran Nights – The poet as priest

For Ingrid, whoever you are…

London. April 2013. The days are wondrous and enchanting even under England’s moody skies, communing in a lazy haze, days with a friend, hands in my khaki pants, wondering the wondering. London was wonderful and words fail me each time I remember. I would like to write something – of days spent in the company of kindred souls, relishing the warm comfort of similarly vulnerable members of my writer-tribe. And I met the poet Afam Akeh. Akeh came from somewhere in England, Oxford I think it was, to grace the panel of writers honoring the works of our friends. He came, spoke, hung out with us for a little while, and disappeared into the gloomy English night. Just like that. I have pictures.

Afam Akeh? Who is Akeh? How do I explain Akeh? Well, Akeh is in my view, one of the finest writers, definitely one of the most important poets to come out of Africa in contemporary times. If he is relatively unknown, it is because he and many in that army of writers coming after Professor Niyi Osundare’s generation are notoriously reticent about the limelight. Akeh is elusive, perhaps reclusive, definitely enigmatic. I think of him and strangely each time, Christopher Okigbo comes to mind. Which is interesting, because as poets, they are very different – in attitude, temperament and perhaps vision. Where Okigbo’s verse is opaque and beautiful, Akeh’s is transparent and beautiful, heir verses united primarily by degrees of obliqueness.

Akeh is different from Okigbo in one important sense; his verses allow you to own them personally, and he is generous enough to e-smile indulgently when you claim them as your own. But I think of both Okigbo and Akeh as master wordsmiths, fastidious almost to a fault. I think of them as master gardeners, tending a postcard-perfect garden, each flower in its right place, a snip here, a touch there, nothing goes to the market until it is perfect. And because the master gardener is rarely satisfied, the market is starved of the genius of prodigy.

afam-akeh1959

One can never get enough of Akeh’s verse and his latest volume of poetry, Letter Home & Biafran Nights proves that beautifully. Letter Home & Biafran Nights was longlisted for the 2013 NLNG Prize in literature (poetry) First things first though: This reader must stop to congratulate the NLNG Prize folks for compiling a most thoughtful 2013 longlist: Afam Akeh, Amatoritsero Ede, G’ebinyo Egbewo, Iquo Eke, Obari Gamba, Tade Ipadeola, Okinba Launko (Femi Osofisan), Amu Nnadi, Obi Nwakanma, Promise Ogochukwu and Remi Raji.  It was a great list with pretty much everyone a strong contender. Although, Tade Ipadeola, Amu Nnadi and Promise Ogochukwu ended up on the shortlist, it is actually the case that many on the list deserve the prize and our eternal gratitude for a lifetime of meritorious work in the service of literature. Outside of the legendary Femi Osofisan, I am thinking of Afam Akeh, Remi Raji, Amatoritsero Ede, Tade Ipadeola, Obi Nwakanma, virtually all of them in the 35 to 50s age range who have distinguished themselves through consistent output and outstanding leadership in the digital age, an era when the book has come under fierce competition thanks to new and muscular digital tools that have democratized the reading and writing culture.

The 2013 NLNG longlist was an unintended gentle nod to that quiet group of folks, most of whom started out in the Krazitivity listserv in the early 2000s, and set out to fashion a way of telling our stories in the new dispensation. There are too many names to mention, but I am thinking of passionate digital literary warriors like Molara Wood, Olu Oguibe, Obiwu Iwuanyanwu, Lola Shoneyin, Toni Kan, Victor Ekpuk, Chika Unigwe, Victor Ehikhamenor, Obododimma Oha, Chuma Nwokolo, Sola Osofisan, Abdul Mahmud (Obemat), Nnorom Azuonye, Chuma Nwokolo, etc. In those days they hosted and participates in online poetry workshops and many listservs were fierce places to be in as a writer. If I had the money, I would give each one of them a $100,000 for their service, they are still here, quietly influential in the background, and still devoting hours daily to the written word and the visual arts. I don’t often agree with many of them, but they have all earned my respect. I salute every one of them.

So, yes, this group of writers came right after Niyi Osundare’s generation. They had to deal with the new dispensation called the Internet. They had to bring Nigerian literature into the new medium. Quietly, they fought (many times each other) brainstormed, dreamed, and built new houses for our stories. They labored quietly in the shadows, they did not have time to worry about writing books. Occasionally they would write their own, and it would be published in some obscure and often presitgious journal. But they were the new priests, working to give others succor and to build up the work of others. Many of them are aging now, and the world is just now coming around to give them their dues. It is awesome that this year, Nigeria’s increasingly prestigious NLNG Prize for literature unwittingly acknowledged their influence and industry by including several of them in the NLNG long-list. It bears repeating: Each of these writers and many more of their generation deserves the prize and more – not just for their books, but for a lifetime of selfless dedication to the cause of world literature. These are unsung giants toiling quietly and with great determination in the shadows of lesser – and noisier mortals. I salute them all.

So, Akeh was longlisted for his new work, Letter Home & Biafran Nights. I will say it again: Akeh’s generation will not be judged by their books, they will be judged by their immense contribution in harnessing the digital world and bringing the African writer to the reader, managing the morphing and blurring of roles between reader and writer and creating a new genre of literature in the call-and-response mode of our ancestors, bringing the reader to the writer, and the writer to the reader. Under their fearless leadership, the writer is gradually metamorphosing from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side of the reader. It is a beautiful new world, thanks to these visionaries.

afamka2Now, dear reader, you must read Letter Home & Biafran Nights. This is not your mother’s poetry; this is not postcolonial poetry as we remember it. Here is a journey – of man and movement, a restlessness even when one is still. The pages hum with energy, longing, alienation, and a certain triumph of spirit. There are warriors everywhere, not victims. All through one’s tribulations, even in the throes of the Sokugo’s suffocating grip, thoughts of home are never too far away.

Akeh walks around, as if in a trance, reminding us of the miracle, the pain, the wonder that is Babylon. But then is this not home also? Hear Akeh in the long poem, Letter Home:

Let it be told how the gecko
seeking warmth
behind shut doors
clambered
to its new perch,
dreaming of home
in another life.
That familiar dream
a constant lure,
many roads after
still distant
as at the beginning. (Letter Home, p 4)

Ah. When I am stressed, good poetry will comfort me. Akeh is great poetry. That is as it should be. In the 21st century, more than ever, the reader is not an expert on poetry, does not want to be, the reader simply wants to enjoy a good word or two. Letter Home & Biafran Nights does the job and more. You read Akeh’s profound words, and you own them, but still, it is not about you. It is about the movement called this life. And somehow Akeh manages to remind you of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, of Uchendu, Okonkwo’s maternal uncle comforting Okonkwo in the chilly winter of his exile (in this memorable passage).

In Akeh’s musings, the reticence of the traveller shows, haunts, hunts, hurts, and bleeds fiercely through the dirty curtains of memory – and the living. And the rhythm of the words, gently comforting, reminds the reader of the gentle rocking of a lorry enduring worn, broken roads with that sign that sighs and mutters, If Men Were God:

One thinks mostly
Of smells and touch,
Spring on treetops,
Radio voices from
A childhood of dream-
their broadcasts
through an uncivil war
assurance that peace
was English, life
English as they rhymes
One clung to beyond
The carnage, hugging
the promise
of an English day. (Letter Home, p 2)

 And the majesty of Akeh’s words and vision makes you gasp sometimes as your heart soars with the force of the pulsating mind of this owner of words:

The heart as a bird
In flight, wings spread
To every wind
Every flight in its search
finds a perch
some place of rest
or lasting jelp,
sometimes caravan,
sometimes nest, sometimes
a grave in the open earth.
Somewhere in time,
Someone digging in
or moving on,
between a reset
and delete button. (Letter Home, p 6)

The long poem, Letter Home, comprising four movements is the immigrant’s story. Any immigrant, especially of color, could title it ME and it would fit snuggly.

If some left familiar shores
And pulled down totems
To raise a new world
He thinks he can.
And they turned hostile lands.
Taming horses and cacti,
going as if their earth
never shifted, that frontiers faith
in all or  nothing. (Letter Home, p 11)

Akeh does portraits of friends, of cities, of continents roiling in the sweat of immigration and alienation. Exile wears a new face every day. Here is a portrait, and a portrait, and a portrait.  Movement. Africa is restless. The warriors of Africa are in Europe, turning tricks for Africa’s survival. Antwerp is on Akeh’s mind, the sisters on cold city streets turning tricks for hard men, whose dreams have gone flaccid. The puns are sly, oh so sly. And everything comes together in a brilliant collusion of pretty and vibrant colors dripping with sweet innuendoes and plump puns:

Antwerp of storied lives.
Rubens, son of the soil, had
a rogue eye on his muses,
painted them wanton, like
Venus and the Graces.
Helene, his delight, posed
Like a window woman.
The female nude
In Baroque contours
Andromeda, maid Susanna,
Leda and the Swan, art
making love not war,
Caravaggio’s rage
defused by desire. (Letter Home, p 17)

In the travels of Wole Soyinka and other writers unknown, Akeh plumbs the depths and anxieties of sojourn. Read Letter to Soyinka and marvel at Akeh’s profound mind.  Defiant, he politely but firmly speaks truth to Soyinka’s angst about a certain generation flung and scattered all over the globe as if lost. In Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known (2002), Soyinka muses ruefully:

The children of this land are old
Their eyes are fixed on maps in place of land
Their feet must learn to follow
Distant contours traced by alien minds
Their present sense had faded into past.

Akeh’s response is luscious, defiant and delightfully impish. And wintry rage meets thunder:

I am that brood of brats
you haunt in verse.
Some feet I know
may never walk home.
They are alien
to any land.
Memory is not their friend,
They have lived
many lives
away from childhood.

I am with my fellows
less convinced.
I have shit.
And I dump.

I dump in poems.
I dump on people.
I dream of home
and dump.
The world I walk
Is not your world.
It has neither clarity
nor empathy. (Letter to Soyinka, p 30)

Now, this is poetry: In general, each movement of Akeh’s poetry starts as a quiet spiritual chant, grows into a grumble and a rumble, and in the last gasp, it roars and fills the mind’s stadium with wonder – and longing.  In the poem, At the Common Room, you lay on pretty lines like this: Someone asleep/ with open eyes lets his bowels speak. And the sighs tumble out of your soul.

In Biafran Nights. Rage, controlled rage is a powerful undertow in this little volume of words that speak truth to hell:

There are nights that speak with clenched teeth.
A sense of depth comes with their dark,

 Awareness of things not present, and
to remember is to relive what is not redeemed… (Biafran Nights, p 67)

The book’s end signals the beginning of the loss of a certain innocence. Biafra. 1970. The poem. 1970. Ripe, bursting with hope and joy.

And you the child saw that change had come,
the adults like children bouncy with wellness,
hugging and shouting ‘Happy survival!
Happy survival!’ Folk, singing all the time.
What else could it be but that bread was back.
Life could eat without guilt, school as before
the convoys passed and everything changed,
Boom! Bang! Hunters saying it with guns,
saying yes to hope, nothing fired
in anger, no one bleeding. (1970, p 77)

 Finally, in Finale, Achebe’s Uchendu, strong voice, returns to console the weary traveler:

If in your way, you wake up in your puke, or feel
Raw and far from home, put your ears to the wind
And listen. You will hear colours and movement,
Birth and death colliding, waves of white noise.
Hearts beating, hearts breaking. (Finale, p 79)

I love Letter Home & Biafran Nights, even with all its imperfections. And there are several. First of all, it is unconscionable that the book is not available as an e-copy, how difficult can that be in the 21st century? African publishers have to understand that in the absence of physical distribution channels, their best bet is the Internet. Akeh struggles with his own spirituality, the church is on his mind and one suspects that sometimes his poetry is inspired – and compromised by his near-unquestioning allegiance to his Christian faith,  for example, Messiah, is quite simply proselytizing – and disappointing. (p 46) Akeh tries gamely to wrestle his faith from his work as a writer, he is not successful. In No More Elliot, She Said, great lines remind the reader of Okigbo’s deeply spiritual lines but then they wrestle with Afam’s own struggle with his Christian faith, awesome lines looking askance at sermons begging to be preached. (p 48) I don’t believe the poet should proselytize. Akeh’s demon’s sing lustily with his long poems; some of the short pieces (Portrait, Slug, etc.) read like warm-up acts for the long pieces, they feel to me like works in earnest progress, not quite ready for prime time. Billy Boy is quite literally for the dogs, and not in a good way (p 50). Silly Poem, is just that, silly (p 58). And I would have loved a publication that looked a lot better than it was merely stapled together. SPM Publications stapled Akeh’s pieces together and did a great job with the editing. However, this reader expected more, perhaps a collaboration with an artist to sketch in pencil, Akeh’s thoughts, and bring the words to life even more, if that is possible. The good news is that the power of Akeh’s words easily trumped these failings.

It is quaint. No one writes letters home anymore. Oddly intriguing, the choice of title. But that would be Akeh for you. Intensely private, the reader strains to read pieces of Akeh’s life in the pages. The evidence is scrawny, but you read Role Play (p 37) and you wonder about a little boy with a certain intelligence and just wonder, who is this boy? And Akeh’s indulgent e-smile returns. And my favorite poem? Ingrid. Don’t ask me, you must go find that poem. And read it. It is in the book. Buy the book and read Ingrid. Thank me later.

The NLNG Prize for literature: Honoring phantom books, laziness, and mediocrity

The final shortlist for the 2013 NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature is out.  Sincere Congratulations to the lucky three:  Tade Ipadeola (The Sahara Testaments), Amu Nnadi (through the window of a sandcastle), and Promise Ogochukwu (Wild Letters). This year, the prize is for poetry and the purse remains a whopping $100,000 (US dollars, a Nigerian prize offered in US dollars, that is another story in itself).

Last month, eleven poets graced a thoughtful longlist: Afam Akeh, Amatoritsero Ede, G’ebinyo Egbewo, Iquo Eke, Obari Gamba, Tade Ipadeola, Okinba Launko (Femi Osofisan), Amu Nnadi,  Obi Nwakanma, Promise Ogochukwu and Remi Raji. I thought it was a great list with pretty much everyone a strong contender.  

But this is what struck me after the longlist was announced. I have great respect for the longlisted writers. However, of the eleven books, just TWO were available for sale online or anywhere – Afam Akeh’s Letter Home & Biafran Nights and Amatoritsero’s Globetrotter & Hitler’s Children. Shortly after Iquo Eke’s Symphony of Becoming joined the group online, followed by Tade Ipadeola’s The Sahara Testaments. I would like to own each of these eleven books.

Several of my friends are on the ground in Nigeria looking for the books in bookstores. My friends are either lying to me (possible, but highly unlikely) or these books are simply not available for sale. They are definitely available for prize sponsors. I own and have read Akeh’s Letter Home & Biafran Nights, Ede’s Globetrotter & Hitler’s Children and Ipadeola’s The Sahara Testaments. They are beautiful books deserving of the recognition that they have gotten from the NLNG folks. However, I cannot tell how many copies of these books have been sold at home, worldwide or even on Mars; it is not the fault of the NLNG folks, but it is the truth. We need a conversation about the (lack of a) distribution network of books in Nigeria.

Of the three shortlisted books, only Ipadeola’s The Sahara Testaments is available for sale or review anywhere I can think of. My friends are hunting for the other two books. I am sure the books exist, how else would the judges have judged them worthy of consideration for $100,000? As things currently stand, this is not a literary prize; this is a lottery, a jackpot for one lucky writer. Let me just say this: It is quite simply appalling, no, disgraceful, that the NLNG Prize is in danger of being given to a book that no one else but the judges has seen.

It is a mockery of literature and a huge farce that the NLNG will spend $850,000 annually to honor what amounts to laziness on the part of book publishers and writers. In the 21st century, it is not hard to sell a book on the Internet. There is absolutely no excuse for this farce. It is not too much to ask that between now and October 9th, 2013 when the winner will be announced, that Nnadi’s through the window of a sandcastle, and Ogochukwu’s Wild Letters be made available to the general public online and elsewhere. It would be nice if the publishers would go online to announce where these books may be bought by regular readers like me. We would like to buy the books; we would like to see with our own eyes, what the judges saw in the books. This is what obtains elsewhere with real prizes. When the shortlist is announced, there is usually a run on the books. And trust me, no prize sponsor worth its name would dare put on a shortlist a book that only the writer, his/her publisher and friends have seen or read. They definitely would not be getting $100,000. Nonsense. 

It bears repeating: It is hard to justify giving $100,000 to an author for a book that only 20 or fewer people have read. Again, the NLNG prize costs $850,000 to administer yearly. We really need to have a conversation about how best to use that money to honor our writers – and to support our literature. The publishing industry could use some of that money. What is wrong with us?

The press release announcing the shortlist says this of previous prize winners:

“The Nigeria Prize for Literature has since 2004 rewarded eminent writers such as Gabriel Okara for his volume of poetry The Dreamer, His Vision (co-winner 2004 – poetry); Professor Ezenwa Ohaeto, for his volume of poetry Chants of a Minstrel (co-winner 2004 poetry); Ahmed Yerima (2005 – drama) for his book Hard Ground;  Mabel Segun (co-winner 2007 – children’s literature) for her collection of short plays Reader’s Theatre; Prof. Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo (co-winner 2007 – children’s literature) with her book, My Cousin Sammy; Kaine Agary (2008 – prose) for her novel Yellow Yellow; Esiaba Irobi (2010 – drama) who clinched the prize posthumously with his book Cemetery Road; Adeleke Adeyemi (2011 – children’s literature) with his book The Missing Clock and Chika Unigwe (2012 – prose), with her novel, On Black Sisters’ Street.”

And dear reader, just in case you think, I am picking on this year’s prize, try this game; please go to any bookstore online and try to find any of these books that won previously. If you are in Nigeria, go to as many bookstores as your energy can muster and look for the books. Come back and tell me how many you found. I know the answer but I am trying hard to make a point, that we have to find a way to use the NLNG funds wisely. The NLNG folks are wasting money that could be better utilized to help our ailing publishing industry for instance. Do not get me wrong, I have said this ad nauseam, many of these writers deserve to be honored and rewarded for a lifetime of work in the service of our literature, but that is not what the NLNG Prize is currently doing. It is honoring books that are remarkable mostly by their absence from the market. That is absurd. There has to be a structural way to ensure that our  writers are not hurriedly stapling things together just to meet the deadline of a jackpot er literary prize.

And I have another suggestion for the NLNG folks. I know Nigeria honors patriarchy and gerontocracy but the NLNG prize does not have to replicate such foolishness. There is nothing wrong with having one or two elderly professors on the judge’s panel but for heavens’ sake please include some young people who actually read contemporary literature, I am saying include someone really young and knowledgeable, who does not actually use bifocals to read stuff. I doubt that there is anyone on that judges’ list that knows what a blog is. Don’t get me wrong, I have grown fond of the NLNG Prize but I think that there has to be a concerted effort by readers, writers, and publishers to ensure that the money allocated to this laudable activity yearly is well spent. Right now, I believe it is shaping up to be an annual farce.

What do I really think of the shortlist? Well, Ipadeola’s book sings. The Sahara Testaments is quite simply drop-dead gorgeous poetry. I am sure that Nnadi’s and Ogochukwu’s are similarly drop-dead gorgeous, offering awesome writing and deeply profound vision. It is just that we have not seen them.*cycles away slowly*

Faux Storms: Niyi Osundare on Achebe, Soyinka, Biafra and fathers

Please read today’s Kabir Alabi Garba’s interview of Professor Niyi Osundare in the Guardian, (Who Begat Literature, August 9, 2013). Ugh! Just when you think that certain issues have been laid to rest, someone comes along and asks the same questions over and over again. So, Garba asks Osundare about the dust-up regarding Achebe as the Founder of African literature, Achebe’s legacy, and of course, Achebe’s controversial best-seller, There Was A Country, the last book he wrote before he passed away ( Read my thoughts on the book here).

I respect and admire Professor Osundare immensely but the interview does him a great injustice. Our newspapers have invested in mediocrity. There is a reason why the reading culture is dying in Nigeria, these newspapers are not much better than akara wrappers. This interview should have been heavily edited, grammatical challenges make this long rambling interview remarkable in its shoddiness. The responses could have used a weed whacker. I always thought Professor Osundare’s strength was in the simplicity and grace of his prose. For a while there I was sure that it was Patrick Obahiagbon venting. Let’s examine his response on the Father of Literature nonsense:

The so-called ‘debate’ rankles in its utter banality and jejuneness. It’s nothing short of an exercise in false – but mischievous – genealogy, a nauseatingly egregious time-waster. As a writer, thinker, and humanist democrat, I’m averse to all kinds of assigned, imposed hierarchies and orchestrated myths of origin… ‘Who Is the Father of African literature’?  Let us go ridiculously biblical and reframe the question: Who Begat African Literature?  Yes, it’s that ludicrous… Well if we designate somebody — whether it’s Achebe or Soyinka — as the father of African literature, who then would be the  ‘Mother of African literature’? Where, then, are the children of African literature? I think this Father designation is a manifestation of the Nigerian habit of overpraising public figures and privileging them into autocratic arrogance. This patriarchalisation is just one step short of utter deification, one of the notorious practices of Nigeria’s public life. I don’t think any author worth his/her salt would be eager to don this mantle. African literature could do without this primogenitorial distraction.” 

Why are Nigerians being berated for what they did not do? We do not stay up at night worrying about who birthed African literature. Osundare is dead wrong when he says “we have to trace the origin of this Father – designation to critics, theorists, camp followers and praise singers.” Soyinka and Osundare should take their gripe to the Nobel laureate, Professor Nadine Gordimer of South Africa, yes, South Africa, NOT Nigeria. She it was in 2007 who called Achebe the “father of modern African literature” as one of the judges to award him the Man Booker prize. Google it

The learned professors are being literal with the term ‘father.”  All over the world, Achebe is considered the father of modern African literature not because he birthed it, but because of his superhuman efforts and influence on making African literature what it is today. “Father” is a metaphor for his achievements in that field. No one has had a greater influence than Chinua Achebe on African literature, no one. No African has had a greater influence than Chinua Achebe on English literature, no one. In any case, if Osundare agrees that Achebe rejected the title, what is he protesting about? 

And this from Osundare:

“Come to think of it: Have you ever heard any Chinese talk about the ‘Father’ of Chinese literature? Any European about the ‘Father’ of European literature? Any Asian about the ‘Father’ of Asian literature?”

Well, it is news to me that we have to seek validation and approval from the West in order to deploy simple metaphors. Osundare is wrong of course. The West is the land of metaphors and grand labels. Ever heard of Virginia Woolf? Google her.

And the whole conversation about the Nobel is so embarrassing it should be beneath comment. I read contemporary literature for hours on end daily; I am in virtually all the spaces where our stories are being told. I can say that the young generation of writers does not worry itself about the Nobel or fathers and children. They are reading and writing, mostly without the support of the older generation. Many of them are writing great stuff having graduated from the broken schools the older generation bequeathed them. The best legacy that the remaining older generation can hand over to the young is to emulate what our literary father Chinua Achebe modeled all his life – a love for teaching, learning, and continuous improvement in the service of children. Who could argue with that? As an aside, I think it is interesting that Osundare does not see beyond Soyinka, Achebe, JP Clark-Bekederemo and Okigbo as “the founding quartet.” Instead he sees Flora Nwapa as a student of Achebe. Today, Africa’s female writers are giving a great middle finger to patriarchy in literature thanks to muscular prose and out of the box thinking. Writers like Chimamanda Adichie, Taiye Selasie and NoViolet Bulawayo make many of their male counterparts look like distressed typists. Good for them. To hell with patriarchy.

As for the whole Biafra business, my mother once told me, if you beat a child, you must permit the child to cry. Those who were looking for objectivity in Achebe when it comes to Biafra are guilty of not being objective. It is a shame that Osundare is just now seeing the statements regarding Awolowo. Achebe first mentioned them in 1983. Fully two-thirds of There Was A Country may be found in Achebe’s earlier works. Do the research. It was not important then perhaps because he wrote them in a Nigerian publication. Once he repeated his assertions in the (White) West it became super-important. If a truth is uttered in Nigeria, no one reads or hears it.

On Biafra and Achebe’s views, Osundare is entitled to his opinion, but let me just say I know of many writers who would like the attention There Was A Country got. They would be smiling to the bank. These are all opinions and Achebe is entitled to his. I personally believe that the roles of Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Chief Anthony Enahoro (my tribesman, yes I used the word “tribe”) in endorsing starvation as a weapon of war were despicable. And I say that with all due respect to the two great leaders. They made a mistake. Let’s acknowledge it and move on. Anything less is disingenuous.

My last word. Watch this video. It is about the Asaba massacre in which over one thousand men were systematically slaughtered by Nigerian soldiers. The man who supervised this ethnic cleansing, Murtala Muhammed is a revered Nigerian hero, our airport is named after him and Naira bills have his face on them. I am sure there are some people who call Muhammed the father of modern Nigeria. Wait, that title belongs to Chief General Olusegun Obasanjo. That is how we roll around here. SMH.

Watch and weep: The Asaba Massacre…

And in case you missed the interview in the opening paragraph, please click here…

 

 

Americanah: Through a looking glass glumly

For you. “Ceiling,” poor thing!

Americanah bookThere are many good reasons to buy Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Adichie’s publisher should rise and take a bow. Americanah is an ode to editorial excellence. Not a word out of place. When the book is good, it is really good; defiance pops out of well-dug trenches, igniting wars that give the middle class and the poor in Nigeria and America the middle finger. Americanah confers on the reader a deep respect for Adichie’s industry and writing prowess. Many of the characters in Adichie’s Americanah live in my part of America. I do see my daughter in the book’s dingy apartments negotiating a hair weave. In this book of many opinions, Adichie handles the sensitive subject of child labor and house help abuse with mastery; this is what Adaobi Nwaubani should have done. The reader will swoon at her re-telling of America’s love affair with Barack Hussein Obama, of how millions of Americans held their breath on that night in 2008 as they waited for Obama to win the presidency.

Americanah is not a perfect book, but it is perhaps the best narrative on contemporary Nigerian life I have read in a long while. Campus life in Nigeria is expertly handled. Adichie captures the hustle – and the filthy bustle of campus life in Nigeria. The love-making between the two main protagonists, “Ceiling” Obinze and Ifemelu, may be cringe-worthy to some but felt authentically Nigerian. Adichie builds convincing characters in Aunty Uju and her son and the relationship between her and Ifemelu is moving. Adichie uses Nigerian lingo in convincing and refreshing ways. She captures the culture clash going into America comically; read Aunty Uju, the apologetic Nigerian, trying to be an American. As she channels Jhumpa Lahiri in the soulless tenements of her America, in the blandness of her America and her food garnished with tasteless spices and pretty words, the sadness weighs on you like a heavy winter coat three sizes too big for you:

In London, night came too soon, it hung in the morning air like a threat, and then in the afternoon a blue-grey dusk descended, and the Victorian buildings all wore a mournful air. In those first weeks, the cold startled Obinze with its weightless menace, drying his nostrils, deepening his anxieties, making him urinate too often. He would walk fast on the pavement, turned tightly into himself, hands deep in the coat his cousin had lent him, a grey wool coat whose sleeves nearly swallowed his fingers. Sometimes he would stop outside a tube station, often by a flower or a newspaper vendor, and watch the people brushing past him. They walked so quickly, these people, as though they had an urgent destination, a purpose to their lives, while he did not. His eyes would follow them, with a longing, and he would think: You can work, you are legal, you are visible, and you don’t even know how fortunate you are. (p 227)

Americanah is an ambitious but flawed chronicle, immensely readable, brilliant in parts, showing off some good writing. Tension snaps the pages. Adichie spares neither Nigeria nor America; she does have a soft spot for England. Her analysis of the politics of hair in the book is fascinating and engaging, even though there is hair everywhere, hair fascinates Adichie, and she shrinks from nothing, not even pubic hair. It is a near-fetish. In public interviews and comments, Adichie seems to regard growing natural hair as the next civil rights movement, and she comes across as evangelical and judgmental. Her treatment of the subject in the book however is actually entertaining and illuminating; not in-your-face judgmental. Yes, Americanah is an engaging book. Messy. Like life. Brilliant. Like life. Dumbass. Like life. Infuriating. Like life. Adorable. Like life. Bipolar. Like life. It is not hard to fall in love with a book that sighs like this:

For months, the air in their flat was like cracked glass. (p 41)

This is my favorite passage; it spoke to me in many ways:

And so she sent them invitation letters, bank statements, a copy of her green card. The American embassy was better now, the staff was still rude, her father said, but you no longer had to fight and shove outside to get in line. They were given six-month visas. They came for three weeks. They seemed like strangers. They looked the same, but the dignity she remembered was gone, and left instead something small, a provincial eagerness. Her father marveled at the industrial carpeting in the hallway of her apartment building; her mother hoarded faux-leather handbags at Kmart, paper napkins from the mall food court, even plastic shopping bags. They both posed for photos in front of JC Penney, asking Ifemelu to make sure she got the entire sign of the store. She watched them with a sneer, and for this she felt guilty; she had guarded their memories so preciously and yet, finally seeing them, she watched them with a sneer. p 301

What is the book about? It is several conversations about identity, race, immigration, class, exile, longing, and heartbreak, all of this drama carried out in Nigeria, England and America. And oh, it is about women’s hair, the politics of women’s hair, that is. Ifemelu, the protagonist, seemingly affected with the Sokugo wandering disease walks through life in a funk, draped in a supercilious daze, hating any and everything and every human in her tortured sights. It gets annoying really, well, until you meet “Ceiling” Obinze, the liberated, some would say, emasculated Nigerian man that is the only one good enough for Ifemelu. And boy, is he liberated. He chops greens in kitchens, cleans and cooks and does not grunt, fart and dig into his butt like most Nigerian men seem to do in the book with gleeful abandon. You almost expect to see him in the next page with a baby firmly tied to his feminist back with a woman’s wrapper loudly featuring the picture of a scowling fist pumping NGO feminist and the words I LUV MY STRONG BLACK WOMAN!  Many would say he Obinze is weak also; he deserts his long suffering wife who is not good enough for his eclectic and intellectual tastes (he did marry her, duh!) and ends up with Ifemelu, the love of his life. And they live happily after. End of discussion. Well, not really.

It must be said: Americanah is a work of intense industry, it is not easily dismissed. Adichie’s research skills are meticulous for the most part; you fall in love with her demons’ passions and obsessions. It features good, well-edited writing. Every writer should get a copy of the book. Part 3 houses my favorite passages. It is lucid and fluid. Adichie is on the saddle here. It is as if two different people wrote the book. Here, Obinze the male protagonist stars and shines and Adichie is at her best; tart prose and attitude strutting all over the place, stab, stab, stab with the mind. The book is more comfortable with England than with America and Obinze is a more believable and pleasant character than Ifemelu. He rescues the book somewhat from the carcinogen of Ifemelu’s intense neurosis.

What is there to dislike about Americanah? Plenty. For starters, the pseudo-intellectual over-analysis grates on the weary reader; it is is cloying and eye-roll inducing – Adichie’s mind reaches for intellectual complexity where the simple would do. Supercilious anecdote after patronizing condescending pat on the head and the reader is soon done with the book. Adichie, using Ifemelu as a proxy, analyzes everything and the analysis is not always the best. No wonder the book is hefty. Many African writers tend to deploy caricatures to analyze issues. It can be effective. In Americanah’s case it is simply overdone and it diminishes the book immensely. Also, sometimes, Americanah feels and tastes like sugary processed food. Top that with cheesy romance layered on social commentary, and the reader soon chants Halleluiah! as the book mercifully trots mechanically to a pre-determined end, like a mass-produced batch of cookies out of a Starbucks oven.

Americanah proudly shows off botched attempts at innovation. Ifemelu’s “blog posts” in the book would have made good provocative essays. However, they are not very good, filled with generalizations and specious arguments, prescriptive at best, never examining why things are the way they are. They are at best mildly thoughtful as if the blogger was too lazy or timid to fully flesh out the thoughts. There is no vision here which is fine if it is just for entertainment but then the book strains to be taken seriously. It tries too hard. And in there lies the possibility that like many African writers straining to write “fiction” true success may lie in simply writing good essays.

There is a formulaic feel to Americanah. There is no perfect novel but as fiction goes, Americanah plays it safe, straight off the orthodoxy of an MFA program. All the rules of “good writing” are checked. Meticulously. As a near-aside, I would hate to be an author today. In the age of social media, readers already burdened with ADHD issues have more reading options than in the halcyon, analog days of old. Today, a book must engage readers or they are back to typing “LOL” on inane luscious Facebook gossip. At almost 500 pages, Americanah is too fat for the 21st century. It is engaging but unless you are a hermit, reading it will take forever.

For many African writers, fiction provides a sense of security and a wide, comfortable palette to discuss social/political issues. It is fair however to question whether Adichie should have used the essay format instead of fiction to address all the social anxieties in the book. After Anthills of the Savannah, Chinua Achebe stopped using fiction to comment on social and political issues. He wrote brilliant essays as a result. I think Americanah should have been a book of essays. Even at that it would have needed considerable work.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

In Americanah, Adichie handles the new Christianity, the new plague destroying much of Black Africa well, but there is nothing new here really; it has been covered ad nauseam by many contemporary African writers, most recently by the brilliant NoViolet Bulawayo in her stunning debut We Need New Names. Similarly, the analysis of exile and alienation comes across as dated. Example: In the 2000s Adichie’s characters are still writing letters and mailing them in place of email. This is a possibility, a quaint, remote plausibility though. Historical fiction is still as relevant as ever, however the writer has an obligation to be true to the times. A writer must understand and be in sync with the new culture of life today. Social media, cellphones, the Internet have reengineered how we live in spectacular ways and with muscle. Adichie proves convincingly that she does not much understand the culture of social media. She grafts their tools clumsily on the old and they sit in the book like congealed oil on water. Chat rooms! It is cringe-worthy reading about chat rooms today. Who goes to chat rooms anymore?

Where Adichie really loses it is in her analysis of race issues in the West. The book swims in cute anecdotes about race – in black and white, but it is complicated. Adichie’s world view on race relations in America misreads the huge demographic shifts sweeping America. America is browning. It is strange, for example, that a book on exile, immigration and race is virtually silent on Hispanics (there is a little paragraph in the book somewhere that seems to do no more than acknowledge the existence of Hispanics). America is browning and Hispanics and Asians have a lot to do with the phenomenon. In many parts of America whole swathes speak only Spanish. In the 21st century, America is not just black and white. There are other races and ethnicities. And there is the Internet.

The discussion on race in Americanah also seemed contrived. In order to cover the prism of race, Ifemelu, the protagonist dutifully dates a white man and then an African American man. Sadly, perhaps mercifully, the book clatters to a cheesy end before Ifemelu turns her jaundiced eyes on a Latino. Adichie touches on the tension between African Americans and Africans but it is a blurb. It could have been teased out more. Some of the dialogue on race is simply awful.  When Ifemelu snarls at VS Naipaul’s self-loathing, the retort might as well have been aimed at her – she reeks of self-loathing. (See my essay, The Naipaul in us). Ifemelu channels Naipaul in her despair and shows little compassion for the truly dispossessed immigrants who fled the black-on-black crime of their ancestral lands. An overly Westernized Ifemelu and Obinze are now the caricatures that Ifemelu despises.

How far is the book removed from Adichie’s life? We may never know but when Adichie riffs about Baltimore the book seems merely autobiographical and morphs into a book about terrifying personal anxieties. At Adichie’s book reading in London, to her chagrin the white moderator kept mistaking Ifemelu’s views for Adichie’s. That faux pas spoke volumes about how readers may perceive the book. The moderator may be on to something. In this video clip Adichie admits that a lot of the protagonist’s views are hers. Interestingly, at the book reading, Adichie also called Americanah a “Nigerian” book. Perhaps. It is certainly a book about Nigerian lives. If it is an authentically Nigerian book, she has a strange way of showing it. Americanah is a book struggling for identity. Nigerian words are meticulously italicized and neat tricks are deployed to explain them to a presumably Western audience. All the blurb writers are “posh white men” Adichie’s favorite phrase at the book reading. Surely there are Nigerian writers of stature who could have been coaxed to write a blurb for her book. Instead she trots out Dave Eggers and Colum McCann, “posh white” thinkers who proceed to be effusive in praise of a book allegedly about Nigeria.

Americanah is about a lot of issues, several of them handled rather poorly. In Adichie’s treatment of class issues, there is not much tension here, just a meandering exercise in upper middle-class narcissistic navel gazing, with reams of condescension and a certain lack of compassion shown to those ruined by Nigeria’s ruling and intellectual elite. One gets the sense that for Adichie and many African writers, fiction is a convenient proxy for airing societal dysfunction, preferably in self-absorbed prose. The reader is paying for someone else’s navel-gazing.

In Americanah, Adichie displays a knack for detail, nothing escapes her cynical eyes. Nigeria’s Jhumpa Lahiri, she is this fastidious house inspector groping for dirt in your bathroom. She takes superciliousness and patronizing condescension to chic heights. Americanah bears heavy echoes of Lahiri’s superciliousness. There is no joy here, just people waking up and doing what they have to do. Ifemelu will not be pleased. Nothing impresses her. Ifemelu is anal-retentive, indeed many Americans would call her an asshole. She has a huge chip on her cute shoulders. And it is ugly, bristling with impatience, a quickness to judge others using pseudo-intellectual psychobabble. And she overanalyzes everything. I mean everything. Even the peppersoup is overanalyzed. Just eat the damn thing. While Ifemelu’s preferred romantic relationships were with Western men, she hardly had any respectful conversation with anyone in the West. Everything is tinged with race. In Ifemelu’s world, America is a tired, smelly place clothed in a culture of despair. Many would disagree.

Americanah is pages of caricature perhaps because in the eyes of many writers, Nigeria is a caricature nation. I could see the white editors gleefully preparing the book for the market. Do you blame them? White folks come off easy compared to Africans. With Africans mimicry is chic. And then there is the misandry. The book sometimes reads like one long lament about misbehaving slovenly Nigerian men. It is as if Adichie is gathering evidence, doing a “discovery” for possible divorce from horrid Nigerian men.  In Americanah and I must observe, much of the fiction written today by female African writers, the subtext seems to be to portray African men as buffoons. One is struck by the rising tide of misandry, a surging contempt for African men. It manifests itself in many forms: African men as bumbling caricatures, relationship-averse, overweight butt-scratching, belching cave-men, usually absent (at least emotionally) from their kids, pathetic shadows of what they should be, as measured against an absurd asymptote – an idealized man drawn from Western feminist babble-speak.

While exaggeration is a useful tool for providing clarity in debates, much of what I am reading lately is over the top pompous nonsense, uncritical mimicry of the chic contempt Western feminist militants hold for the evil men that live rent-free in their red-wine addled heads. There is a crying need for a more original and nuanced analysis of the troubled relationship between men and women in Black Africa. The persistent negative depictions of African men in these books read like misandry. And it is. There are two separate issues here that are at risk of being conflated: Patriarchy and its attendant brutalization of women and children, and, the misrepresentation of men in these books, of African men as inarticulate bumbling idiots with the manners of unwashed cave men. We need original thinkers, looking at African lives out of the box of Western dysfunction.

There is no true fiction; there is the politics of fiction. We know what the word has done to the perception of African Americans. We know, thanks to Chinua Achebe, what Joseph Conrad’s words were signifying. Achebe in deconstructing Conrad and VS Naipaul was not attempting to censor them. Achebe was right to stand up for Africans; Africans are not the dolts that are represented in Conrad’s books. Similarly, much of what I am reading about men in contemporary writing by female African writers is arrant nonsense, borne perhaps out of self-loathing and an unconscious desire to measure everything against a White asymptote. It is pure mimicry, there is no intellectual depth to the conversations (Why are things the way they are?) The mimicry is of comic proportions and ultimately diminishes everyone, and the authors.

Here is a typical description of one of the men of Americanah:

“Bartholomew wore khaki trousers pulled up high on his belly, and spoke with an American accent filled with holes, mangling words until they were impossible to understand. Ifemelu sensed, from his demeanour a deprived rural upbringing that he tried to compensate for with his American affectation, his gonnas and wannas.” (p 115)

And there is more:

“Ifemelu should not have spoken, but there was something about Bartholomew that made silence impossible, the exaggerated caricature that he was, with his back-shaft haircut unchanged since he came to America thirty years ago and his false overheated moralities. He was one of those people who, in his village back home, would be called “lost.” He went to America and got lost, his people would say. He went to America and refused to come back. (p 116)

Ghana      Taiye Selasi

Adichie’s Americanah came out at at the same time as stunning debut works by NoViolet Bulawayo and  Taiye Selasi (We Need New Names and Ghana Must Go respectively), featuring fresh scintillating prose and new and mostly profound analysis of our world and the challenges of the new immigrant in the 21st century. Scholars would do well to study these three books and try to make sense of the differing visions of these three thinkers of color. The contrasting visions of these three writers signal many things; a paradigm shift in how we view exile, alienation and race relations – and an end to the domination by Adichie of contemporary African literature. It is a good thing. We need new and fresh voices. At the book reading in London, a fawning member of the audience called Adichie the mother of contemporary African literature. Adichie shot back in swift repudiation of the insincere title: “See me see trouble O!” Adichie is perceptive and astute. Who wan die?

Names

                                              bulawayo2

The Oga at the Top in us

One learns something new about Nigeria every day. Apparently there is a governmental outfit called the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), it sounds like a uniformed service; I am not sure that it knows what it does, not that you could tell from its website (www.nscdc.gov.ng) but more on that later. Well, so one Mr. Obafaiye Shem, Lagos State “Commandant” of the NCSDC decided to grant an interview to Channels TV, my favorite Nigerian TV station, one that gives me hope that things might change for the better in Nigeria (witness here, the stellar work they did in shocking the world with gory visual of a dilapidated Ikeja Police College).

oga at the top1

Well, it is now part of Nigerian folklore, the interview did not go well; actually it was an epic disaster. This video clip shows Shem trying to bluster his way through a seemingly simple question: “What is your website?” Every Nigerian on earth seems to have watched the clip so I won’t ask you to watch it. It was an awful interview and Shem blew it big time. A trained professional knows to simply say “Great question, I don’t have the answer to your question but I will be happy to provide the response later.” No, not this Nigerian civil servant, he hems and haws, claims that only his “Oga at the top” can authorize release of this super-secret website address and after relentless badgering by smirking, skeptical TV hosts, he blurts out a lie on national television: www.nscdc! And he ends with a flourish, ‘Dasall!” Yep, that’s all! That’s all!

And the rest is history; the ignorance of Shem the “Commandant” remains viral on social media, Oga at the Top! T-shirts are selling like hot cakes and several musical pieces have been birthed by creative Nigerian youths. This is a hilarious time for the Nigerian community online and on the ground. Shem was the visual embodiment of the pejorative that Nigeria is fast becoming: Here comes Nigeria, our masquerade, all decked out in the colors of borrowed plumage, of the ostrich. Fingers pointing here and jabbing there, feathers rising in protest to show her yansh, Nigeria, bullshit merchant. #MyOgaAtTheTop! Yep, faced with a looming immolation by young Turks, the hapless guy decided to bluff his way past the road block in a scene reminiscent of the confrontation between the leopard and the tortoise in that hilarious fable in Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah:

Once upon a time the leopard who had been trying for a long time to catch the tortoise finally chanced upon him on a solitary road. ‘Aha,’ he said; at long last! Prepare to die.’ And the tortoise said: ’Can I ask one favour before you kill me?’ The leopard saw no harm in that and agreed. ‘Give me a few moments to prepare my mind,’ the tortoise said. Again the leopard saw no harm in that and granted it. But instead of standing still as the leopard had expected the tortoise went into strange action on the road, scratching with hands and feet and throwing sand furiously in all directions. ’ Why are you doing that?’ asked the puzzled leopard. The tortoise replied: ‘Because even after I am dead I would want anyone passing by this spot to say, yes, a fellow and his match struggled here.’” (pp. 117-118)

Let me concede that the video is quite simply hilarious. I have it on repeat and I keep watching and laughing and wondering about the chutzpah of our people. But lost in all that mirth is the unprofessional conduct of the journalists who served as hosts during the interview. What happened is just not done in respectable journalism; this was a gotcha, a high tech lynching. There is precedence for this. In 1988, George Will, the revered conservative American journalist, a bit peeved that America seemed to be taking the Reverend Jesse Jackson too seriously in his campaign for presidency decided (in my opinion and that of many) to embarrass him by asking him this technical question on television, “As president, would you support measures such as the G-7 measures of the Louvre Accords?” (The accords were technical agreements employed the previous year to stabilize exchange rates.) Of course Jesse Jackson did not know the answer and he looked pretty stupid on television. George Will suffered a backlash that endures to this day with many suggesting that his obtuse line of interviewing was racist (read one example here). The late African American journalist, William Raspberry asserted that Will seemed eager “to embarrass the candidate rather than to flesh out his policy position.”

Back to the Oga at the Top interview, both sides seemed unprepared for a substantive interview. Everything on that set smelled of mimicry, from the attitude of the hosts and guests to the faux set – the West is an asymptote. The attitude brays, This is how they do it in America, to be successful we must try to do it like them. The interview came across as a Nollywood comedy with Shem the guest as the best comedy actor of the lot with the hosts playing overwrought supporting bit parts. What happened here is also a conversation about generational disconnect, the older generation still has the power but is increasingly comically disconnected and long in the tooth when it comes to accountability and technological advances; the younger generation, on the other hand, long used to being ignored, abused even, has the new knowledge base.  They see the older generation as mostly bullshit artists, conmen who are busy running the country aground. The older generation in turn sees the young as smirking upstarts too quick to try to embarrass their elders. There is mutual disdain and disrespect between the flawed generations.

In my view, the hosts were guilty of embarrassing their guest. It seems to me unusual and unethical to keep badgering a guest for information, especially when you have clearly made the point that the guest does not have the information. In any case, professional interviewers do their homework; for such an important agency, the website’s address should have been obtained beforehand and scrolled across the screen for viewers.  When it became clear the guest did not have the answer, the polite thing to do would have been to move on. You could see in the eyes of the hosts and in their body language that they were sure the man was full of shit. They saw blood and went for red meat. It bears repeating: That interview was a cringe-worthy exercise in unprofessional journalism. It was not a good moment for Channels TV.  This was a high tech lynching of a clueless Nigerian civil servant by smirking leaders of a younger generation only too happy to humiliate a visible symbol of all that they have grown up to hate.

oga at the top2And so, what is the website of the NSCDC? The man gave the wrong answer, half of the address: “www.nscdc. Dasall!” He was technically wrong. But there is a real sense in which he was right. Have you been to the NSCDC’s website? It is disgraceful; the website is awful, just awful. It should actually be pulled down until someone can come up with a professional site. Yes, the real scandal is the state of the website. The website www.nscdc.gov.ng is a riot of mediocrity loudly advertising the sad fact that Nigeria does not respect herself, does not take herself seriously. Grammatically challenged sentences jostle with each other for bragging rights in Grammar’s Hall of Shame. There is no doubt that this pretend website was built at great cost to Nigeria by a semi-literate relative of the”Oga at the top” of the NSCDC. Go over to the website and see for yourself, many of the links take you to sites that are “under construction” in addition to the occasional broken link. This is consistent with the shoddy websites of virtually every Nigerian public institution I have ever visited as I chronicled in the essay, Viewing Nigeria through a web of broken links. What is wrong with our people? A well-prepared journalist would have done the research first and confronted this guest with hard questions about the sorry state of the website. No, we like to embarrass ourselves before the world.

Like our government, the website is a lurid investment in pretend processes and structures, empty portals with no indication when, if they will ever be filled with substance. And the website is comical in its shoddiness. There are several pictures of a well-fed “officer” on “a peace-keeping mission” – in Italy of all places. Apparently, Italy is a hot bed of insurrection; he is dressed in battle fatigues posing in what looks to me like a shopping mall. Estacode! If Jon Gambrell of the AP writes a snarky story about this buffoonery, Nigerian intellectuals will come out with their sharp pens screaming racism, whine, whine, whine. If you don’t respect yourself, what do you expect foreigners to do?

Shem had no business knowing the address of the website, because like most things with the Nigerian government, it is a pretend structure, no one goes there, except to “share money”, there is nothing there for anyone who is serious about knowing whatever the NSCDC does. It is just another website aping what happens elsewhere. All the website says is that NSCDC is of questionable value to Nigeria and Nigerians. That may well be the truth. Yep, Nigeria has carved for itself a shameful reputation as a rogue nation governed by rogues and managed by rogue civil servants. Our rulers and civil servants are ruining Nigeria through management by mimicry, all sizzle and no suya.

Let me observe that there is something really perverse about ridiculing a man for mangling the address of a website in the same week that the president of our nation proudly conferred a presidential pardon on a convicted criminal wanted in pretty much every serious country outside our borders. We are not a serious people; our outrage melts into mirth because laughter is an easy medicine for managing our condition.  By the way, we should also learn to respect each other. If that guest was white, you would see all the hosts falling over themselves to ask soft-ball questions, fawning and showing all their white teeth in obsequious subservience. But then, to be fair, the white person would have come prepared to respond to soft questions. I tire sha.

oga at the top 3So why did we laugh so hard at the man’s discomfiture? Well, a few years ago, the most visual example of the caricature that Nigerian public education makes out of our beautiful children burst forth in the form of Rita, the kokolet of Koko Mansion. Rita managed to mangle every sentence that her lips uttered. Her video also went viral and the cruelty was something to behold. Many who laughed at Rita had managed to escape the gulag that was her lot in the public schools of Nigeria. Many who laughed at her were educated abroad from looted funds that were meant for the education of children in Nigeria’s public schools. Rita probably “graduated” from one of the public schools in this awful video documenting our decaying public schools, home only to the truly dispossessed.  We enjoy berating victims. As for this Oga at the Top video, we laughed because perhaps it helps us deny that the man in the mirror is us.  When we see Shem in that odious video, we see us, and like those young journalists, we recoil and shudder – with disgust and self-loathing. The cackle coming from us, the hoots of derision are for us, this is what we have become. Yes, for those of us who yell at Western journalists for only telling the single story about Africa, this is what they see, the mimicry that makes them mock us. This is what they see. We are who we are. I salute Nigeria. I salute “Commandant” Shem. I salute us.

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