Ikhide

Father, Fighter, Lover

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[Guest BlogPost] Stanley Onjezani Kenani: Waiting for departure in Port Harcourt

‘I am going to Nigeria!’ I said when the Africa39 list was announced.

 Online newspapers in Malawi did not know what to make of the news. ‘Malawian writers Stanley Onjezani Kenani and Shadreck Chikoti have been named  among 39 under 40,’ one paper wrote. In the comments section, an anonymous reader rightly asked: ‘What does that mean?’

 Another paper probably understood too much about what the news meant, because it wrote: ‘Kenani and Chikoti have been selected among 39 best African writers under the age of 40.’ They put a photo of a smiling me at the centre of the article. I weigh slightly over a hundred kilos, and my stomach looks like I am seven months pregnant.

First comment: ‘Is the man in the photo really under 40? Please, let us not be like African footballers, always understating their age.’ Farther down the comments section, a former classmate in college jumped to my defence. ‘I was in the same class with him,’ he wrote. ‘He was tiny before he started working for a hotel.’ But the news had by that time ceased to be about what the Africa39 list meant.

I wrote the editor of the online outfit to clarify that we were not 39 ‘best African writers under the age of 40.’ There were finer writers out there who were not on the list. I mentioned NoViolet Bulawayo as an obvious example. We were, instead, ‘39 of the most promising African writers under the age of 40’. Ignoring my point, he wrote back: ‘How much money have they given you for making the list?’

 I gave up.

But the way the news was received showed that Africa39 meant different things to different people. To me, it meant going to Nigeria to eat jollof rice. My work as an accountant gives me few opportunities to interact with like-minded individuals. In Geneva, Switzerland, where I live, there is hardly any friend I could meet and discuss writing with.

So I looked forward to interacting with all those wonderful people, colleagues I had known for a while like Rotimi Babatunde and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, and lots of others I would be meeting for the first time, among them the brilliant Kenyan poet Clifton Gachagua, whose poetry collection, Mad man at Kilifi, I was reading alongside Kei Miller’s awesome The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion.

I was curious about the format the Port Harcourt gathering was going to take. I hoped it would be like Macedonia’s Struga Poetry Evenings where, after reading our poems back in 2007, we poets would gather at the balcony of the Hotel Drim to drink free wine or beer or coffee while talking about Ezra Pound or any of the greats. Or Poetry Africa in Durban where I had the chance to sit down for dinner with Dennis Brutus two years before his death. In short, I hoped for a collegial atmosphere that would make it possible for me to build new friendships.

Port Harcourt, however, turned out to be a disappointment in some way – and I am speaking for myself. The only time the writers got to meet as one group was when they sat on the bus to go to the University of Port Harcourt, or to the Ken Saro-Wiwa Centre, or to the Alliance française.

Africa39  1There was an attempt at organizing a cocktail on the festival’s opening day. The only drink featured was fruit juice. It was a colossal failure.

But not all was lost. Those who knew each other before Port Harcourt gathered in smaller groups in the evenings to chat. They sat next to the swimming pool at the foot of the ten-storey Presidential Hotel where those who could afford ordered drinks from the hotel’s expensive poolside bar.

I got to know Eghosa Imasuen this way. Desperate to shake off boredom one evening, I wandered to join a group of people I was not familiar with. And there was Eghosa. And Lola Shoneyin. And Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr. And Chibundu Onuzo. And a few other wonderful people.

Eghosa is the type of person that makes you feel as though the two of you have already met before. He started off with imitating my voice in a way that made everyone laugh. He had heard me earlier speaking on behalf of the other writers at the opening ceremony, and it was the delivery of that speech he imitated with admirable exaggeration. Great guy, Eghosa. I looked for a copy of his book, Fine Boys, but by the time I got it, he had already left the festival, depriving me of the chance for his autograph.

Ad hoc gatherings like these are what rescued the book festival from becoming too boring for me.  Organizers, friendly and helpful whenever you accosted them for help, gave me the overall impression of being overwhelmed by the enormity of the moment.

Africa39 2Days were long and empty, especially since there was only one event per day. Some of those once-a-day outings were not as satisfactory as I would have wanted them to be, because it mostly meant mentioning your name, which the audience were probably hearing for the first time, and in all likelihood forgot it as soon as you finished introducing yourself. You could also probably say a sentence or two about your work, and that was all. We were, after all, 22 of us, and moderating such a crowd was far from easy. Perhaps if it were any person other than the brilliant Ellah Allfrey as moderator, the events could have been without life.

I tried to enjoy the Nigeria I had come to see. I tasted the food and ventured into the streets. I saw excellent buildings of a city on the rise. I saw churches of various names and sizes. Cars seemed to be in a perpetual ‘go-slow’ or ‘hold-up,’ terms meant to classify various types of traffic jam. If Port Harcourt is like this, I wondered, what about Lagos?

On our way to the University of Port Harcourt, I saw a giant billboard touting the Rivers State development agenda. At the foot of that billboard a man was passing urine, and for a moment I wondered whether that was a kind of protest, that he was deliberately pissing on his state’s development agenda.

At the Ken Saro-Wiwa Centre, a poster on a building across the street said, ‘We must try our best to make the next governor of Rivers State an Ijaw man or woman.’

Horrified by such blatant tribalism, I said to the man standing next to me, ‘In Malawi, where I come from, that would be illegal.’ The man, probably Nigerian, said that maybe Nigerians were right to drop the pretences. ‘In Kenya, for instance,’ he said, ‘I hear such a poster would also be illegal. But, believe it or not, privately Kikuyus would in general say they want the next president to be a Kikuyu; and Luos would say they want a Luo.’

I ventured back into the Ken Saro-Wiwa Centre. I found that writers had quickly organized themselves for an impromptu show. Ricaredo Boturu from Equatorial Guinea read us a beautiful poem in Spanish; Chibundu Onuzo sang, Nana Brew-Hammond and others read from the Africa39 anthology or recited poems of their own. Glaydah Namukasa presented an interesting piece in Luganda.

But aside from such flashes of interesting outings, the entire event, on my part, passed with me lying on bed and yawning, waiting for departure.

Finally, we left. At the airport, the security guard nearly blocked me from proceeding to the departure gate. Apparently, he did not understand French and German – the only languages written on my Swiss residency permit.

About five people inside the airport asked me for money: the police who searched my bag, immigration officials who stamped my passport and security guards who screened my hand luggage. But it was the sixth person who impressed me, because he asked for a book. I gave him José Saramago’s The year of the death of Ricardo Reis.

We were three hours early for the flight, but an interesting chat with Tope Folarin made those hours fly by unnoticed. Tope’s work ethic left me so inspired that I boarded the plane looking forward to a lot of writing back home.

As my plane shot into the dark skies of the Port Harcourt night, I told myself that it had certainly been worth my while to come, to see the Nigeria I had always wanted to visit. I wished, however, that the event had been shorter and more compact.

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stanleyStanley Onjezani Kenani is a writer from Malawi. Shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2008 and 2012, he was named as one of the Africa39. His short story, The Old Man and the Pub, is part of the Africa39 anthology edited by Ellah Allfrey and published by Bloomsbury in October 2014. An accountant, he currently lives and works in Switzerland.

Ikhide Ikheloa: Analog Origins, Digital Destinations

The Internet for me has been invaluable in networking, propagating and sharing ideas all over the world. There is no way I would have reached so many people in an analog world. I do find it frustrating on one level: One’s works are scattered all over the place and it is virtually impossible to gather them under one roof if one is prolific or garrulous. I am garrulous. Take interviews, I have granted quite a few of those but it is hard to remember where and to whom. I would like to start the difficult procees of collecting my documented thoughts under one umbrella, perhaps using this blog. Here is an interview I did with Sola Osofisan. It is one of my favorites. Here is how I introduce him in the interview:

Sola Osofisan: Chief Ikhide…I still think of you as Nnamdi, that faceless guy shooting out those occasional musings on our varied experiences in America. We published a whole chain of essays from you on Nigeriansinamerica.com as far back as 2002. But I never asked you why you had to publish under a pseudonym back then. Is it time to share the story of how and why you came up with Nnamdi? And when did you realize it was time to retire him and let Ikheloa roar?

Ikhide Ikheloa: Sola, so, I don’t know that many people know about you, certainly not about your pioneering work in the field of African literature, in introducing an entire generation of writers and thinkers to that huge canvas in the sky that we call the Internet. I am thinking of your work with your websites Nigerians in America and africanwriter.com. I am also thinking of your leadership on the listserve Krazitivity, the first real digital watering hole for Nigerian writers, artists and thinkers, from Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie to Helon Habila, folks like Afam Akeh, E.C. Osondu, Toni Kan Onwordi, Remi Raji, Chika Okeke, Wumi Raji, Unoma Azuah, Jahman Anikulapo, Victor Ekpuk, Chika Unigwe, Olu Oguibe, Nnorom Azuonye, Obi Nwakanma, Obemata (Abdul Mahmud), Molara Wood, Victor Ehikhamenor, Lola Shoneyin, Amatoritsero Ede, Pius Adesanmi, Tade Ipadeola, Tolu Ogunlesi, etc. etc. In those days, if you were not on Krazitivity, you had not arrived, as a writer. We should hold a reunion. This is my long rambling way of saluting you for your quiet, purposeful work as a digital visionary, helping to shape, without fanfare, the trajectory of literature. The world may not know you, but I hope history shines a light on you as that mysterious near-mythic force that helped nurture African literature on the digital space in the 21st century. I salute you. You are famously reclusive, and so unlike many of your peers, you are not an e-household name, but you do have a cult following (me included) who adore you for your mind and awesome prose poetry. For those who do not know you, I would recommend your latest book, Blood Will Call of which E.E. Sule did a wonderful review (here).

I love this interview because it is as comprehensive as you would get into my ideas about literature and the Internet. It also compiles at the end other interviews I have done.

Now read the rest of the interview here…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the boys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My mother’s cell phone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Half of a Yellow Sun – The movie

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

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

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

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

[Guest BlogPost – Professor Pius Adesanmi] #WhoOwnsTheProblem?

By Professor Pius Adesanmi

Winner, the Penguin Prize for African Writing

Author of  You’re Not a Country, Africa!

Carnegie Diaspora Visiting Professor, University of Ghana, Legon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   –  Chris Dunton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Guest BlogPost -Wandia Njoya] When we remember, we believe

Address at Rwanda Genocide Commemoration “Kwibuka 20”

Mount Kenya University, Thika

on 14th March 2014

by

Wandia Njoya,

njoyaWandia Njoya teaches Literature and French at Daystar University in Kenya, where she also serves as the Head of Department of Language and Performing Arts. Wandia received her PhD in French from the Pennsylvania State University, and has taught in Kenya, US and France. She has published articles and has presented conference papers in Rwanda, Kenya and the United States on the African literature, culture and politics. She tweets @wmnjoya.

Your Excellency, Yamina Karitanyi, the Rwandan High Commissioner to Kenya,

Hon. Ezekiel Mutua, Ministry of Information

Your Excellencies, High Commissioners, Ambassadors and Representatives of Countries represented here,

Students and teachers, and our generous host, Prof Stanley Waudo, Vice-Chancellor of Mount Kenya University

Fellow East Africans,

I am always humbled to talk about the horror that visited our Rwandan brothers and sisters in April 1994, when families were tortured and wiped out because of the ethnic tag “Tutsi.” No matter how much I read and listen to the testimony of victims of the genocide against the Tutsi, I can never imagine even half the horror they must have felt to see their fellow Rwandans, emptied of their humanity, turn against their neighbors, friends and relatives and deny the humanity of others.

We must honor the memory of the victims. We must pray for the survivors who lived through the horror, and pledge to support them and Rwandans in their recovery, in whatever small way we can. And what is our support?

We in the universities may have no millions stashed away to open a school for people who need education. We may have no medical training to heal those still traumatized. All we have is our intellectual training. Frantz Fanon, the writer of the classic The Wretched of the Earth, when speaking of the anti-colonial wars in Africa in the 1950s, said that while the contribution of politicians is on the military battlefield, the contribution of intellectuals to the war for freedom is on the battleground of history. So my remarks here today are my small contribution to the journey of Rwandans as they “Remember, unite and renew.”

But while this commemoration is about Rwandans, I must address the reality that right here and now, I am speaking mostly to Kenyans. And standing here, I am requesting Kenyans, boundaries away from Rwanda, though in the same East African community, to remember what happened in Rwanda, to unite with Rwandans, and to walk with Rwandans as they renew their commitment to humanity, to living together in peace and dignity, and to prosperity.

But why must Kenyans remember the genocide against the Tutsi?

For me, the answer has always been this simple: what happened in Rwanda, and what was continues to happen to Rwanda, happens because Rwandans are Africans. Rwandans’ fate and tragedy – but also triumph and recovery – are an integral part of the African story. Even though the Rwandan people are unique, with their own culture, history and identity, the political circumstances that incubated the genocide against Tutsis were to be found in many places in the continent. Including here in Kenya.

Like many Africans, Rwandans suffered the brutality of colonial rule, first at the hands of the Germans, then at the hands of the Belgians under King Leopold whose ghost continues to haunt Congo. Rwandan men were forced to migrate to countries like Tanzania and Uganda to sell their labor in order to earn money pay hut taxes. Under Belgian rule, Rwandans had to take part in forced labor, often under the humiliation of being whipped like slaves. In a country where land use was already stretched, the Catholic church and colonial government voraciously appropriated land for colonial institutions.

And when it came to culture and education, the Belgian government did the unforgiveable: it destroyed the ties within the Rwandan community as its tactic of divide and rule. It then baptized three socio- economic classes, races or ethnic groups, and started to teach Rwandans that they were three different tribes, even though they were one people who spoke one language, believed in one God Imana, and were from the same families and clans.

Besides condemning Rwandan culture as barbarian and unchristian, colonialism incorporated the Tutsi elite in implementing the humiliating forced labor and appropriation of land. Worse, given that the Belgians considered labor Rwanda’s only resource, Belgians made little effort in educating the people, and the few education opportunities available were used to favor a few and discriminate against the majority. The very few schools that were ever built were built by mainly by a very conservative Catholic order whose goal was to convert; not to broaden the minds of the African students. Meanwhile, the government’s only interest was in training collaborators from among the Tutsi elite. And then when the wind of change blew across Africa in the late 1950s, the Belgians switched sides, sponsored an ill-thought “revolution” in 1959 that saw the first purge of Tutsis. At independence, Belgium left Rwanda with an ill-educated population, a crowded country with barely any land to live on, with a paranoid and ignorant Hutu regime, poor infrastructure, surrounded by refugees humiliated in Uganda and Congo, basically fermenting in the hatred and poverty that would explode in waves of genocidal violence in 1973, 1990, and eventually 1994.

Rwanda was suffering because she was colonized, and she was colonized because she was African. But when each cycle of violence broke out, the world forgot the colonial part of the equation and only remembered that Rwanda was in Africa. So as Rwandan women were brutally raped and spears inserted through one end of their body to the other, while men were castrated and left to die a slow death on trees, while dogs fed on the insides of people cut open but who were still breathing, while the rivers were full of rotting bodies, while Ugandans near the shared water bodies with Rwanda found human body parts in the fish they caught, the international community just looked on and said “that’s Africa.” French president François Mitterand even remarked that “in places like that, genocide is not a big deal.”

kwibukaflameuseBut finally, Rwanda emerged from the ashes of genocide and began to reconstruct itself. And all of a sudden, the very community that looked away as one million people were killed, now wanted to dictate how Rwanda was going to be rebuilt. The Western powers now wanted to offer a blanket amnesty with no trials of the criminals, wanted NGOs to dictate Rwanda’s development agenda, and assigned themselves the role of approving Rwandans’ political choices. But Rwandans have proved resilient and determined to push back, on their own terms, the deliberate underdevelopment of colonial times, and this they have done through universal literacy, health care, a new constitution and a progressive political culture.

But Rwanda has gotten this far because she committed herself to remember. By remembering where she came from, the injustice that created the horror of the genocide, Rwandans are able to unite and forge ahead, believing that even though humanity has repeatedly failed to honor the promise “Never again,” a world without genocide is still possible.

And we too, as Kenyans, and as human beings, can share that belief, because we too remember. We remember how the Africans were transported into slavery from Fort Jesus, we remember the squatters at the Coast, the kipande system, the hut tax, the colonial jails and the villages during the emergency, and the IDPs of 1992 and 2007. We remember Mekatili wa Menza, Elijah Masinde, Koitalel arap Samoei, Mary Nyanjiru, Syokimau, the Mau Mau movement from Tanzania all the way to Maralal and even with supporters in the United States. When we believed that Wanjiku could get a new constitution, it is because we remembered our brave warriors who fought before us in the 19th century and beyond. We remembered and we believed in a better Kenya. And if there’s anything amazing about our country, it is in the midst of the corruption, inefficiency and selfish leadership, we Kenyans strongly believe that a better Kenya is possible. We believe, because we remember.

And that’s what the song by Sweet Honey in the Rock, that inspires my speech, is about. The song is about the memory of Africans taken to the Americas by the horror of slavery. We all know that in the sweltering heat of the plantations, slaves knew that the story of Exodus, of going through the wilderness to the promised land, to freedom, was about them. For almost two hundred and fifty years of slavery, Africans in the Americas believed freedom was coming, because they remembered who they were and where they’d been. And so we understand the words of Beatrice Johnson Reagon

I don’t know how my mother walked her trouble down

I don’t know how my father stood his ground

I don’t know how my people survived slavery

I do remember, that’s why I believe.

Like the song says, we may not understand everything that has happened to us. We may not fully grasp what happened in Rwanda in those dark 100 days of 1994. We can only imagine the pain of Rwandans who lost their families, and the shame of Rwandans who were manipulated to wipe them out. But Rwanda makes us believe that recovery, unity and prosperity are possible for Rwandans, for Africa, and for the world, because it has committed itself to remember through the events such as these, of #Kwibuka20. And when we remember, we believe.

Thank you.

[Guest BlogPost – Professor Pius Adesanmi] Caribbean Self, African Selfie

By Professor Pius Adesanmi

Winner, the Penguin Prize for African Writing

Author of  You’re Not a Country, Africa!

Carnegie Diaspora Visiting Professor, University of Ghana, Legon

(Keynote lecture delivered at the inauguration of the Connections Week of the Caribbean and African Association of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, March 10, 2014)

I bring you warm greetings from Accra, Ghana, where I am currently based. I understand that winter has been particularly brutal this year. You could use some of the warmth I brought from Africa in my hand luggage. I am told by the organizers of this event – to whom I owe immense debts of gratitude for inviting me to deliver this keynote lecture – that “loud and proud” is the theme of your Caribbean-Africa Connections week this year. In other words, the Caribbean and African Association of the University of British Columbia has decided to scream the cultures of Africa and the Caribbean from the rooftops this week. You want to proudly highlight what connects Africa and the Caribbean in the arena of culture – and in defiance of the Atlantic Ocean. You want to inscribe your so-called otherness loudly and proudly on this beautiful campus of UBC. When I thought about your theme on receiving the invitation for this lecture, it evoked a sense of drama. How do you proclaim Caribbean and African connections “loud and proud” without being dramatic? I have therefore taken the unusual route of plotting this lecture as a one act play in five scenes. At any rate, on my way here from Accra, I did get into some drama in London…

ACT ONE, SCENE ONE

Date: March 6, 2014. Location: Terminal Three, London Heathrow airport. Mission: awaiting an Air Canada connecting flight to Ottawa en route Vancouver for this lecture. I was coming from back to back keynote lectures in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Accra, and Lagos. Although I was jetlagged and tired, I already had a draft of this lecture in the bag. Nevertheless, there was something I wasn’t quite satisfied about. I was trying to look at the Caribbean-African thing beyond the routine of memory. Must the ties that bind always be about memory? I wasn’t sure that what I had in the first draft had satisfactorily answered that question. I had seven hours to kill at Heathrow. I decided to shell out sixty pounds to rent a room and shower cubicle for three hours in one of the “capitalist” lounges of the airport. I needed that space and time to continue my reflection on what lies – or what ought to lie – beyond the horizon of memory-making and memory-reliving whenever Africa and the Caribbean actuate a handshake across the Atlantic.

In essence, I did not need anything or anybody to remind me of how memory ties the Caribbean and other parts of the black Diaspora to Africa. I wanted to move conceptually beyond that paradigm. As I moved wearily through the familiar mass of fatigued bodies dragging a cornucopia of hand luggage through the malls of Heathrow, making my way to the F Lounge, I bumped into just the one thing I wanted to avoid: memory. It came in the exact body shape, height, skin tone, facial features, and even dressing style of Professor Ato Quayson. I am sure you all know Professor Quayson? If you don’t know him, you have a very urgent problem that only google can help you resolve.

In the engaging business of theorizing Africa and her diaspora in academe, Professor Quayson has been one of my formidable mentors in the last decade and a half. I had not seen him since the African Literature Association’s meeting in Dallas in 2012. I’d been to his University of Toronto base to deliver lectures on occasion but he’d always been out of town. And there he was before me, like an apparition, in a crowded airport lounge in London. I screamed and grabbed him in a hug that certainly wasn’t a bear hug. Loads of back patting. Deft feet movement and shuffling that you could call some kind of esoteric dance. Strings of jazzed up sentences delivered in a mishmash of English, Pidgin, and West African slang intrusions. These happened in seconds.

In other words, I was performing, right there in the open in London, an unscripted and impromptu reunion ritual which I somehow expected Ato Quayson or any other African brother to connect with and respond to appropriately. “I’m not Ato”, screamed the bemused figure in my arms, struggling to set himself free from my black hug while laughing in bemused acknowledgement of the accompanying semi-dance rituals. Remember, all this was happening within seconds, a succession of quick-paced actions and events. I realized to my utter embarrassment that I had grabbed the wrong man! The guy I grabbed and held in such a warm embrace was not Ato Quayson, just his Siamese look-alike!

I was going to start apologizing profusely when my “victim”, very friendly but obviously relieved to be released from my grip, assured me that no apology was necessary. In fact, he was very intrigued by my enactments of recognition and the effusive ritual of warmth I enacted when I thought he was Ato Quayson. According to him, everything about that instinctive, unplanned, impromptu but ritualized performance was also native to him. He would have done exactly the same thing in my shoes, he reassured me.

“And where are you from?” I asked. “Trinidad”, came his swift response. At this point, ladies and gentlemen, I knew I had to offer the brother a beer. I mean, here was my Nigerian self thinking it was engaging Ato Quayson’s Ghanaian self in ritualized modes of African warmth and connection only for those cultural enactments to be claimed by a Trinidadian also seeing himself, his people, his culture, his story, and his memory in those moves. On my way to an airport lounge to think beyond culture and memory in terms of how best to reconceptualize African and Caribbean modes of engagement, culture and memory beckon, saying, “Ogbeni Pius, we’re not done yet!”

 

 

ACT ONE, SCENE TWO

Maybe I should have known that memory and culture wouldn’t lend themselves to the easy glossing over I was going to do at that airport lounge before I received a Trinidadian jolt of reality. After all, another place, another time, memory and culture had served me notice of their power of persistence in any evocation of the linkages between the Caribbean and Africa. That other place is none other than this lovely city of Vancouver in this beautiful Canadian province of British Columbia. That other time was the 1990s when I pursued my doctoral degree right here in this very University.

padesanmi_large-carleton-uBack in those hectic days of doctoral work, some of us needed the occasional escape from the cast of French poststructuralist thinkers who, in the hands of North American academics, had turned postcolonial and postmodernist theory into an obscurantist terror machine. In a good week, your migraine was limited to struggling to blend the impenetrable prose of Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak, and Homi Bhabha into a deconstructive paradigm for the novels and cultures of Africa and the Caribbean. In a bad week, you had to add Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray and so many other usual and unusual French suspects to that mix.

To reinforce that overdose of high theory, you were required on occasion to rent a few names from the Frankfurt school of theory. You completed this theoretical cocktail, which left African and Caribbean novels struggling for oxygen, with Antonio Gramsci and a necessary throwback at Karl Marx. In preparing one’s theoretical paradigm for African and Caribbean fiction, one often felt like Getafix the druid preparing the magic potion for Asterix and Obelix. We threw so many names into the pot of that theoretical magic potion. Trust me, ladies and gentlemen, when you have spent a week trying to foist Foucault’s power/knowledge combo on Chinua Achebe and Mariama Ba or attempting a Derridean deconstruction of Edwige Danticat and Patrick Chamoiseau via différance-speak, you needed to unwind desperately. Ah, the good old days of graduate school!

For those of us in the African and Caribbean communities, unwinding twice a week happened ritually in one watering hole: the Anza Club, close to Main and Broadway here in Vancouver. That night club was not just the place where we went to booze and do all the wild and unmentionable things that students do in their riotous twenties, just before other realities of life set in, it was also for us some sort of pilgrimage to a location of culture and memory. The Anza was the only night club in Vancouver at the time dedicated to African and Caribbean music. We went there to swing to reggae, calypso, zouk, soukouss, makossa, and soca. We went there to subject our waists to rhythms of high life, afrobeat, juju, and the kora and balafon offerings of the sub-Saharan African sahel.

Whatever we danced to, the cut was in how we all danced and what we all recognized. Recognition of source and of origins. When the Caribbean students danced, we, their African cousins, would marvel in recognition of rhythms, styles, and movements that took us all the way back to our respective villages in Africa. And when we, Africans, danced, our Caribbean folks remembered. They just remembered. Like the Trinidadian reacting to my reunion rituals at Heathrow, Caribbean students of my day at UBC watched us, Africans, dance at the Anza club and remembered their respective homes in the black Atlantic. “Ah, we have this dance in Saint Lucia!”, you would hear somebody exclaim if I was enacting variations on the “elele kure” shoulder dance of the Okun people in Kogi state, Nigeria.

Whether it’s in the passenger mall of an international airport or on the dance floor of a Vancouver night club, the Africa-Caribbean nexus, spelt out in terms of encounters between continental Africans and their cousins in the Black Atlantic, has spawned imaginaries of the self rooted in memory and culture since the historical moment of separation. If you are from the continent, you frame narratives of source-culturehood around these issues. If you belong in the black diaspora, you weave imaginaries of cultural survivorhood around the same issues. What lived, what survived, and how you produced newness from the old become, for you, the loom of identity-making in the present. But, mostly, you remember in order to re-member.

ACT ONE, SCENE THREE

The literature and discourses of both sides are rich in constructions of the self rooted in the politics and memory of remembering. For the Caribbean self, return narratives are crucial to the architecture of remembering and re-membering. The business of remembering and re-membering sometimes involves, among other gestures of reconnection, symbolic voyages to Africa to visit the sites of memory. Those voyages to the Atlantic slave coast of Africa, those emotional narratives about returnee sons and daughters breaking down in tears in Gorée, Elmina, Cape Coast, and Badagry, are all part of a multilayered ritual of reconnection. For the Caribbean self and other black diasporic selves, the return narrative, especially its 20th century enactments, was one way of trying to answer the query in Countee Cullen’s famous poem, “Heritage”. The poem speaks for itself and we need not remind ourselves more than its first stanza here:

What is Africa to me:

Copper sun or scarlet sea,

 Jungle star or jungle track,

Strong bronzed men, or regal black

Women from whose loins I sprang

When the birds of Eden sang?

 One three centuries removed

From the scenes his fathers loved,

 Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,

 What is Africa to me?

 

Not all return narratives romanticize Africa like Countee Cullen and our friends in the Negritude movement did. Some, like Henry Louis Gates, belong in the dirty linen school of return narratives. They return to Africa to see the faces of the descendants of the greedy ancestors who sold them to slavery. Their problem is not with the white slaver but with my ancestors who sold their ancestors. One model of return narratives romanticizes Africa and demands reparations from the descendants of the white slaver, another criminalizes Africa and demands an apology from me for the sins of my ancestors who sold their ancestors. However, both models meet at the crossroads of meaning. They share a desire to make Africa mean. The question thus arises: what exactly feeds the impulse of these return narratives on the part of the black Diaspora and their modes of actuation? Why were return narratives so crucial to the making of the Caribbean self in the 20th century?

ACT ONE, SCENE FOUR

The answers are myriad and complex but I think we should focus here on one possible reason why the 20th century offered us the return narrative as one of the major routes to identity-making by the Caribbean self. Despite disagreements on modes of engaging the continent as source-culture – were we stolen by white slavers or were we sold by our heartless African cousins? – there can be no denying the fact that, before the mourning after independence set in,  the 20th century was the moment of Africa’s heroism and African heroism. It was the century which saw Africa successfully challenge, undermine, and overcome some five hundred years of truth claims by modernity; five hundred years of placing a question mark on the humanity of Africans and black people elsewhere. It was the century of political and cultural nationalism, of decolonization, of the anti-apartheid struggle, of coming into peoplehood, of coming into postcolonial statehood.

Indeed, the 20th century was an extremely auspicious time for black people all over the world to plug into this African spectre of global heroism. Your source-culture was heroic. What is more, the making of this grand narrative of heroism – that is, the challenge to and dismantling of colonialism – was not an isolated enterprise undertaken by continental Africans behind the back of their cousins in the black Diaspora. In fact, the intellectual, cultural, and political bases of these forms of African heroism were mostly born in the Diaspora and devolved from an organic collaboration between Africa’s emergent political, nationalist, and intellectual class and their counterparts from the black Diaspora.

Pan-Africanism and Negritude are two good examples of the collective contributions of continental Africans and the Black Diaspora to the making of Africa’s 20th century anti-imperialist heroism. A great deal of the intellectual energy that later went into African nationalism was honed in London and Paris in collaborations between the nascent African nationalist class and their counterparts from the Caribbean and black America. So formidable and far-reaching were these collaborations and joint efforts that two of the most famous theorizers and chroniclers of Africa’s 20th century heroism were from the black Diaspora. I am thinking here of the Frantz Fanon of The Wretched of the Earth and the Walter Rodney of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.

If the pervading sense of having participated in the heroic self-recovery effort of the mother continent was a contributory factor to the flourishing of the return narrative, the principal mode of African heroism in the 20th century greatly enhanced it. The struggle for cultural and political freedom yielded the persona of the nationalist-statesman as a towering African hero. He was that colourful and charismatic character, that brilliant and powerful orator who became a transcendental African moral and ethical figure (before tragically becoming other unmentionable things in a good number of cases). The magic of this figure made association with Africa as home, memory, and source-culture very appealing to the continent’s sons and daughters in the Diaspora.

Think of the magnetic charisma of Kwame Nkrumah and how many Diasporic Africans made their first pilgrimage to Ghana largely or partly because of him – the Ghanaian trajectory of W.E.B du Bois can hardly be discussed outside of the politics, appeal, and charisma of Kwame Nkrumah. Think of the beehive of black diaspora activism that was the Conakry of Sekou Toure. Stokely Carmichael and Harry Belafonte stoked the fires of black cultural and musical internationalism with Mariam Makeba and Hugh Masekela when they were all in Conakry. Think of Leopold Sedar Senghor, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Patrice Lumumba and so many others in their league whose leadership and praxis of heroism made Africa such an appealing proposition to her children in the Diaspora in the 20th century.

This model of African heroism, I believe, found its culmination in the praxis and brand that was Madiba Nelson Mandela. This global icon made return narratives very compelling and irresistible for the black Diasporic self. Ladies and gentlemen, please don’t tell me that you do not know that Oprah Winfrey’s emergency discovery of her Zulu ancestry back in 2006 had a great deal to do with the Mandela magic and appeal. Ms. Winfrey was not alone. We need not run through the list of African American celebrities who discovered their South African ancestry because of Nelson Mandela.

If you look at things closely, the discovery of African ancestry tended to move to wherever the star of a great, transcendental African nationalist hero and statesman was shining. All roads of ancestry discovery once led to Accra before the fall of Kwame Nkrumah; then the roads made a detour and led to Conakry before Sekou Toure became what he became; then the roads migrated to South Africa because of Madiba. If, tomorrow, Nigeria gets her act together and produces a towering global leader of impeccable ethical stock, I wager that many Diasporans will discover their Yoruba, Igbo, or Hausa-Fulani ancestry.

ACT ONE, SCENE FIVE

The passing of Madiba Nelson Mandela to a glorious African ancestorhood has a special significance for our purposes here today. Mandela’s death effectively signals the end of the era of the modes of personal, transcendental nationalist heroism and statesmanship which his generation had held out to Africa and the black Diasporic world. His exit effectively closes the era of those who gave Africa and the black world such affirmative praxes as “African personality”, “black pride”, cultural nationalism, and political nationalism. These were the people who were so instrumental in providing the justification for the Caribbean self to seek psychic and cultural anchorage in a matricial idea of 20th century African heroism. When Countee Cullen and 20th Century black Diasporans asked, “what is Africa to me?”, Africa’s nationalists and statesmen and women provided answers in their words and actions, especially during the era of the anti-colonial struggle. You saw Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere and you had a pretty good idea of what Africa was to you.

But Mandela’s death also came on the cusp of a very significant moment for Africa and the rest of the world. Mandela made his exit at a time when what has been described as “the selfie generation” was taking over the commanding heights of global culture through the formidable power of social media. Charles Blow of the New York Times has appropriately defined the selfie generation as folks between the ages of eighteen and thirty-three. In other words, the selfie generation comprises young people. I am assuming that the members of the Caribbean and African Association of the University of British Columbia who invited me here to deliver this lecture today are all generation selfie. Ladies and gentlemen, is this true? Ok, Mr. Blow asserts, also correctly, that one defining characteristic of the selfie generation is that you are the first generation that has not had to adapt to the internet, to social media and allied technologies. In essence, you are citizens of the internet by birth. You are the original owners of what I suggest we call ‘appsland.’

If you are tempted to think that Mr. Blow is stretching things a bit by saying that members of the selfie generation are the only authentic natives of the internet who have not had to adapt to anything, just think of what happens to you when you are not a member of that generation and you try to do things like them without first learning the rules of engagement. Let’s say your name is Barack Obama. You go and take a selfie with the beautiful Prime Minister of a European country and you get into a load of trouble.

But taking selfies is not all they do in the selfie generation. Members of the generation are driving global culture and agendas in significant new ways. They are asking questions and raising issues. With them, the revolution is televised live in your living room. You saw them in Tunisia, Egypt, and the rest of the Arab world. You saw them in Turkey and Brazil. You saw them all over the streets of America in the Occupy Movement. You saw them live in Ukraine during the orange revolution and more recently. I live in Ottawa. I see them carrying placards in front of Parliament all the time. I saw them in my own country in Occupy Nigeria. One foolish aide of the Nigerian President who has tragically fallen into the wrong column of history even described them as “the collective children of anger.” All over the world, the selfie generation is the new cool.

I think it is unfortunate that the rise of this generation coincides with the collapse of that particular mode heroism that is tied to the praxis of genuine nationalists and statesmen and women in Africa. What is Africa to me? For the Caribbean self in the 20th century, that question was answered significantly by the quality of leadership that the continent had to offer especially in the context of political nationalism and the struggle for freedom. If the selfie generation in the Caribbean and elsewhere in the black Diaspora asked the same question today – what is Africa to me? – what sort of answer would they get? Just what is Africa offering them?

This is a question that has detained me since I delivered the keynote lecture at the International Leadership Platform Conference of the University of Johannesburg and the Africa Institute of South Africa a few weeks ago. Among the many issues raised by the brilliant and generous discussant of my lecture, Professor Peter Vale of the University of Johannesburg, was the question of leadership and role modelship for the youth of Africa after the demise of the continent’s nationalist and statesmen and women generation symbolized by the passing of Mandela. “Where are the leaders and role models that Africa is offering these young people?”, Professor Vale had queried. We kept citing dead African statesmen and women…

As a teacher in the classrooms of North America, I encounter variations on this question all the time from Nigerian students of the selfie generation. These are undergraduate kids born in Canada or the United States. They’ve never been home. When they pronounce their Yoruba or Igbo or Ijaw or Edo names, those names end up looking like mangled victims of a terrorist attack. They are Nigerian kids of the new Diaspora. And they stop you after class and ask: “Professor, tell me, why should I have a stake in Nigeria? Why should I visit Nigeria? What’s in Nigeria for me?” There are selfie generation kids from the fifty-three other countries in Africa torturing their Professors in Canada and the United States with such questions. There are African American and Caribbean kids of the selfie generation asking these questions. Whether they are Africa kids of the old or new Black Diaspora, the selfie generation is not asking – what is Africa to me? – for that is so old school, so Countee Cullen and his generation. Rather, these kids are now asking: what’s in Africa for me?

In essence, the selfie generation of the old and the new African Diaspora asks questions that cannot be answered easily. The nationalist, the statesman, the orator, the charismatic leader, the philosopher king – all that ended with Nelson Mandela. Today, the leadership landscape in Africa is so abysmal that you dare not tell the selfie generation to look up to the current crop of heads of state and heads of government across Africa as credible role models and heroes. To the Caribbean and black Diaspora self, Africa is currently offering a selfie of abysmal, uninspiring, and disgraceful leadership.

You only need to look at the current leadership of the two major states in Africa – Nigeria and South Africa – to appreciate the full extent of the tragedy. In South Africa, the current President is a certified clown, a huge joke. In Nigeria, aides of the current President consider an extraordinary achievement the rare moments in which he successfully places one incoherent sentence after another incoherent sentence in scripted or unscripted speeches. He is a dour, uninspiring, and corruption-friendly man.

Elsewhere, the news is not any better. Omar Bashir of Sudan and Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya are customers of the International Court of Justice; Faure Gnassingbe of Togo and Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon are scions of Presidents for life who may continue that continental tradition; Yayi Boni of Benin and Alassane Ouattara of Cote-d’Ivoire are offsprings of the financial philosophy of Bretton Woods. And we have not even mentioned the Paul Biyas, the Teodoro Obiangs, and the Blaise Compaores of Africa. There is just no leadership worthy of our attention at the moment in Africa. Among the current crop of African Heads of State, I’m afraid there are no transcendental statesmen and role models worthy of recommendation to the youth of Africa and the black Diaspora as worthy role models. Luckily, there are stateswomen in the ranks but their inspirational stories are the rare exception and not the rule.

In essence, in the absence of the Mandelas, Nkrumahs, Senghors, and Nyereres of this world, the selfie generation in Africa and the black diaspora is the first generation to stand in real danger of having to accept Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian, and even George Zimmerman as heroes as Africa fails to offer them credible heroes and genuine role models in the public sphere. The selfie generation is growing up in a celebrity culture powered by American TV. Yesterday, as I prepared to fly here from Ottawa, George Zimmerman was on CNN signing autographs at a gun show somewhere in America. Occasionally, Africa has the good fortune of being able to ward off the danger posed to the selfie generation of Africa and the Caribbean by the globalized reckless celebrity culture of America. Africa tells those kids: don’t look at George Zimmerman, look at Lupita Nyong’o. But, like the female Presidents, these luminous examples don’t come in nearly enough numbers.

What’s in Africa for me? Perhaps the search for an answer is what has led Africans of the new Diaspora in the selfie generation (born in Europe and North America post-1980s) to Afropolitanism, the new cultural fad on the block. This is not the place for me to go into the debate on Afropolitanism. Google it. Beyond Achille Mbembe’s philosophic-discursive take on Afropolitanism, pay attention to what Taiye Selasie and her followers say it is. Pay attention to why Binyavanga Wainaina says he isn’t an Afropolitan. That is your google assignment.

What is of interest to me here is that Afropolitanism seems to be the last refuge of a new African Diasporan selfie generation in search of ways to log on to a continent that is offering very sparse cultural wifi access in terms of credible role models in the public sphere. But at least they’ve got Afropolitanism, those selfies of the new African Diaspora. What about the kids of the old Diaspora in black America and the Caribbean who cannot describe themselves as Afropolitans and who do not belong in the generation of those going to weep at doors of no return in Cape Coast, Goree, and Badagry? What’s in Africa for them?

Perhaps they and their Afropolitan peers ought to look in the direction of the collective cultural heroism of their peers in Africa. Out of nothing, their peers in Africa invented and developed Nollywood into the world’s second largest movie industry. Nollywood to a great extent has broken the monopoly of Western modes of representing Africa for the black diaspora. And out of Ghana, Africa and the black Diaspora is swaying to the rhythm of Azonto. Transcendental nationalism heroism and statesmanship of the Mandela type may be dead in Africa, Nollywood and Azonto, with all their warts, are powerful selfies of cultural heroism that Africa is offering the world as a window into the regenerative power of what Kwame Nkrumah once famously referred to as “the African genius”. The genius of the selfie generation is also taking over the African street and making very loud statements. I know that the Anza nightclub is still open in Vancouver. I know that it is still the place where Africa goes to meet the Caribbean on the dance floor twice a week. Perhaps, after listening to this lecture, some of you are going to make your way there this weekend to sway your hips to Azonto. I expect to see your selfies on Instagram!

I thank you for your time.

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