Ikhide

Father, Fighter, Lover

Essays from exile: The oporoko chronicles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epilogue – For Mamaput!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

Source: Wikipedia.org, the free encyclopedia

 

3P+ ANNOUNCEMENT OF NEW JOURNAL

3P+ ANNOUNCEMENT OF NEW JOURNAL

It is with great pleasure that we announce the birth of a new journal called 3P+: the KWASU International Journal of the Arts.

Published by the rapidly growing Kwara State University, at Malete, Ilorin in Nigeria, the journal’s focus will be on the performance arts, covering both creative works and academic essays, but it will not be exclusive to these areas alone.

The name, ‘3P+’ is an acronym for ‘Prose, Poetry, Performance, Plus’, the ‘Plus’ meaning any other area of the arts not mentioned—such as Music, Film, Photography, Visual Arts, etc.,–and indicating that the journal’s interest is intended to be as broad and comprehensive as possible.

The journal is edited by the celebrated scholar, poet and playwright, Femi Osofisan, along with a very distinguished editorial team comprising scholars and artistes from various parts of the world; and its academic papers shall be peer-reviewed.

Contributions are therefore invited for the maiden edition scheduled for May 2015. These should be in form of essays, reviews, or creative works, photographs, etc., and can be in any of the following areas: Dance, Drama, Film, Music, Photography, Poetry, Prose Fiction, Visual, Fine and Fibre Arts, etc.

Please note that all creative works must be original, and academic papers should be presented in the most recent MLA format. Reviews of productions which are accompanied by photographs will be most welcome. We also have a Notice Board for reports of recent or forthcoming events, publications, exhibitions, and so on.

Contributors are advised to retain copies of their works in case of loss in the post, for which we can bear no responsibility.

Contributions should be mailed to:

The Editor,

3P+: KWASU Journal of the Arts,

Office of the Distinguished Professor of Performing Arts,

c/o The Vice Chancellor’s Office

Kwara State University,

Malete, Ilorin,

Kwara State, NIGERIA.

 

Or by email to: okinbalaunko@gmail.com

 

America: The trees sing of home…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cow leg nor be cornbeef!

America Police nor go kill me O! Every week for America, we dey do environmental, that is, for night you go put your dustbin outside, for morning, environmental people go come carry am with their agbegilodo lorry. The dog and the deer wen dey our compound dem plus the vulture dem nor like me at all at all. Dem be racist because dem nor like say Black man like me dey gbaladun for oyinbo neighborhood. I don call police for dem tire, still yet dem nor dey hear word. Di ting pass me. If I just put my dotty for outside like this those witch dem wen be animals go throway di dotty make everybody see dey laff me.

I go wake up for morning, come see vulture and dog and deer they laff my dotty, for road. See wahala O, all di cowfoot, abodi, roun’about, cowtail, chicken leg, chicken yansh plus eba and pounded yam and orisirisi rice don full ground. Whenever I put only oyinbo food like caviar, coleslaw, pasta and em corned beef for dotty dem nor dey troway my dotty for ground mek people know say I dey enjoy. Mba O, na only when I nack our native village food (oporoko, white soup, black soup, isiewu, etc.) naim this witch dem dey fall my hand.

So, last week for environmental (yes o, nor be only una dey do environmental for Naija, we dey do environmental too na) naim di yeye racist dogs and deer when dey our neighborhood come throway all our dotty for road for America. Our yeye oyinbo neighbor wen nor kuku like us before as she dey waka im dog now, naim e see our dotty plus all di bone dem. See wahala! Riiiing! Riing! Idiot racist don call Police with blackberry say e see with im krokro eye “what appear to be finely ground fragments of human bones and remains!” Chei! See me see trouble o, malu wen go America don become James Brown! So naim police run come with their wahala, come see ambulance (I nor know wetin ambulance dey come do with malu bone, maybe na to take am go hospital, SMH).

Even sef, police come with gun, whether dem wan shoot the malu bone I nor know. Some people come when dey call themselves HAZMAT (Hazardous Materials) team, with white coat, mask for face, gloves for hand, come dey touch everything for my domot. Fire Brigade come too! Meanwhile our neighbor don faint for our domot after e don call lawyer ( “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder on witnessing a possible murder scene!” Na money the idiot dey look for for my hand!). Dem tie one big rope all over our house wen dem write this nonsense: “STAY AWAY! YOUR TAX DOLLARS AT WORK!! POSSIBLE CRIME SCENE! SUSPECT MAY BE ILLEGAL ALIEN!!” Me I nor even know say all dis penkelemesi dey shele O, I dey inside baffroom dey baff dey sing Jim Reeves like olodo wen never see hot and cold shower before!

Before you know am my iyawo and love of my life Mama_di_girl don run come meet me inside baffroom dey shout, “Ewooo! You kill person? Police dey look for you O! Abi you kill person when you dey drive and play with iyawo dem for Twitter and for Facebook? How many times I don tell you make you leave dem iyawo alone until you reach house? Agbaya! A whole old man like you! Shebi I tell you say dem take woman do you something, enh? You dis man, you nor go kill me! I hope say nor be oyinbo you kill o, otherwise na prison na im you go die put!! Olosi! If you go prison, who go take out the trash (dotty, for dose of una wen be ajepako!) If you go prison who go pay for this house? Shebi I tell you say mek you nor buy house, no, you must be like those wen better pass you! Papa_di_boy, if you die for inside prison, dem go still pay me your life insurance? Papa_di_boy!!! You nor go kill me for this America o! Why, Oh, Why did you go and kill an oyinbo person? Why are you like this?”

Na so our iyawos dey do for America o, any kpem like dis dem don throw you under molue! Before I fit say Jack Robinson, Mama_di_Girl don grab me inside baffroom, naked, “Oya go and answer your papa name for Police, olosi murderer. Goddamn sheet mora focker!” Na by luck sef na im I take grab towel take cover my blokos before my madam deliver me to police thusly: “Officers, this is the alleged murderer that you are possibly looking for. Just to be clear, he is no relative of mine, he happens to be the father of my FOUR WONDERFUL AMERICAN CHILDREN who were born here you know. Please be sure to return my towel around his waist when you are done with him, I would hate to lose it, I bought it on sale at Lord & Taylor’s, they don’t make towels like that anymore!”

As dem just dey measure my body to throw me inside their Black Maria na im I come dey shout like goat when see Christmas! “Officers! How family? Madam dem nko? They are goat bones! Goat bones! Malu! Malu! Oxtail! Oxtail!! Please don’t shoot!!!” Dem release me but them charge me for indecent exposure because the women police when come, when dem see my small chest when be like Papa Ajasco own and my small small muscle dem, and my flat yansh wen be like OBJ own, the idiots come dey laff so tay one of them come faint. Naim dem charge me for indecent exposure. Anyway dem don take the bone dem go lab for positive identification. Since dem born me, dis na di first time when I beg God make I fail exam! Come see me dey praise worship! “Spiritual powers die by fire! Die! Die! Die!” Until the result come, them say make I nor travel go anywhere. As if I wan travel before; where I dey go, who dash monkey banana, nor be money person dey take crase?

All this time when my iyawo and Police dey do me iso abi tire (“ olosi, you wan nail for inside your fat head abi you wan make we necklace you with tire wen get petrol?”) the dog dem and the deer dem when do me dis wayo just dey laff dey parambulate dey point at me dey fall dey laff dey parambulate dey point at me. Dem be witch I tell you. From now henceforth (oya laff my oyinbo now, hiss!) anytime when I eat goat meat and malu meat finish, I go grind the bone chop join, that is enh, I go hide the evidence like Baba Suwe. If I nor fit hide the evidence, I go wrap am with double Ghana Must Go bag, put am for the dustbin, then wait by the dustbin for the people wen dey carry trash to come carry am. Who wan die?

Life in America: Ring around the roses

First published 2002

It is Sunday morning in America. My wife is going to work all day and all night, she is the major breadwinner of the family. I am determined to see her before she leaves, maybe share a cup of coffee with her, and if I am lucky a conversation that is not interrupted by the wants of our children. I make it downstairs just as she is flying out the door cursing the gods of our forefathers for not waking her up in time for work. She is late, she will call me on her cell phone, no she won’t, she doesn’t want to wake up the kids. We’ll talk tomorrow she says. I stand by the door and wave her good bye as dawn licks the sleep off my weary face. America is hard.

My children are still sleeping, exhausted from harassing me all day yesterday. The Christians must be right, there must be a God. Perhaps, it is time for me to re-evaluate my life as an agnostic. It is too early to call my friend. He never sleeps but his family does and I don’t want to incur their wrath. But it sure would be nice to just talk with him about my latest ideas for saving the world. Well, maybe later. The sight of my new laptop interrupts my peace of mind. It is a thing of beauty; it has everything in it that money can buy. The people I write for occasionally decided that the cure for what appears to me to be writer’s block, is a new laptop. So they declared my old laptop too ancient for me. I thought it was still good – a 15-inch monitor 300 Mhz machine, loaded with 192 MB of RAM, 10 gigs hard drive, a DVD ROM, a zip drive, and enough software to write a prize-winning novel. So, the other day, the MIS folks came and took that away, because it was now too obsolete for whatever skills I posted on my resume. In its place, they gave me this awesome 850 Mhz behemoth chock full of everything that is out there that has been invented for the laptop. America is hard.

My two toddler boys are up and I must suspend my thoughts. They are exactly one year apart and the Americans call them Irish twins, I don’t know what that means. Let me clean them up and give them breakfast. I may be back… America is hard.

Ring around the roses,
A pocket full of posies,
Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down!

The cows are in the meadow,
Lying fast asleep.
Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down.

The cows are in the meadow,
Lying fast asleep.
Ashes! Ashes!
We all get up again.

My seven year old daughter is up and has the two boys linked in a circle and they are chanting the nursery rhyme, “Ring Around the Roses!” and falling down in a dizzy heap after every stanza. My gratitude to my daughter for distracting the boys while I make breakfast is muted by my rueful self-admission that I have failed so far to teach them African nursery rhymes. I must find a book of African nursery rhymes. Or maybe write one myself. Who knows the lyrics of Boju Boju? I wonder if anyone knows of any book of Nigerian nursery rhymes. America is hard.

We have two daughters. They are of school age and they enjoy taking the bus to school. They don’t know it, but I enjoy walking them to the bus stop and watching them board the bus to school. Thanks to my work schedule (I telecommute), the opportunities to walk my daughters to the bus stop are plentiful. Whenever I announce my intention to walk them to the bus stop, they get frisky, squeal with unadulterated delight and they are as joyous as Nigerian puppies offered ice cream, apologies to Peter Pan Enahoro. I wonder, where can I get a copy of his hilarious pamphlet, How To Be A Nigerian?

For a kid born and raised in Nigeria, the coming of the school bus, as I call it, is a miracle. Every school day morning, at exactly 8:25 a.m., the bus ambles to a stop at our neighborhood. The kids have already formed a long line, at the head of which is the bus patrol, a little kid who acts like the school bus prefect, ensuring discipline among his or her peers. The kid wears a brightly colored sash, plumage of the peacock, and it is unmistakable who is in charge. The bus lights are on, cars are stopped on either side, until the bus moves, and there must be no movement on either lane. The penalties for infraction are too painful to contemplate. This ritual is repeated all over our local government by more than one thousand school buses. As parents, we take this ritual for granted. We don’t stop to thank the bus operator for being on time every day. However, let the bus be late five minutes, and parents become placard carrying pro-democracy activists. They call the local Board of Education Office and threaten fire and brimstone on the elected Board members for allowing such an injustice against little children. Apologetic staffers scurry around offering apologies, crafting carefully worded memos that essentially promise an improvement in services. The under-performing bus operator is hauled to class to participate in the continuous improvement program of the day. It is simply amazing.

As a first-generation immigrant, whenever I witness this drama, I alternate between amusement, and amazement. The other day, my little girl’s friend claimed that as she was going to the bus stop all by herself (gasp! What horrid parents, to allow a seven year old walk 100 yards to the bus stop ;-)) she was accosted by a strange man as she dashed through the woods to the bus stop. Man, the ensuing fracas was a major performance. The school system held a press conference denouncing this strange man (who was never caught). The girl’s divorced parents united albeit briefly to denounce the school system and the police and everybody else for what happened to this little girl. And the police, not to be outdone, held a press conference to denounce itself and the strange pervert who almost abducted this sweet little girl. For about a week, there was a police cruiser at our bus stop to ensure that no sweet little girl would ever be irritated by a strange pervert posing as a man.

My children have no idea HOW lucky they are. They are cursed or blessed by a life of perpetual prosperity. They don’t understand real want, they’ll never understand the pain of not having and the joy of really getting what you really want. The other day, my little girl came running into the house from school, really upset. “Daddy! Daddy!” she shrieked, “The bus ride was bumpy!” Man, I really would have loved a bumpy bus ride to my primary school, FIVE miles from what passed as my home.

The divide between my adopted local government in the US and ALL of my country Nigeria is beyond a sad joke. The annual operating budget of this local government’s public school system is 1.3 billion US dollars. The cost per pupil for a regular education is almost $9,000. The cost per pupil for special education (developmentally disabled) children is about $17,000. My daughters have access to things I would never have dreamed of as a boy growing up in Nigeria. Sometimes I wonder if this is not unnecessary icing on the cake. They have teachers, school psychologists, and all sorts of counselors. Pray, what is a psychologist doing around a six year old? You should see the school’s library. It is really not called a library, it is a media center, chock full of the very latest in instructional computer technology. It just seems that Apple and IBM are in competition at these schools over who cares more for our children. So my children have everything that I did not have growing up. America is hard.

In America, it appears that power and resources bubble up from the local government up to the central level. That in my opinion is what a true federation should be. It took the genius of the perpetually troubled Bill Clinton and the vacuity of the perpetually clueless George Bush to convince us in America of the near irrelevance to our lives of the American presidency. The war over the annoying Gore and the blank Bush was really fought over the supremacy of two ideologies each of which some note, with biting cynicism, claim a difference without a distinction. We woke up one morning and realized that our energies were better spent at the local level trying to effect change for our children and us. The money is in our village. The advocates of a Sovereign National Conference in Nigeria (SNC) are right on the money. We must restructure Nigeria in the interest of our children.

I am not saying that just having gobs of US dollars is the panacea for whatever ails our society. Problems abound in America and throwing money at the problems appears to simply exacerbate a bad situation, like the war on drugs. Take my children for instance. As African Americans they have been identified early as at-risk children, least likely to succeed in America. There are all sorts of studies out there (outside the profoundly silly Bell Curve) that indicate that there is a persistent academic gap between African American children of all socioeconomic backgrounds and white children. This gap persists despite all the resources that my children are exposed to every day. It seems that excess is not enough in America. But then I wonder, would my children be better off in the Nigeria that I grew up in?

I am convinced that they would be worse off in today’s Nigeria. I am really thinking of the Nigeria of the sixties, the seventies and the early eighties. I don’t know. I am stuck in time; of a halcyon period that holds some really pleasant boyhood memories. My children will never know the thrill of going to BATA to try out new shoes. They seem to get new shoes every month! They will never know the thrill of sitting down at Christmas in true anticipation of a once a year bounty of lots of rice and lots of meat. They will never know the pleasures of traveling through books to far away places like New York, London, and Paris. They have been to those places already. Where do they get their joy from, I always wonder as I watch them from the corner of my eyes. I am convinced that these children derive their joy from things and events that are alien to me. I have seen them at the beaches squealing with what has to be pure delight as the waves kick their little butts. What kind of fun is that? I have seen them at the pool chase the ice cream truck with my wallet and marveled at the pleasure in their faces as they emptied my wallet into the wallet of the ice cream man in return for soggy ice cream sandwiches. Well whatever turns them on, to each his or her own…

So you can see that there is a lot on my mind this morning. There are several stories in my head and my editor expects them out of my head and into this new laptop. Seeing how disoriented I am this morning, I wonder how Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka wrote their classics without a computer and definitely without the Internet. Excess retards progress. America is hard.

So, you, my friend in Nigeria, think about my children here in America and I shall think about your children in Nigeria. If we think about what we need to do to help all our children, perhaps, we can save both nations, America and Nigeria. I shall be back. I have a lot to talk to you about. Maybe my writer’s block is wearing off. Maybe. My boy wants me to pick him up and pirouette around the living room. That is his favorite treat. Hold on, with luck he might go to sleep… America is hard.

 

Good night, Ginger…

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Naijanet, Wole Soyinka, The Gang of Four, Goebbels and the Reprobate!

The Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, like many revered thinkers is rightly worried about the declining reading culture in the 21st century and is concerned that the Internet is contributing to this dysfunction.  Soyinka is worried that relying primarily on the Internet would spell doom for books.  He raises legitimate issues that deserve to be explored in great depth. However, Soyinka is famously reticent about the Internet and the communities it has spawned. The records show that these communities have not always been kind to him. He talks about his experience with individuals and groups, some of which spilled into online forums like Naijanet in his memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn (see my review here).

Naijanet? Well, Nigerians have formed online communities for a long time. In the early nineties, if you had any connection with an institution of higher learning or a multinational corporation, you had access to an email account. They were initially difficult to use but gradually email readers came along, as well as the precursors of the web. Naijanet, a mailing list or “list-serve”, founded in in the early 90’s was the premier online watering hole for Nigerians at the time. Out of Naijanet came other list-serves created to meet a real or perceived need absent in Naijanet.

Naijanet was a vibrant market among academicians and professionals in the Diaspora, and a hotbed of political activism – for and against Sani Abacha’s regime. Many activists were recruited on Naijanet by either side. It became a means of communication and of rallying the troops during the prodemocracy struggle in the 90’s as Nigerians sought to topple the dictator Sani Abacha. Those were heady days. When we needed to attend a rally, we used email. When we needed to raise money, we used email. When someone died we wrote some very heartfelt and (yes, pretty bad poetry) to manage our grief. My second daughter was born on July 4, 1995. We did an e-naming ceremony for her on Naijanet and we christened her Ominira (Yoruba for freedom). We raised quite a bit of money for the cause and for things like awareness campaigns to eradicate spinal meningitis. It is a big shame that these things have not been documented anywhere, however some of these activities are in the archives at Googlegroups.

soyinkaAs far as I know, Soyinka was never a member of Naijanet himself. He clearly monitored our activities as they pertained to the prodemocracy movement. A tidbit involving Soyinka and Naijanet: In 1994, there was a young doctoral student at the University of Connecticut, Storrs (UConn). His name was Ganiyu Jaiyeola. He had a rabid contempt for MKO Abiola and was wary of Soyinka’s prodemocracy credentials. That year, UConn decided to give an award to MKO Abiola. Ganiyu wrote to his university denouncing MKO and demanded that UConn withdraw the honor. When that news got to Naijanet, there was an unspeakable uproar. Most people wanted Ganiyu’s head (he was a Naijanetter). UConn was deluged by angry phone calls from netters. Many members of Naijanet signed a petition objecting to Ganiyu’s letter and requesting that MKO be honored by UConn.

Here is the petition to Uconn. The petition, circulated online and signed by exactly 50 people from many countries abroad, no mean feat in those days, was perhaps the first naija e-petition ever. In 1994. Many of us loathed Ganiyu but from the benefit of hindsight, he was not a bad guy; he simply believed that those of us who were against  the annulment of democracy (on June 12, 1993) were thieves, phonies, carpet baggers, interlopers, etc. (insert your favorite abusive term). Many of us did not particularly care for MKO; this starry-eyed idealist simply felt at the time that for me, June 12 was the end of the shifting of the goal posts by the military. The battle grew ferocious; both sides trying to do each other in terms of the degree of abuse hurled at opponents.

Enter Soyinka. Sometime in 1995, Ganiyu decided to compile a thick unflattering dossier on Soyinka and he proceeded to distribute this dossier to the US State Department and the civil rights activist Randall Robinson who was dead-set on ending Abacha’s reign of terror. Ganiyu was a temperamental and energetic fellow and fiercely independent; whatever he set his sights on, he went after. When Soyinka got wind of Ganiyu’s activities, he became incensed and wrote a long letter excoriating Ganiyu. People close to Soyinka managed to convince him not to  mention Ganiyu by name in his missive. Ganiyu Jaiyeola’s name was replaced with the term “Reprobate.” Ganiyu loved the attention and declared that indeed he was the one that the Laureate was referring to. From that day on, the term “Reprobate” stuck on Ganiyu.

The letter, written in May 1995, begins like this and shows the beginning of Soyinka’s enduring ambivalence about the Internet:

I am an intruder, not being a NAIJANET subscriber. I don’t even know how these networks operate and, from this first, albeit indirect, encounter with this discussion and information exchange, I think it is something over extended people like myself should avoid, if only to conserve precious time and necessary equilibrium for a positive contribution to real issues. My intervention (this once only, I hope) is quite fortuitous.

A thick dossier accompanying a letter to Mr. Randall Robinson, Director of TRANSAFRICA, has just provided my first contact with NAIJANET, to which reference was made in the letter, and of which I have heard some remarks in the past. It is apparently the product of a student which is what I find singularly shocking. From the mercenaries and propaganda machinery of General Sani Abacha, one would consider this as routine, but what has a serious minded student got to do with such venal proceeding ? Opinions, even where debatable, and analysis, even where faulty, are the legitimate province of the student, but what place has a deliberate concoction of falsehood got in a student’s mind ?

I read this tract with dismay, albeit, ironically, with some illumination. I had been encountering, in recent times, some sturdily held distortions of the truth of events in Nigeria in astute minds which would normally discountenance the predictable lies of government functionaries. Coming from supposed students or independent professionals, who are trained to respect facts, however, I begin to understand why such blatant lies actually obtain a hold in their thinking. NAIJANET obviously has some perverse entities in its midst and, considering the crisis of our times, I feel that I must use this instance to affirm their self exposure to members of NAIJANET and their correspondents.

You may read the rest of Soyinka’s letter here.

Enter Jude Uzonwanne, a 22- or so year old. Somehow Jude had gotten close to Soyinka. He is mentioned as one of the Gang of Four in Soyinka’s book, You Must Set Forth at Dawn. Jude suffered immensely from his youth and he was not exactly the most principled of fellows. Things were getting decidedly dangerous online and on the ground and another netter Mukhtar Dan’Iyan, aka @MrAyeDee on Twitter  (mentioned in the book, please read this blog post in which in which I excerpted the pertinent passage) decided to stage a sting. He created a fake email address purporting to be trolling for recruits on behalf of the dictator General Sani Abacha. Jude fell for this bait and sent in a long resume of his and an equally long rambling essay on how General Abacha might use certain tools of propaganda to keep the masses down. His application started like this:

I would like to become a member of your organization. After carefully evaluating the current difficulties facing the Abacha Administration, I have decided that it… is in Nigeria’s National Security interest to cooperate with the current administration. After careful thought, I believe I should bring to bear, what my professors describe as my “prodigious intellect.” If accepted, I would bring to the organization my considerable talents; as an Honors Economics and History candidate, a World Bank Project research assistant, and a member of my university’s Board of Managers, I think I am well placed to understand the philosophical strains that propel behavior in the West. I think I can help the FGN reconstruct her rather battered image. It will be a tough task, but if certain tactical steps are taken, I believe we can achieve the same level of respectability that General Pinochet of Chile achieved between 1979 – 88. Also, if we are more respectful to the incisive powers of economic rationalization of human behavior, I think General Abacha’s Government can be in power as long as it wishes. But there are certain steps that need to be taken in the next few weeks. I hope you would carefully weigh my words; I look forward to joining the team of the Best and the Brightest.

From that day on, Jude was miserable, exposed as a Goebbels. Jude’s “application” to Abacha was circulated among a tight-knit group of Naijanetters. At some point, Jude wrote a long piece that was published in Nigeria that basically accused the pro-democracy movement and Soyinka specifically of violence (bombs, etc.).To cut a long story short, Kongi erupted in rage once more. Kongi faxed me at home a letter (dated December 24, 1996 on Emory University letterhead) excoriating Jude with the subject title “Jude “Goebbels” Uzonwanne.” He asked me to type it verbatim on to Naijanet:

Dear Dr. Onabanjo,

Re: Jude ‘Goebbels” Uzonwanne

Thank you very much for sending me the latest splurge from our young Goebbels. I agree with you that his pronouncements have now exceeded a mere “nuisance factor” and should be addressed in some form or the other. It is tempting to dismiss him as a poor man’s Walter Mitty, given the elaborate fantasy world he inhabits. I have good reasons to conclude that we are dealing here with a mimic Goebbels, one who has been given a distinctive mission and is resolved to execute it without the slightest scruple. The poor boy is a failed agent provocateur.

I have therefore passed the documents on to the F.B.I. with which, as you know, I am obliged to keep in touch over intelligence reports on the threats to my life. Uzonwanne’s statements are likely to provide crucial pieces in the diabolical jigsaw being constructed from Aso Rock to tie me to the bombings at home, and thus justify plans to try me ‘in absentia” and pass a formal death sentence. We are kept informed about these moves, I assure you. In the meantime, Uzonwanne should be encouraged to spew, in any medium he chooses, all the “dark secrets” that he claims to have about my activities. I am insisting to the FBI that they investigate every single one of them, then deal appropriately with whoever has been spreading dangerous falsehood, or whose activities transgress the laws of this nation.

In the meantime, let me assure you and others who have expressed concern that I have not yet reached dotage. To pick out just one among this plethora of concoctions – if I wished to set up an army, I would not pick as my “Chief of Staff” a twenty-two year old college boy who has never even attended a cadet course, is woefully short-sighted, and weaves fantasies around himself such as being in control of seven million dollars, a sum allegedly donated by rival oil companies that wished to end Shell’s domination in Nigeria and carve up its empire among themselves. There is of course a lot more, but I think I should let the FBI take over from there.

Happy Christmas to you and your family
Wole Soyinka
Copy: UDFN membership

I was not close to Soyinka, where he was a revered god, I was merely a foot soldier, however, I decided without telling him so that I was not going to post it on Naijanet, certainly not right away. It was brimming with rage against a young man and I didn’t see someone of Soyinka’s stature tangling with a kid. I figured he would sleep over it and call me back to not post it. Shortly after, the letter appeared on Naijanet. Kongi had gotten another netter to post it since I was dawdling! One thing you can say for Soyinka, he is connected.

As for that petition to the University of Connecticut, I am taken by the idealism of our youth at the time, the prose fairly sings of our passion, dreams and naiveté:

We believe it is appropriate to view Chief Abiola as a universal symbol of the Nigerian people’s yearning to join the league of those nations that have established a culture of respect and reverence for individual freedom, dignity and the collective views of the people. The Nigerian people have spoken loudly and clearly; this struggle is not about one individual. It is about the immediate and long-term survival of a nation that is greater than any one individual. Your action is an endorsement of the legitimate cry of our people for freedom.

In this light, we applaud your university’s decision to confer an honorary doctorate degree on Chief M.K.O. Abiola. Your gracious and courageous decision is an affirmation of your belief in the just struggle for democracy by the Nigerian people. As we write, the dictatorship continues to shut down all voices of reason and progress within Nigeria’s walls. As we write a once vibrant nation is being throttled economically by the intransigence of a few that have elevated their personal agenda above the dreams and aspirations of an overwhelming majority. Your action is a rallying bugle call to the international community. It says to all of us: this disgraceful display of despotism and intolerance must stop.

Today, fifteen years after democracy was installed in Nigeria, very few would disagree with Ganiyu’s admonition at the time. Not much has changed. Ganiyu was right. We were fooled by wolves.

Life in America: How to be a man!

Today did not go well. I woke up in America where civil servants do not have house help, gatemen, cooks, big fat SUVs to bring big fat sautéed escargot (em snail!) to you in bed, etc! I don’t like it! I miss Nigeria! Where is my cook? I want my coffee! The other day I had to take my sons myself (!) to their football practice! No driver! Lawd have mercy, I can’t live like this! I want to go back to Nigeria! I don’t like being a man in America! Waah! Wail! Sniff!! I would like to be a man. In Nigeria. Yeah, I just got back from Nigeria where real men are treated like real men!

Allah, I swear, I am moving back to Nigeria because they know how to treat men with respect over here unlike in America where men are glorified houseboys. I really loved and enjoyed being a man in Nigeria. People brought the food to me, gave me water to wash my hands and then someone came to take away the plates after I was done and then someone thanked me for eating the food! Wow!

In America, things are back asswards, the children eat first and because things are expensive I have to wait for them to finish eating after which I polish off their leftovers. So it will not go to waste. For this, my children call me Father Dustbin! So after being treated like a king in Nigeria, I must say that readjusting to life in America has been a big problem. My family has a different view of the crisis; they think I brought a big bad attitude from Nigeria and they don’t like it.

When I was in Nigeria, I loved the way the women treated the men over there. With major ‪#‎RESPECT. The men hang around places drinking Guinness Stout and chomping nkwobi and complaining about Nigeria (“Goodluck na badluck!, no road, no water, problem has changed name again, whine, whine, whine!”) The women would bring the food to us. If they were too big to serve us (eg Madam Minister), they hired servants who chased us all over the house offering to do anything for and to us.

Yes! I was a man in Nigeria, hell, I even looked down there and my blokos was there! We would belch and they would thank us for eating the food! Then Safuratu the house help would come take away the dishes! Wow!

My first night in Nigeria, when I saw the food was ready, I rushed to the kitchen with a bowl and spoon ready to get my own by myself. The women didn’t like that. They ordered me back to the parlor to wait to be treated right, like a man. All the men in the parlor gave me a big speech about how I should be a man and stay away from the kitchen and not do womanly things!

I apologized and I was referred to my chair where I proceeded to join the men and complain about Nigeria while waiting to be served like the man I had become. After the meal, before I could get up to take the plates to the sink to wash them I was tackled by several house help (“Tank sah! Tank sah! You want tooth pick? You want Gulder?”). They would not allow me do the dishes.

 At this point I was beginning to really, really, really like Nigeria. I mean, this is how to live if you are a real man! Why, someone even polished my shoes! Hell if I dare ask Ominira to go get my shoes she would go “where did u put them daddy?”) I really really, really love Nigeria.

 The first time I saw a Nigerian friend of mine eat his food, leave the plate where he sat and walk away with his toothpick in his mouth, I panicked. I thought the wife would be upset, run after him and give him an upper cut for leaving his manners on the table!

I ran after him and I said “Ol’boy I am sure you forgot and I don’t blame you for forgetting because the ofensala was good but you need to do the dishes or madam will be angry!” He didn’t understand wetin be “do the dishes” and I explained it to him, you know, washing your plate, blah, blah, blah. He thought it was funny, he started laughing and he stopped laughing after he realized he would have a heart attack from laughing and there was a shortage of helicopters to rush him to a hospital in Saudi Arabia! He said America has made me crazy!

When the wife found out he had left the table, she grabbed a bottle of Gulder and chased after him and said, “My lord you forgot this. Drink it before it gets warm!” He belched in gratitude. I love Nigeria! When I went home, Africa gave me my blokos back and said, “nna men, you are a man! Act like a man!” That was fun! When I landed back in America, Customs took my blokos away, called it contraband, shook my hand and said, “Welcome to America, man!”

J. M. G. Le Clézio: Onitsha, their Onitsha

The novel Onitsha written by French author and 2008 Nobel laureate J. M. G. Le Clézio is a beautiful piece of fiction. Originally written in French and translated into English in 1997, it bears prose that steals your heart. Le Clézio can sustain quiet tension in a book and build up suspense. It does get silly in places where it succumbs to a puzzlingly mythical babble in which case it deteriorates from haunting prose to malarial hallucinations about the deities of Egypt and Ethiopia. As for the content and what it says about how the West sees Africans, it is an ugly book for it reveals the insidious patronizing attitudes of white liberals.

According to the blurb, “Onitsha tells the story of Fintan, a youth who travels to Africa in 1948 with his Italian mother to join the English father he has never met. Initially enchanted by the exotic world he discovers in Onitsha, a bustling city prominently situated on the eastern bank of the River Niger, Fintan gradually comes to recognise the intolerance and brutality of the colonial system and gives the novel a notably direct, horrified perspective on racism and colonialism.”  I agree with the blurb for different reasons. I think Onitsha is a racist book. You can smell Africa in Le Clézio’s Onitsha. Unfortunately, Africa reeks in his imagination: “Fintan breathed in the odour. It entered him, soaked into his body. Odour of this dusty earth, odour of the very blue sky, the gleaming palm trees, the white houses. Odour of women and children dressed in rags. Odour which possesses the town” (p20)

onitsha

Hear Fintan’s surprise as he comes in contact with Africans, when their ship lands in Africa from Europe: “Fintan discovered the source of the sound: the entire foredeck of the Surabaya was crowded with blacks! They crouched down and were beating with hammers on the hatches, the hull and the frames to remove the rust.” Blacks! You almost hear ‘Vermin!’ The first time he saw us, we were immediately labeled the other, apart from whites, human-like but not quite. In 1948. And once the book encounters our humanity, everything starts to get wretched, dark and savage. Europe is light; Africa is darkness. In 1948, the visiting white expatriate sees Africa as exotica and the otherness of the African reeks of savagery. We are talking of a time when our folks were returning home from England, armed with the Golden Fleece. In 1948, Nigeria’s premier university, The University of Ibadan was founded. This was after the era that inspired Wole Soyinka’s Ake: The Years of Childhood, that wholesome memoir of childhood and family values. This is not the same Nigeria of Nnamdi Azikiwe’s epic autobiography, My Odyssey that so wonderfully captured the intellectual passion of 1930’s Africa.

In this semi-autobiographical tale, Le Clézio exposes the racism of the colonialists in the era in copious detail. Fintan and his mother Maou are saddened by the verbal and physical abuse that blacks endure in the hands of insensitive whites and the experience is quite gruesome. Black prisoners work in chains digging swimming pools for the pleasure of whites, getting injured as the walls collapse on them. In the process, though, Le Clézio seems to unmask his own prejudices as he describes Africans in the patronizing lingo invented and perfected by white liberals: “She has never cared for anyone as much as she cared for these people. They were so gentle, their eyes so luminous, their gestures so pure and elegant.  When she walked through the different neighbourhoods to reach the wharf, children came up to her, not shy, and caressed her arms; women took her by the hand, spoke to her, in the gentle language which hummed like music” (p118)

The research is sloppy and it shows. There is no excuse for what passes for Pidgin English in the book. What Le Clézio calls Pidgin English does not exist in West Africa, it was clearly contrived: “Big black fellow box spose white man fight him, he cry too mus!” p40. Go figure.  Le Clézio is at pains to showcase his knowledge of African gods, mythologies and history; unfortunately the result is error-prone. He places Benjamin Adekunle, the “Black Scorpion” on the Biafran side of the Nigerian Civil war (p193).  Sigh. Don’t ask me how Le Clézio got to Biafra from 1948.

In Le Clézio’s Africa, everything is pristine, filled with a contrived innocence. It is truly fiction so he could be forgiven for liberal applications of poetic license. Africa is storm buckets of thunder and rain and mud and more thunder. Everything is dark. Africans are subhuman and primitive. And sweetly angelic in a childlike way. The book is populated by black people with distended exaggerated features. The title of the book should be The Great White Hope Comes to Save Africa Again. Joseph Conrad, meet Le Clézio. This is history liberally distorted, romanticised to fit a liberal orthodoxy. How can a book written in the nineties be so bigoted? The real question is this: Why do many Western writers who write about Africa persist in seeing us as hapless sub-humans?

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