On Olusegun Adeniyi’s book on forced migration: From Africa’s frying pan to Europe’s fire

You should get a copy of Olusegun Adeniyi’s new book, From Frying Pan to Fire: How African migrants risk everything in their futile search for a better life in Europe and read it. from-frying-pan-to-fire-870x870

There are many reasons why you should read the book: It is a well-researched book on a crisis; the references alone are worth the price of the book.The chapter on the exodus of young men and women from Edo State is the most comprehensive and thoughtful treatise I have read since I have been studying the catastrophe. Scholars would be pleased by how Adeniyi meticulously compiled sources for his study. Impressive. Adeniyi is on to something. Nigeria is proxy for the ongoing massive gentrification of much of sub Saharan Africa as her citizens, young and old, rich and poor scheme ways of escaping the hell that her rulers age enabling intellectuals have built after colonialism.

The thesis is quite simple and perversely elegant: The middle and upper class flee in airplanes and the poor escape through mean deserts and seas to Europe and North America. It is a humanitarian crisis of overwhelming proportions. It needs to be addressed in words and actions.Indeed there was a time when it was unspeakable to leave Nigeria’s shores for anything other than recreation. You left only to get an education, you know you were returning home to a warm welcome and a place in the sun.  Chinua Achebe’s books chronicled the sojourn evocatively.

Today, Nigeria is in a sad place. There is no reason why Nigerian youths should be in Libya or Italy enduring horrendous conditions just to make it to economic nirvana. Nigeria was a rich country, but her wealth has been systematically looted by rulers and civil servants. It is estimated that of $600 billion generated by oil revenue, at least $400 billion has been looted by an army of thug-rulers, civil servants and conniving intellectuals and writers who pen the talking points justifying the mayhem that is Nigeria.Illegal-Immigrants

Since 1999, democracy has been a farce with rulers and intellectuals engaged in a looting spree to rob Nigerians of their future. Most institutions (education, health, safety and security) are broken relics from the colonial era that have trapped the poor in squalor and despair. Corruption, incompetence, and a broken education system have combined to make life hell for the average Nigerian who is not connected to the halls of power and influence. Graduates from mostly decrepit universities roam the streets in search of work. They see utopia elsewhere.

It is in this context that the book perhaps needs a sequel. It is interesting that the conversations in the book are among the middle class, in a few cases, some of the contributors are arguably complicit in the hellish situation that has forced young Nigerians to flee to Europe.The book fails in that regard, the question should be: Why are things the way they are? The book seems almost unwilling to plumb the depths of the issues.

It is not a perfect book. There are two parts to it; the first part is heavily research-based and thoughtful. The second part is a narrative of Adeniyi’s brother’s harrowing journeys to North Africa sand Europe in the nineties. It comes across as mere reportage, and poorly done. The editing is not top-notch but that is to be expected from Nigerian publishing. Would I read it again? Absolutely. I would like a digital copy with hot links to all the references. That would be awesome. But then it wouldn’t be a book anymore, would it?

So, what do I really think of the emptying of Nigeria by those who are strong or wealthy enough to leave? I say, go for it. You don’t have to brave mean seas and deserts to leave Nigeria. Even Ghana next door is a better alternative than today’s Nigeria. I have lived in the Diaspora for almost four decades. Many times, I think, I should never have come to America; exile is a kind of death. However, I am glad my kids were born here. If you have kids, it makes sense to give them an education that today’s Nigeria will surely deny them. That kind of death is worth it.

Let me tell you what Adeniyi’s book will not tell you. Nigeria is not worth dying for. If you can afford it, and you are still young and full of energy, leave, just leave, in the name of your children. Please don’t argue with me, take an inventory of all your over-paid and overrated politicians, professors, intellectuals and writers, do a survey of where their spouses and children are, they are all here with me. Your leaders agree with Donald Trump through their own actions that Nigeria is not good enough for anyone, they are only there for the money.

Don’t be stupid, young ones, if you do not have the gumption to take back your future from those who do not believe in you and your progress, leave, just leave. This life is short. I have said my own.

What are you reading?

Beyond Mr. Trump’s Africa: An opportunity to truly engage Africa

Trump insulting us. Europe sending us away. Israel chasing us out. The Arabs enslaving us. Shame, you black African leaders for making us a laughing stock. Rich natural resources, corruptly rich leaders, poor masses. We may not be a shithole but a hellhole we certainly live in.

  • Fofana @umarufofana, January 13, 2017 tweet


There is no sugar-coating it, President Donald Trump’s contemptuous “shithole” comments about Haiti and Black African nations were reprehensible and racist. His outburst was yet another reminder that the occupant of the White House is poorly read, ignorant of historical context and mighty proud of it. These are embarrassing times for America. As an American and a Nigerian, my despair rose several octaves in the knowledge that we have a president who through his actions and utterances truly believes that people like me are inferior to his race. Since coming to this country from Nigeria in 1982 to attend graduate school at OLEMISS, Mississippi. the subject of racism has always been a constant companion in my personal and professional life, but in retrospect, the racist indignities I have suffered in almost four decades of living in America have paled in comparison to the new bold ways with which people who look like me are accosted with physical and psychological violence under the leadership of Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump may have gone too far this time. But has he?

Let’s be clear: The notion that immigrants from Africa and Haiti are the dregs of the offering before America is not supported by the data and the facts. America is a great place precisely because we are here. America’s schools are populated by African immigrants with a deserved reputation for academic achievement and a crushing work ethic – from kindergarten to the highest rung of tertiary education. There is the joke that if they were all to leave, America’s test scores would drop precipitously. We are not leaving, it is just a joke, we are here to stay. We are America’s doctors, engineers, scientists, educators and computer programmers. As we speak the gentrification of America’s business landscape continues with immigrants changing the narrative from blue suits and corporations to immigrant-run small businesses that fuel the tax base with muscle and vigor. By the way, let me remind Mr. Trump that Mr. Barack Hussein Obama, his predecessor, one of the most successful American presidents in modern times, is the offspring of a Kenyan father. This is not just about academic excellence being the yardstick for measuring the worth of immigrants of color. In America, educational institutions are retooling their curriculum to emphasize a college and career focus, partly inspired by what immigrants do as artisans, plumbers, handymen, cleaners, cabdrivers, hairdressers and small businesses. In 21st century America, business is no longer clothed just in blue suits, we turn your lights on in the morning and turn them off at night and pay a lot of taxes in the process. We deserve a lot of respect from you, Mr. President.

Mr. Trump’s foreign policy towards Africa is largely transactional and fueled by skepticism. Our people in Nigeria say it is what is in your mind when you are sober that comes out when you are drunk. Sadly, Mr. Trump is the inebriated voice of many in America who see Africa as a deficit, a continent of disease and near savages with nothing to offer the world. Indeed, it is the case that Mr. Trump’s “shithole” outburst is a virulently malignant form of the benign neglect that Africa has suffered and continues to suffer in conventional narratives in the West and in foreign policy. American foreign policy in the past decade and a half has been inchoate at best, inarticulate. Since President George W. Bush’s investment in confronting the AIDS crisis in Africa, America’s body language has given the impression that Africa is a lost cause to be humored and neglected by the rest of the world. President Barrack Hussein Obama’s policy Africa was embarrassingly inchoate, it was as if Africa was an afterthought. America has been happy to absorb those who can afford to leave Africa’s shores, mostly the cognitive elite, who have proven more than capable of making America a better place than they met it, through hard work. You will find African scientists for instance in the top echelons of America’s scientific community, making substantive contributions to innovative research, you will find her writers competing for and winning literature’s top prizes and engaging America in debates on social issues of the day (race, feminism, gender issues, etc.), for fame and for fortune.

With respect to Africa’s challenges, though, what is the truth? The voices of Africa that the world sees are decidedly middle class (well-fed African writers and thinkers funded by the deep pockets of the West’s progressive liberal left) and although they purport to represent Africa, they mostly speak from a perspective that does not necessarily represent the reality on the ground in Africa. There is the Diaspora narrative and there is the home reality. The tensions between these two perspectives have played out on social media with young Africans at home in Africa largely acknowledging that Trump is speaking the truth while Diaspora voices have been busily sharing photos of high rises in Africa and their many degrees as proof that Trump is being racist. Trump may have inadvertently escalated a seething class war among Africans.

The open secret though is that even as Africans excel abroad, their home countries are honestly troubled. Using Nigeria as an example, a Marshall Plan or a hard reset is urgently needed to correct course and set many of these nations on the right path that will earn them the respect that their own citizens have garnered for themselves abroad, as individuals, never mind Trump. This reality is easily measured from the bipolar reaction that greeted Trump’s comments on social media, a loud rancorous space that is fast replacing orthodox African literature as the place to go to gauge the feelings of the true voices on the ground in Africa. While an overwhelming majority in the Diaspora (mostly middle-class and well-off) condemned Trump’s comment as racist, many young Africans at home shrugged it off as merely the truth of their existence. Dispossessed and angry African youths are clapping back at their oppressors – on social media. Between Africa’s political and intellectual elite and Donald Trump, the long-suffering masses carry truth-placards trumpeting their reality. Indeed, African leaders who dared to write on social media to complain about Trump’s conduct were ridiculed as hypocrites, effete and corrupt leaders who exposed Africa to Trump’s racism. The African Union’s statement demanding an apology from Trump was roundly ridiculed on Twitter. Many Western observers, especially those on the political left who wrote against Trump were surprised by the push-back on Twitter by enraged African youths who felt it was hard time someone told the world the truth about Africa.

Nigeria is a perfect example of the kind of horrid governance that many in the West are too polite to complain about in the presence of civilized company. Corruption is rife despite the high hopes that the ascension of Mr. Muhammadu Buhari would improve the situation, and extra-judicial killings are common place, with no one held accountable. In 2015, 347 Nigerian Shiites were slaughtered (these are official estimates, it is said that the death toll was closer to 1,000) for stopping the convoy of the country’s chief of army staff. Recently, almost 80 Nigerians were killed by marauding Fulani herdsmen, many of them children, their throats slit. Many Nigerian youths are openly braving roiling seas, mean mountains, slavery and the possibility of death to escape Nigeria’s economic hell and make it to Europe. Many institutions of governance remain moribund, its educational system is in shambles and law and order are out of reach for the common man. When all these are combined with a high rate of unemployment, there is trouble brewing, as manifested in the angry expressions of support on Twitter for Trump’s statements. The world should pay attention.

In a January 13, 2018 Facebook posting, the writer Karen Attiah exhorted people to invest in a historical context in creating a counter narrative to Trump’s bigotry, saying: “I think this is an opportunity to read, study and share the histories of our countries. To delve into the stories written, movies made, and art created by people from the called global south. To read about the pre-colonial empires from India to Persia to Ghana. Read Frantz Fanon. Learn about Patrice Lumumba. Meditate on Audre Lorde. Kwame Nkrumah. Watch Ousmane Sembene.” It is a thoughtful, dignified and appropriate approach to the violence unleashed on an entire continent and Haiti by Mr. Trump.  In Trump’s behavior, I also do see an opportunity beyond the rage, to reflect on roles and responsibilities and structural ways to help a continent in crisis. Many times, liberal orthodoxy is in the way of honestly addressing Africa’s challenges. Too often, the West, especially Western liberals have tended to look away from the misdeeds of African rulers and their intellectuals (the new enablers of corrupt politicians) and persist in pointing only to the ravages of colonialism and racism for what ails Africa. As a related aside, the purveyors of what the Western world calls “African literature” are becoming part of the problem that is Africa, proving to be a powerful conservative bloc that sleeps with corrupt and murderous politicians in dark bloody places, and come dawn write haunting songs of sorrow for consumption by a gullible West. Even at their most benign, they will not publicly address the huge dysfunctions in the societies they fled from (it ruins their brand) but they will write dark novels like  Mujila Fiston Mwanza’s Tram 83, which reads like a drunken cross between the racist or condescending thoughts of VS Naipaul and Joseph Conrad. Using Nigeria as a sordid example, many African writers have become just as corrupt as the politicians they write about in their beautiful books.

There is that, but when you look at the Congo left behind after Mobutu Sese Seko’s misrule, when you look at the situation in today’s Nigeria, where it is estimated that of approximately 600 billion dollars earned in crude oil revenue since independence, 400 billion dollars have been looted outright, it becomes increasingly difficult and ridiculous to excuse Africans from complicity in the mess that is today’s Africa. The poor in South Africa continue to toil under conditions that are quite frankly comparable to what obtained in apartheid South Africa, they can barely tell the difference under black rule. In a perverse sense, this is a great opportunity for Africa’s political and intellectual leaders to reject Trump’s racist narrative through honest visionary hard work of nation building. For this is not who we are. We are better than what Mr. Trump sees, no thanks to our corrupt rulers and their intellectual enablers.  Many of the rulers that are called “statesmen” are executioners of the dreams of young Africans. Between Donald Trump’s Africa and our Africa, the truth seethes. The illegal routes to Europe and the rest of the West are littered with the dead bodies of young Africans who preferred certain death to life without purpose and hope back home. How can the West help African nations? For one thing, they should help by staring at these rulers in the face and helping Africans to hold them accountable. As Sisonge Msimangu points out, it is not enough to trot out images of high rises in Africa and cute pictures of over-achieving Africans in the Diaspora to counter Mr. Trump’s narrative. Mr. Trump’s racist rants provide an opportunity for Western liberals and indeed all thought leaders to deploy a new mindset that forces African leaders and intellectuals to accept some responsibility for their horrid actions in Africa. Trump is a racist but, sadly, there is some truth to his bluster.

The Shadow List by Todd Moss: Of China, Russia, Nigeria and the belly of the 419 beast

In the age of social media it is tough to read long form works. Fiction taunts you on your smartphone every second, it is delicious, this living, and the world of Donald Trump makes it doubly exciting if you are not concerned that our world is careening from a benign farce, to a burning hell in a handbasket. The brain and the eyes are getting used to a gentrification – an aversion to long essays and books and a preference for works that are trapped within the world of Twitter’s 140 characters and the communal narcissism of Facebook and her cousins. So the other day, fighting a losing battle with my addiction to social media, I picked up a copy of The Shadow List, Todd Moss’s new book, published by Penguin Random House. You will be proud of me, I fought my social media induced ADHD issues, hung tight with the book, and the book rewarded my staying power by letting me fall in love with it. You will love the book.

What is The Shadow List all about?  Who is Todd Moss? Great questions; there is a good profile of Moss here in the Washington Post. He has also written a piece here explaining the method behind his literary madness. A former US deputy assistant secretary of state with expertise in West Africa, Moss is currently a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington DC. He has parlayed his extensive experience as a diplomat into writing fiction that threatens to birth a genre – diplomatic thriller or diplo-thriller. With this book, Moss now has a running series of four books of fiction involving the fictional character Judd Ryker: The Golden Hour (starring Mali), Minute Zero (inspired by events in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe), Ghosts of Havana, and now, The Shadow List (showcasing Nigeria). It is a brilliant concept, attempting to break down the arcana of sprawling bureaucracies and global diplomatic intrigue into engaging fiction.

shadowlist_leadSo how did the serial protagonist Judd Ryker do in The Shadow List? I think he and his wife, Jessica Ryker acquitted themselves admirably. It is a busy little book, Judd Ryker, the main character sets out to confront Chinese expansionist ambitions in capturing the world’s energy (crude oil) market. He soon gets side-tracked into other plots that involve Nigeria’s crude oil market (and its corruption) the encroaching Chinese influence in Nigeria, kidnappings, Nigeria’s politics; drama, corruption,  the popular or notorious Nigerian “419” scam, Russian gangs, etc. It is a sprawling plot of subplots that somehow trap an army of colorful characters including his wife, CIA agent, Jessica Ryker.

If you want to wrap your head around American foreign policy interests, especially with respect to African nations like Nigeria and the spaghetti webs of America’s government agencies and her relationships with other superpowers, this is a great book to start with. Moss knows a lot about our worlds and it shows.  Life in the US state department can be quite shadowy and one quickly learns that corruption is not a word unique to just African and Latino nations; there is a sense in which America probably inspired that pejorative.

In The Shadow List, Moss’s fiction is loosely based on the truth, there is a character loosely patterned after the corrupt and disgraced congressman William Jefferson, and there is one that is a thinly veiled portrait of Nigeria’s once respected crime fighter, former chairman of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Nuhu Ribadu.  Moss is obviously fond of Ribadu, indeed his famous quote “When you fight corruption, it fights back!” is in the book. It is a respectful look from the outside into Nigeria, there are even thinking Nigerians with the sophistication that you will hardly find in the works of African fiction. Nigeria comes across as gritty and corrupt, a place where relationships and individuals attempt to do what robust structures and systems do in thriving countries. Nigeria struts its stuff with attitude as Moss deploys his most colorful prose, dips his ink into pidgin English and re-introduces the world to Nigerian cuisine like jollof rice and egusi soup. More importantly, The Shadow List is a rigorous study of the 419 scam phenomenon, the research is quite impressive. The book’s tempo really picks up exactly half-way into the book and this reader begins to imagine it as an action-packed movie.

The book’s strength is in its attention to substance; it manages to inform and entertain the reader. It is interesting that the book, a commentary on corruption and America’s traditional anxieties around protecting oil reserves at home and abroad is coming out in September, in the age of Trump and all his shenanigans, at a time also when America is less interested in external reserves of oil since it is almost now self-sufficient in terms of energy resources. The book also makes the point to this Nigerian reader that the real restructuring of Nigeria would be one that devolves power and resources away from the powerful center to the satellites, and creates robust sustainable structures of governance and accountability, if she is to thrive – and be respected and relevant in the global community.

Moss is a good writer and the Judd Ryker series is a great concept. You will need to be patient, the book takes its time getting to a brisk pace as Moss methodically builds plots upon too many plots and subplots – often using clinical prose that belongs in a government memorandum. This is a problem in the age of social media. Nigerians will cringe at Moss’s version of Pidgin English, it is adorably atrocious, but the Western reader will appreciate it because it is adapted for their benefit. The Shadow List does sometimes come across as a giant nod to American exceptionalism, that notion that in the end America is good and she will triumph over the other’s evil. The book is ponderous at first, but hang in there long enough and you will be rewarded with a good thriller. Do you know the origin of the term “shadow list”? You will have to read the book, I don’t do spoilers. Yes, I recommend the book. Absolutely.

Chielozona Eze’s poetry: Prayers to Survive Wars that Last

Chielozona Eze has written a book of poems that connect the wars of his childhood with the wars of his exile. He goes home to his ancestral land in Nigeria where the Nigerian civil war, his first conventional war began, and in verse he looks at his world inside out. It is a fascinating look, this little book with the enigmatic title, Prayers to Survive Wars that Last. These poems remind us that there are many types of wars, but people mostly think of conventional wars where guns are the bayonets to the heart. Similarly exile is more than a trip to Babylon, once you leave your hearth, the heart knows and grieves for the warm comfort of home, familiar surroundings tastes and smells. Well, most times. Sometimes, you just walk away, never look back, grit your teeth and bite hard into the peaches of Babylon. Life, as war goes on.

TEST_eze, chielezoneBorn in 1962, Eze was a child during the Nigerian civil war, a terrified witness to a daily hell. The war remains one of the most written about – and most unexamined of Nigeria’s traumas. That war that raged from 1967 to 1970 consumed over a million lives, mostly Igbo citizens, a genocide that destroyed lives and trust among the major ethnic groups. The timing of the release of the poetry collection is interesting, coming at a time when there is a renewed clamor for, if not an independent Biafran nation for the Igbo, a restructured Nigeria with power devolving away from the center to regions, designed perhaps along ethnic lines.

Eze’s volume of poetry has about 47 poems in it, anchored by an interesting essay- preface by the writer Chris Abani. Abani’s essay, by the way. is remarkable more for its claims and assertions than for its substance. When Abani charges, for instance, that “most Nigerian poets focus on the rallying call of protest, politics, and nation,” one senses that he has not been reading a whole lot of contemporary Nigerian poets. Indeed, it is the case that this is one area where African literature is veering away from the monotony and narrow range of poverty porn, grime and protest literature. I am thinking of young and exciting writers like Jumoke Verissimo, Saddiq M. Dzukogi, David Ishaya Osu, Romeo Oriogun, Timothy Ogene, etc, who clearly do not suffer the burden that Abani talks of. As an aside, Abani was born in 1966 on the eve of the war; his claims of being a witness to that war go beyond appropriating someone else’s pain, and comment eloquently on the class distinctions during the war that made the witnessing to fall disproportionately on the voiceless poor. This is where Eze comes in, a child who witnessed and suffered a war he did not ask for. Finally, Abani anointing Eze in this preface as “a true and worthy successor of Christopher Okigbo” is patronizing beyond the telling of it. Eze is his own voice and there are no comparisons. Eze is no Okigbo.

So, who is Chielozona Eze? Google him, and you will get impressive blurbs like this one:

“Chielozona Eze is a Nigerian poet and philosopher and literary scholar. He is associate professor of Anglophone African literatures at Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago. He earned his PhD in Philosophy and Literature from Purdue University, where he also obtained an MFA in fiction. He has master’s degrees in Catholic theology and comparative literature. His areas of research include Igbo poetics, African feminisms, globalization and Africana cultures/identities, literature and ethics etc. He is actively collecting and archiving Igbo oral poetry, and he seeks to continue in the tradition of his father, who was a prominent oral poet in Amokwe.”

It is true, Eze is a remarkable  scholar and quiet patron of the literary arts in Africa (who has hosted many writers on his blog), a beautiful soul burdened with the gift of deep sensitivities. A highly regarded scholar and prolific poet, Chielozona Eze was shortlisted for the £3,000 Brunel University African Poetry Prize in 2013. He has published his poems in journals like the Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Eclectica, Northeast Review, and Sentinel Poetry Movement. When the history of contemporary digital African literature is written his name will be right in there along with writers like Afam Akeh, Amatoritsero Ede, Sola Osofisan, Molara Wood, etc.

About the poems, I enjoyed reading the collection, there are many poems to like in this slim volume. The first poem is Lagos, Lagos, a poem that reminds one of the homecoming of a nervous warrior – on the wings of prayers and an airplane. Visually, it calls to mind the pretty line in Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief  – of a plane which “drops gently and by degrees towards the earth as if progressing down an unseen flight of stairs.”:

Our plane broke through dense clouds
and glided over a sea of rusted roofs
                                and skyscrapers
                                        and slums
                                                    and palaces
                                                        and refuse dumps
                                                                    and people
                                                                       and people

From that first stanza, Eze, the war survivor returns to his mother’s hearth. From that poem on, the reader feasts on tender verses that plumb Eze’s angst, pain and longing for a certain peace away from the war of the past – and today’s drumbeats for war. The poem, The art of loving what is not perfect brings Eze’s mother to the reader’s consciousness – on the wings of deep words. In Memory: a parable, Eze is a tormented soul, haunted by the past and the realities of the present, a man apprehensive about a future that is right here, ugly and foreboding:

I know a thing about memory:
It is a blind dog left in a distant city,
It finds a home in a shelter, waiting for love.
Months on, chance brings its master around.
At the sound of his voice it jumps and barks
and whines and wags its tail.
Will the master reject it again?

For Eze, memory is a struggle, memory is life in ether borne on the wings of faith and spirituality. He looks at the past frozen in time, as if with the eyes of a traumatized child. It is a struggle, a painful one for which even prayer does not provide a salve. In Ezes’s memories of war, he emotes beautifully and urges us to remember history:

 The past, if forgotten pollutes
the village drinking well

Eze is his own voice but some of the poems do hearken in a good way to the industry and craft of the old masters of poetry. Unknown boy soldiers, The exodus offer hints of Kofi Awoonor and Wole Soyinka. The poems are enigmatic, giving the reader tantalizing peeks into Eze’s world view and politics. His politics is an issue: What does he now think of the Nigerian civil war? Starved girl is typical of most of the poems, seemingly accessible, simple words pregnant with meaning and feeling:

 The ground is dirt
Grasses are in spots
A white wall darkens
Two children on a wobbly table.
The one faces the camera.
The other stares at the ground.
Her ribs jut out,
her belly balls forth.
Thinning limbs, bloated feet.
Walking must be hell.

If you listen well you can hear me whisper:
Merciful God,
why are we doing this to ourselves?

The poems make the point painfully that the term, “War is hell” is more than a mere cliché. The poems are powerful enough to not require visual imagery.  Hear these lines from Remember me:

She makes it out the door.
Her thighs are stockfish.
Her stomach is a sad balloon.

prayersFaith is a constant subject in Eze’s poetry, he rarely questions it, choosing to revel in its mystery. Memory haunts Eze always. You sit in the darkness of your space and all these images of hurt and longing won’t stop drawing themselves on your conscience. It is not all war poetry; it is that and more. Letter to self from a city that survived is perhaps a defiant clap back to a generation baying for war. It is worth the steep price of the book ($15 for the hard copy, $10 for the digital copy). Ode to my refugee shirt is a nice comforting ditty evoking joy from a sad place.

The reader admires Eze’s generosity of spirit; his verses reflect on other people’s suffering and eloquently uses poetic narrative to reflect on the universality of suffering. Without uttering the word, “love”, Eze’s poems reek of love and compassion and one learns that there are beautiful people who come from a place where the words “I love you” live silently in the hearts, eyes, hands and souls of those who truly love each other.

There are many pieces to love in this slim volume, but my favorite is A new planting season (for Chinua Achebe – 1930-2013). This short moving elegy speaks volumes to the profundity of Achebe’s depths:

Before his last breath the elder showed his hands,
palm up. Empty, he said, like the long road ahead.
I’ve planted the seeds my father put in them;
planted them the way my mother taught me.

Look around you and in the old barn.
More seeds, dung, watering cans, machetes,
two sided machetes. What needed to be said
has been said. Everything else is up to you.

One imagines the poet locked up in solitary talking to himself about the personal and communal pain that won’t go away. There is a war going on, there is a war coming; Eze’s poems make his point plaintively, “I saw war, war is hell, never again.” We can only hope.

Prayers to Survive Wars that Last is available on Amazon. Eze is a veteran digital native and the enterprising reader will find some of these poems freely available online, the book is fast becoming an archival medium.  It is not a perfect book; there is a sense in which it was a disappointing production. Editorial issues mar the book, there are quite a few beautiful lines marred by editorial issues, quite unforgivable in poetry. Some of the poems read like works in progress, puzzling fillers for a little book of poems, inspiring the question: Why is this a poem? In a few instances, the pieces suffer from too many words where less or none would do just fine. And then there is the shoddy publishing of the book itself by an outfit called Cissus World Press Books (which by the way boasts the quirkiest, non-responsive website I have ever seen). My copy literally dissolved in my hands as the glue holding the pages gave way. Not to worry, I bought a digital copy online. It is a better production. Which is fine by me, the book is dying anyway. My Kindle is happy.

Chinua Achebe and contemporary African literature

“But in another sense it was entirely appropriate to call Achebe a contemporary African writer, since African novel-writing has scarcely progressed since he inaugurated it with the celebrated Things Fall Apart. In the decades since that title was published—the same year as The Once and Future King, Our Man in Havana, and The Dharma Bums—the American novel has evolved through a multitude of vogues and phases while the Anglophone African novel has, for the most part, remained as it was when Achebe launched it: unremarkable in its prose, flat in its characterization, anti-Western in its politics, and preoccupied with the confrontation between tradition and modernity.”

– Helen Andrews (nee Rittelmeyer) in her essay Up from Colonialism, in the Claremont Review of Books, February 10, 2014

Perhaps, if I had to share my number one frustration about African literature, it is that its trajectory and fate are over-determined by the West. The conclusions get firmer even as the purveyors get lazier. Talking about labels, here is a New York Times interview of Teju Cole on the re-release of his debut book Every Day is for the Thief in which he  tries to clarify his identity as a writer, and I guess, a human being. Specifically, Teju Cole demurs when referred to as an “African writer”, preferring the label, “internationalist” a la Salman Rushdie, whatever that means. I agree with him and respect his choice of identity. I am not sure the West cares; they are bent on making him and all writers of African descent, the exotic other. Because even though African writers protest too much, many of them have spent a lifetime making money and fame from hawking themselves as “the other.”

achebeLet me also say that “African literature” in the 21st century, to the extent that it is only judged through analog books by literary “critics” schooled in the 20th century Achebean era, will always distort our history and stories. I have said that many African writers write poor fiction because they tend to force their anxieties about social conditions into the format of fiction. The result is often awkward, they should be writing essays. But I was primarily thinking about books. Today, the vast proportion of our stories is being written on the Internet by young folks who do not have the resources that the West availed Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o et al in the 60’s. Why are we judging African literature only through books? Why?

There may be some truth to the notion that many African writers who write fiction are yet to wean themselves of Achebe’s influence. But then, the critics who make these charges should look in the mirror – and then get off their lazy butts and go read new African writers. They are out there on the Internet and in literary magazines doing us proud. And how you can do a literary critique of contemporary African writing without once mentioning Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie beats me. What about Taiye Selasi? NoViolet Bulawayo? And we are still talking about books. Give me a break, people.

ngugiLastly, to imply that Achebe was an ordinary writer is beneath contempt. Literature, stories must not be divorced from their context. Achebe’s generation wrote for my generation of children because no one else would. I would not be here today without them. They were preoccupied with the social conditions at the time, yes, but they tried to do something about them also. Indeed some died fighting for an ideal (Christopher Okigbo for instance). The challenge for today’s writers is to ensure that they are not merely recording and sometimes distorting and exaggerating Africa’s anxieties and dysfunctions for fame and fortune. To blame Achebe for our contemporary writers’ narcissism is disingenuous and silly.



Thoughts on reactions to my essay on Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83

Since publication of my essay on Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s book, Tram 83 (here), I have read some interesting feedback, most recently from Richard Oduor Oduku and Zukiswa Wanner . I thank them for engaging me respectfully, and found many of the numerous comments on their wall enlightening, entertaining even. A few thoughts:

1. My essay isn’t so much about Tram 83, but about the politics and power of narrative and how we conduct business. It’s an old debate!🚶🏿Sounds harsh, but after reading Tram 83, I wonder if the narrative that passes for “African literature” in the West helps or hurts “Africa.”

2. Many African writers of stature have attained fame and decent living from attaching themselves to the title “African writer.” Prizes, grants, fellowships, conferences are devoted to “African writing” and these things are heavily subscribed to by the same African writers who now chafe at the term. You can’t have it both ways. If you have allowed yourself to be defined (and limited) by a term, the reader should be forgiven for looking at you through that lens. You can’t be posing as a Western-sponsored African writer, and when asked questions you drop the tag, “African.” As I have said repeatedly in the past, the perks aren’t free! 😐

3. The reader as a consumer has every right to be prescriptive in terms of what he/she wants. You don’t have to cater to the consumer, it’s all right, this consumer can always go elsewhere, there is plenty supply out there, most of the good stuff is actually free. It works both ways; the writer should never feel any obligation to satisfy any readership. There are tons of readers out there, find your audience.

4. There is no true fiction; our people say that it is what is in your heart when you are sober that comes out of your mouth when you are drunk! Let it not be said that African fiction as we know it today is the last refuge of scoundrels and cowards. If you come to my home and my ancestral land and you insult me, my loved ones and everything that I stand for in the name of fiction, I have every right to do the same to you in the name of fiction.

5. If it looks like I am harping on and on about the same things, it is because to be quite honest, much of orthodox African fiction as we see in books is prescriptive (yes, that word) mostly timid, lacking innovation, its creativity stifled by the work of Western editors and gatekeepers whose first allegiance is to a paying reading [Western] audience. African readership is hardly part of the equation. What is the purpose of the writing anyway? It does not educate, it does not entertain, it does not improve upon the silence. What are you doing?

6. What gets lost in translation is important. The unintended consequence might come across as utter disrespect. Remember, the act of telling our stories in English, and then on paper, is in itself two levels of translation. We are built in the oral tradition. Moving from French to English is this at least three layers of translation. A lot gets lost in translation. When the narrator in Tram 83 seems to mock a people whose cuisine is “dog cutlets and grilled rat” it is impossible to see them as human beings worth engaging in on a respectful level. It is your language, you already have power over the narrative, if I told you that your foie gras is obtained from doing savage things to the liver of a cute bird (the lovely goose) I am communicating to you that I don’t take you seriously. You are savages. Where I come from we don’t eat sautéed termites, we eat irikhun. If you do not understand why this is so offensive to the reader, then we are on different planets.

7. Again, the translation in Tram 83 did nothing for me, with all due respect. I read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in English, it was as if I was speaking Igbo, I read Camara Laye’s African Child in English and it was as if he was reading to me in his language. Do the people really eat “grilled rat”? Is that what they see on their plates?

8. Another point that I need to bring home: We may be mistaking Diaspora [African] writing for African writing. In the 21st century, in the age of social media, who are these voices? And yes, they are considered “African” voices. If you don’t agree with me, you are disagreeing with Alain Mabanckou and Ato Quayson, read their words. You are the ones setting people up for what they are not.

9. Excuse me if I am not impressed: At least in the case of Nigeria, the most benign of African writers engage in navel gazing and satisfying middle class pursuits of Western readers and merely document Africa’s social issues to line their pockets. The rest are in cahoots with ruler-thieves.

10. And please don’t tell me that activism is not their responsibility; they are in the West, happily attending protest marches against dictators like Trump, as they should, and driving debates on racism, gender identity, etc, etc.

11. I think you all should read Amatesiro Dore’s essay; it focuses on the binary of Diaspora v indigenous writer, who gets to be acknowledged and what this all means. http://www.thescoopng.com/2015/01/28/amatesiro-ede-nigeria-produced-writer-worth-reading-since-1960/

12. For me as a reader, this is all academic, I could tell you that we need new writing; we don’t, I am on the Internet and on social media, enjoying the best narrative coming out of Africa in decades. There is little translation and most of the writers are readers who don’t know that they are writers, lol.

13. In the 21st century, it is inappropriate to judge the work of a writer based solely on their published works. It especially does young African writers a disservice, the vast bulk of their work is digital. These books that you all crow over are important but they are like less than 0.1 percent of their output. Why do you insist on judging them by books alone? I won’t, I don’t have to.

14. Ultimately, Mujila’s narrator in Tram 83 may be right: “There are cities which don’t need literature: they are literature. They file past, chest thrust out, head on their shoulders. They are proud and full of confidence despite the garbage bags they cart around.

15. Dear African writer in the Diaspora, what is your mission? Africa is a basket case. We know that! In the 21st century, does the reader really need a book of fiction to see that much of Africa is a basket case? We know that! It is all over YouTube! We do not need you telling us ad nauseam, we certainly do not need you exaggerating Africa’s already dire condition for the West’s reading pleasure.

16. The charge that I am a “critic” is one I am too lazy to disown. I am a reader who writes. I buy most of my books with my own money, I am not affiliated with anyone and I say what I have to say in my own space. What you do with it is your own wahala. I have written creative non-fiction and published them in reputable journals and as part of books, so this is not about me. I am not necessarily reviewing books, I am using the books that I read to continue a long-running dialogue about us and how we allow others to see us. It is complicated, I guess. Bottom line: The writer should simply write and the reader should simply read. Everything else is drama. LOL!

Molon Labe. I have said my own. Oya come and beat me! 😎

My father’s cupboard

My father had a cupboard of books. It was probably our most prized possession, even as he was “transferred” by the Nigerian police from Nigeria’s nook to cranny, he and I always made sure that the cupboard of books had an exalted place in the “transfer” lorry that took us to our new home in the barracks. 
In that cupboard, Professor Chinua Achebe’s books were exalted guests. I traveled the world through the books in that cupboard. My father’s cupboard was magical, no matter how many times I visited it, there was always a book I had never read. In Ruskin Bond’s Room on the Roof, I traveled to India, in Richmal Crompton’s Williams series, I saw little boys that looked like me in far away Britain.
 About my father, I am not sure my dad ever read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. I know he read No Longer at Ease and A Man of the People. In those days, we had one of those standing mirrors that were in every Nigerian “parlour.” My father, who had secretly dreamt of going “overseas” to get “the golden fleece”, would stand before the mirror, twirl his Honda motorcycle keys around his fingers and go, “How’s the car behaving?” a way of greeting by the new African elites in Achebe’s book, No Longer at Ease, those mimic-white folks who came back home in those huge ships. My dad envied them, no end and he never tired of telling me that he would have been one of them if I had not come along. 

My dad loved A Man of the People and on some evenings over a glass of beer, he would yell, ‘Chief Nanga, MP!” and he and I would practically fall on the ground laughing at the antics of that corrupt politician. There were other books that my father loved, I remember pretty much all the books of the African Writers Series that Achebe helped to birth. My father loved TM Aluko’s books, especially One Man One Wife, a book my dad liked to quote loudly within earshot of our mother. He chafed at monogamy and he endured it, with a few missteps. His pet name for our mother Izuma was Ailegwale, that is, the only course, no appetizer, no dessert! 
I will always remember Achebe because his books were one reason I bonded with my dad, a complex but loving man. I inherited my dad’s passions, a lot of them demons, his love for beautiful people, good music, words, a good bottle, and books. Achebe saved my dad and me with the power of words. He was a giant, powerful eagle perched at the head of a pack of thinkers and doers who insisted on telling us our stories, at a time when that was what you had to do to entertain children and their parents. I lost a father in Achebe, this man who made my father play with me.

Dear African writer in the Diaspora: What is your mission?

Dear African writer in the Diaspora, what is your mission? Africa is a basket case. We know that! In the 21st century, does the reader really need a book of fiction to see that much of Africa is a basket case? We know that! It is all over YouTube! We do not need you telling us ad nauseam, we certainly do not need you exaggerating Africa’s already dire condition for the West’s reading pleasure. Yes, it is only the West that reads you. These books are for the benefit of the West, those that read in Africa do not have access to much of these books. What is your mission?
What is the purpose of literature anyway? How is it that there is a narrowness of range and depth in the literature that we read of in your books? Is this really the sum of our experience? I speak for myself as a reader, I do not need happy stories, no, I need narrative that is not contrived by Diaspora writers who hardly go home to visit. The reader knows. 

There is also this thing called credibility; when your books are “launched” by criminal leaders, when your “conferences” are sponsored by thug leaders, when your imaginary associations are funded from government funds inserted into the budget in the dead of night, when criminal rulers spend one million American dollars for your two-hour dinners, when you are the hand behind the twitter handle of common ruler-thieves you can’t come to me and read me a book of deprivation and injustice and not expect me to laugh in your face. 

How many of you “writers” have lifted a voice to complain about the massacres in Nigeria, the looting, even Chibok? How many of you have asked where Dr. Stella Nyanzi is? That vile dictator Museveni has locked up Dr. Nyanzi because she accused his wife of having two buttocks! What are you doing? You are writing cute things for the white man, giving his children awesome lectures when you are not protesting Trump or racism in the West. Nonsense! 

Abeg, continue to write your lived experience o, na who hold you? We are simply saying we don’t want to read it. We are not saying we are happy, we are simply saying we are not happy with your bullshit, LOL! Want to know why Linda Ikeji and BBN are more influential than Adichie? It is called a failure of leadership… y’all be writing poverty porn o, which one concern me?

Many times, fiction is the last refuge of the coward. What the hell is art? I say to you, if someone comes to your home, slaps you, calls your lover ugly and defecates on your floor and say it is art, slap him, call his lover ugly and go defecate on his floor and call it art also. Joyce Cary, Joseph Conrad, VS Naipaul, these writers told you, your people have no civilization, there are no thinkers where you come from and you are all sub humans and in school you were told this is art, this is fiction, and you took exams where you had to answer yes to the question: “Are Africans sub-human?” If you said, “No, we are human beings”, you failed. Now, the offspring of Africa are back in the garb of racists and jerks telling you the same thing about your women, about your humanity, about your civilization, and because you have no self-esteem, you are calling those who define and defile you artists. Clap for yourselves.

Who are these people anyway? They are the children of looters who built those disused Concorde runways rotting in the jungles of the beautiful Congo, they are the children of those who looted Africa dry and built libraries as monuments to their perfidy. Their children are back from learning French and Spanish and in fake accents they are calling the abused names that should be reserved for their own parents. I say, sell your silly little books to the West, we don’t want them. 

And I say to you, words are powerful, if you do not listen closely to the politics of your storyteller you will be a slave. I have said my own. You are all full of it. Your books are worthless. I have said it, Oya comman beat me!🏃🏿 

Nigeria: The way we are

There is a reason why many people like me have lost interest in commenting on Nigerian politics. What seems abnormal to me is really the new normal. Nigeria is what it is and there is this sense that I am crying louder than the bereaved. Our dysfunction is now deeply dyed into our cultural fabric. People have basically decoupled themselves from nationhood and community and are now looking out for themselves. It is so blatant. When I speak with people at home, no matter how you steer them into politics, they don’t seem interested. They seem focused on the self – by all means necessary. They just want to “hammer.” It is what it is. 
Why are we like this? Why are things the way they are? There is really no shame, no sense of self-reflection, words trump deeds and style is the all important victor over substance. There is no leadership, to be honest, and I am not just talking about political leadership. We are all the same in the communal hypocrisy and greed. I think about how public intellectuals are struggling to normalize, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, SLS, the Emir of Kano, Mr. Glib, Mr. Do what I say, a note what I do, and I remember, they normalized Buhari, they normalized Amaechi, they normalized El-Rufai, they normalized Obasanjo. Their job as intellectuals is to make you forget. #AnimalFarm. If you are a thief and a thug and you are generous to them, you can murder hundreds, you can steal billions, you can be incompetent and you will be fine. You will not be a distressed character in their insincere books and essays. 
You must not separate the messenger from the message; when you do you decouple them from their sins. These people have ruined our country. How can we soon forget SLS’s misdeeds? No, he is a charming soul, he says all the right things, and if he likes you, he will be your Robin Hood. He loves public intellectuals. This is my larger point: There is no hope for Nigeria. I do not see any progress through my generation or the generation coming after. Indeed the generation coming after promises to be much worse judging by their antics on social media. They are training you to be unthinking dolts. Do not ask questions, they say, this is church!

There is no hope. If you doubt me, do a survey of where our leaders and their families go to for education, health, vacations, good living. Not in Nigeria. Buhari’s dying veins are hooked to the laboratory machines of the secret agencies of the West. Imagine that, after billions of Naira budgeted for a medical clinic our president had to go abroad to the West to attend to his health. The CIA knows everything about his blood cells. We don’t. Go figure. Nigeria is not a country. 

For what will happen to much of Africa, look to where your leaders are. At some point we will have to tell ourselves the truth. Let’s all agree with our bumbling, thieving rulers and their intellectual enablers: We cannot govern ourselves. Today, we are in denial about that truth. We will admit this soon and outsource governance to WalMart and McDonalds. They will save our people just as the cell phone saved my mother from my father’s patriarchy and Nigeria’s incompetence. Walmart will sell us Do-It-Yourself governance kits. If you don’t have credit, you die…