Beyond the balance of the stories…

It takes uncommon intelligence to survive Africa. I know. I lived it for over two decades. But then, suffering is overrated and conquering it requires effort and uncommon intelligence. Africans are geniuses. So why are things the way they are? We can’t talk about it because white liberals love to stifle debate. White liberals and their African sidekicks love to hate V.S. Naipaul. They refer to him as what Chinua Achebe would refer to as a thoroughgoing racist. Once pronounced thusly, all debate is smothered and we are all back to being human beings again – until the next racist book about Africa is written. And the wailing and drama resume. Sure Naipaul is a racist. And it seems every book written about Africa today is awash in the red ink of racism, bigotry and prejudice.  Even many Africans write about Africa as if they are snooty expatriates from on high. Africa is filth, savagery and broken people pretending to be humans, that is the message they subconsciously communicate.

Liberalism is the arrogant guard of the black wall that rejects debate. No one must go past it. When it comes to matters African, our avuncular white liberals tend to cry louder than the bereaved. We ought to move past cute Third World movies and the despondent poets of the past, dark era that depict us as the other.  Why are things the way they are? Our intellectuals understandably seek desperately to legislate relationships. From Chinua Achebe to Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the refrain is: “Can’t you see, we are human beings like you?” We are scared and we lash out at those that ask questions about our humanity and our competence. I fully understand how Achebe can accuse Conrad of racism for turning the corner, seeing Africa and Africans and saying, “This is another planet, these are not my people.” But then at what point do we begin to ask hard questions about ourselves and hold our looter-leaders accountable? Yelling racism keeps at bay the answers to our issues. It drives away accountability also.

I have harsh words for our leaders. Western education has created the worst caliber of leaders that has ever ruled much of Black Africa.  It has taught them the key tenets of selfishness. They lack compassion and understanding. They are solely responsible for the mess that Africa is in today. The white man’s contribution historically is well documented.  Today, he has become a convenient foil for the greed, ineptitude and evil of our leaders. Yelling at the white man has become a money maker.  Our intellectual and political elite have found profitable props in the avuncular patronizing condescending attitudes of white liberals. White liberals have been singularly responsible for genetically coding in our leaders a lack of introspection, an allergy to accepting responsibility and a disdain for the word, credibility. As the Nigerian project has shown, their motto is do what I say, not what I do. Certified wife beaters, thugs and thieves are paraded on the world stage as “statesmen.” Plagiarists are forgiven their transgressions and false prophets are handsomely rewarded for lying about their achievements. There is no excuse for what is happening in Nigeria. At its best, we are looking at uncritical mimicry. Democracy has combined with the new Christianity to become a force more deadly than AIDS in oppressing our people.

African intellectuals are at war with the West. They are human beings and they are not going to stop telling white folks that. They write obsessively about the otherness that is African but they are obsessive about not living the life that they describe so hauntingly in their oh so cute books. Kiran Desai’s gorgeous book The Inheritance of Loss is a work of haunting beauty and dark genius, lovely how she mimics our mimicry, our rejection of the state of being conferred on us by a racist, mean God. We do not question why things are the way they are. We describe what is and demand equality and respect. The self-loathing manifests itself in many ways, not only in Naipaul’s books.

It is tempting to romanticize the writer as a dreamy eyed idealist resting only on truth-oars. With respect to African writers, nothing could be further from the truth. Many African writers have written for dictators, and continue to share wine and break bread with thieves mimicking democracy. When it suits their purposes, they ignore, with powerful words, atrocities committed by their friends and relatives. It is an abuse of power: The power of empty words. But mimicry is not going to get us far. We are building monuments that are unsustainable. We insist on going to the moon when our people hanker for the simple pleasures of clean water, good roads and safe communities. We have embraced a religion that is dismissive and contemptuous of our past and present.  Their God says we must reject our being in order to be accepted by him. Ours is the only race that has uncritically embraced this new plague called Christianity. Mimicry. It will kill off our race.

Strange Passages to Harare North

First published in Next Newspapers, November 14, 2009

There is this thing called the Caine Prize for African Literature, whatever that means. People compete for it and someone invariably wins. There is a lot of noise making and jollification for a deserved win and the poor winner is expected to write a book. The poor fellow always obliges and dutifully produces a thoroughly wretched book. It hardly ever fails. There have been notable exceptions but one would argue that the writer wrote a good book despite winning the Caine Prize. One such wretched book is Harare North, written by the brilliant, perhaps gifted Brian Chikwava. He is destined to write a good book – once he finds his voice. It is just that right now, his toes are flirting with crickets while Africa is carrying elephants on her head. There are few books that have frustrated me more than Harare North. It is like staring in anger at a rich pot of soup ruined by an impish but talented cook.

Harare North is a meandering journey undertaken by an unnamed main character fleeing imaginary trouble back home in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe (you get the story already, sorry!). He heads for London (aka Harare North) and proceeds to lead a wretched meaningless existence.  Saddled with a not-so-bright friend named Shingi he immerses himself in the under belly of the immigrant community in London building tricks to stay above water. It is not pretty but this is not just because of the wretched lives these people live in the grimy underbelly of grimy London. This is an unfortunate book for reasons that are the fault of Chikwava and publishers eager to publish and sell reams of Africa’s dignity to a willing and gullible Western audience. What is it with African writers and stereotyping? In the 21st century many of them are still scheming their way into the pockets of gullible Westerners who truly believe that Africans are exotic lovable dolts to be watched like animals in a zoo.  I am not amused.

 On one level, Harare North is a brilliant book, written by a brilliant, sensitive author with the potential of shining a compassionate light into the lives of immigrants of color.. And sometimes it works. Chikwava lays bare the tricks that immigrants turn to somehow survive in London. But then, what’s with the contrived English? Harare North is engaging and heart-warming, but the contrived English gets in the way, each time. It is like finding your favorite meal infested with tiny obnoxious stones. The book offers evidence of formerly elegant prose poetry ruined by reckless experimentation with contrived English. There is no linguistic structure to it because the language simply doesn’t exist. Profound thoughts become distressed babble under the weight of dysfunction. Not convincing, the contrived result. Chikwava has dissipated vigorous energy to write nonsense. It is funny but it is nonsense.

 This is too bad because there is all this brilliance peeking furtively out of the contrived fortress of a pretend-language. There is something phony about contrived language, because it is, well, phony. I didn’t like it when Uzodinma Iweala used it in Beasts of No Nation, and I certainly am dismayed that it ruined a brilliant opportunity in Harare North. Read this beauty of a sentence, reconstruct it in real prose and tell me why I shouldn’t mourn the loss of a dream novel: “Harare township is full of them stories about the misfortunes that people meet; they carry bags full of things and heads that is full of wonders of new life, hustle some passage to Harare North, turn up without notice at some relative’s door, only to have they dreams thrown back into they faces.” (p 5)

 The reader is distracted to drink by sentences that Chikwava almost forgot to engineer into nonsense. “And then me I hear that people in the village where Mother is buried will be moved somewhere because government want to take over the area since emeralds have now been discovered there.” (p 17) The language gets in the way in a subversive manner and it as a result the book is torpedoed by an inane contrivance. But I must say Chikwava, can describe despair with a few deft strokes of the pen. “She take me to the kitchen and the air smell of bad cooking and the sink have one heap of dirty dishes and all. It’s like they lie there for donkey years. The ceiling on one corner is growing mushrooms and things.” (p 30)

 It is perhaps a weakness of the narrative that Chikwava could be accused of creating negative stereotypes and spinning bigoted tales at the expense of Zimbabweans. This is not the Zimbabwe of Petina Gappah’s elegant stories (Elegy for Easterly), or even of Dambudzo Marechera’s brilliant angst-ridden anthems. There are traces of bigotry and prejudice some aimed at gays and lesbians. We see the immigrant of color as a shiftless aimless buffoon. This is just one aspect of the immigrant life. Who tells the others? Read it, it is fun despite itself. I do miss Ike Oguine’s A Squatter’s Tale. It is a better book. By far.

For Fela Anikulapo Kuti: Memories of you

First published in Next Newspapers, November 20, 2010

There are days in America that wear the beauty of a well-tended garden, every image in its right place, days created the night after goddesses loved and rocked their lovers to blissful restful sleep. On those magical days, I always go for a walk. And my friends come with me, strong voices of Africa, spilling in song out my iPod. Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Miriam Makeba, Sunny Ade, Osita Osadebe, Ebenezer Obey, Rex Lawson, Celestine Ukwu. Prince Nico Mbarga. Victor Uwaifo. They follow me, our ancestors’ son, wearing a blue suit and an attitude, trailing all these people staring at my weirdness.

The guttural sounds of the spirits of Lagos gush out of Fela, Abami Eda, the Weird One. My senses threaten to implode from the torrent gushing out the eaves of Fela’s motor mouth. Alagbon Close. I am the son of my ancestors dressed in the other’s blue suit. I am dancing, dancing, dancing, in my head as Amebo my iPhone shivers with delight.  Listen to those drunken horns strutting high attitude. Fela is perched deep in the orchestra pit of the dispossessed taunting privileged thieves. Hear the horns honking at thieves, mooning bastards:“Now listen now! Now listen now! I dey do my part, I be human being like you like you! I dey sing I dey dance, without me you nor go happy at all at all. Now listen!”

Roforofo Fight. At home, my laptop Cecelia is fueling her breasts with tomorrow’s juice cells. I am feasting on food, rice and designer stew and Jumoke Verissimo’s book. I Am Memory. Hear Verissimo purr. I love this owner of words. Me, I am worshiping in temples where words dare not go. Oh, Fela. Fela is on a roll. Overtake Don Overtake Overtake. ODOO  Hear horns spreading attitude on the antiseptic fields of Babylon.  And I miss my mother, Izuma of the stout bush that cannot be felled. I should be dancing with my mother under that canopy.

American morning. Air, crisp, freshly minted, eager to please, still nippy. Me, hands in winter jacket watching our sons.  Soccer. Little boys bounding out of pods of infinite energy, going at soccer balls and dreams. Our teenage daughter Ominira, snapping pictures that will die on Facebook.  Fela rises out my iPod, sassy. Alu Jon Jonki Jon. Sweet delicious lunacy. Pure genius! Life is good today in Babylon as Fela rides me to that magical place that grows hope out of the oven of defiance. Suffering and Smiling. In Babylon. Fela. Palm Wine Sound. Fela. We are stalking the mean streets of America’s neighborhood, speaking truth to power. Fela. Trumpets strutting denial, horns sobbing, strings snickering justice to injustice.

Fela. Priest, summoning spirits from termite mounds.  Palm Wine Sound. Horns sobbing. Suffering and Smiling. Hear the guttural voice of Abami Eda calling the dispossessed from the latrines of despair. Come and dance. Come and dance. Alu Jon Jonki Jon. Lagos comes calling, with roasted plantain and groundnuts. And trumpets taunt the meek, loosening timid limbs under broken lamp posts.  Tight. This is genius. Listen to that, just listen. Grab Fela and dance, just dance. Today. Who are you re? I say, who are you re?

Winter in America. Snow. White. Wet. Slippery. Me, sober; got the groceries, forgot the cognac. Me, lucid, bored. Fela, Weird One glares out our window, in his underwear, longs for sex & sax. Kalakuta Republic calls. Our sons and other cubs roll the snow brown, building igloos and dreams. In the white plains of America, Olokun cradles our sons, and hands the bigoted bifocals. We did not ask to be born; we will not beg to be saved by this narcissus. Fela, Abami Eda, where are you? Sango’s horn sobs thunder to Ogun’s flash of iron rage. Dance with me. Life is good.

Fela. Monday Morning in Lagos. Joy blares out of horns. Genius. Jazz. Smooth. Raw. Guttural. Words of the oracle chase the cowries of divination on the streets of Ajegunle. The arrangements are pure joy. Lagos lives amidst the horns and the shakara. Pure water. Pure genius. Life is good. Joy. Save me. Christmas Eve. Fela, sassy sax building Lagos brick by brick in our living room. Yellow Fever. My lover and I are busy building a bukateria in the kitchen. America. Exile. Home. Exile dulls her pain on cognac, now my tongue has fallen hard for plump American peaches. Nigeria. I miss Akara junction. I miss my little brother grinning at me as I spend his Naira on long-lost delicacies. Africa calls but it is great to be home with my very own clan and Fela. The seasons are changing. Make wherever you are home. In the beginning, Orunmila made Fela. Esu gave Fela big balls. Orunmila covered Fela’s balls in pants of fire, handed him a sax and said: Go forth and multiply. And Fela complied for once in his riotous life. Oh what joy. What a riot. Abami Eda is up there in the pantheon of imps, suffering and smiling. I miss you, Baba.

The Writer: Identity and Purpose

First published in Next Newspapers, August 20, 2010

 Fifty years ago Professor Chinua Achebe stunned the world with the novel, Things Fall Apart, a muscular response to the stereotypical way the world viewed Africa in her stories, Driven by fierce pride in our Africa, recoiling from stories that had turned Africa into a disease-ridden pit of mumbling savages, he set out to prove the truth in the East African adage: “Until the lions produce their own historian, the story of the hunt will glorify only the hunter.”  Achebe was one of an elite squad of super-bright intellectual leaders out of Africa that jacked up conventional prejudiced opinion against the wall of the world’s conscience.

I am in awe of Things Fall Apart. I read it regularly and I always discover something new and insightful in its pages each time I read it. I also marvel at the energy and fierce determination that it took to produce such a masterpiece in a world without word processors and the wondrous tools of the computer and the Internet. Achebe’s generation of writers certainly was seized by a grand vision and in their books they laid it out often with sweeping imagery and majesty. That generation’s energy and disciplined sense of purpose is awe inspiring. Think of what it took to edit Achebe’s manuscript and the energy it required to publish it overseas.

It is virtually impossible to detect an editing issue in Things Fall Apart. This is a miracle considering when, where and how it was written. Achebe’s generation also had the heavy burden of entertaining the community in the absence of the ubiquity of television and the Internet. And they delivered, writing books that even when bereft of any message or ideology, simply delighted and entertained. There was coherence and a consistency in quality and message and it was possible to define and identify a great generation of African writers.

Fast forward to today. Sad to say five decades later, the Nigerian publishing industry is still virtually as inchoate as the environment that drove Things Fall Apart to be published abroad in the fifties. In many ways when you adjust for all the enormous resources available to today’s publishers, one could argue that the publishing industry has gotten worse since then. Sure there are bright spots, but these are sadly outliers. Nigerian writers understandably continue to look to the West for relief from the mediocrity at home. This is a shame; there are many reasons why things are in near disarray; it is not all the fault of our publishers: To say for instance that successive Nigerian governments have been irresponsible is to engage in polite understatement. There is not a shortage of passionate, talented writers willing to write today’s story. But the sad quality of the production mirrors the sad quality of virtually every production from virtually every Nigerian institution. Art imitates life’s reality.

Many Nigerian writers are worthy ambassadors and they do good things for Nigeria. The best of them have been adopted by well funded Western individuals and institutions. The unintended consequence has been to emphasize the narcissistic individualism of our best thinkers. Too self-absorbed to be relevant to Nigeria, they are busy grabbing prizes from the West while giving Westerners condescending lectures for being avuncular and patronizing towards them. They openly eat the cake offered them and demand it back. Given the abysmal state of today’s Nigeria it seems self indulgent for our writers to be jetting around the world, lecturing white folks that we are humans deserving respect.

Many Nigerian writers seem obsessed with garnering lucrative prizes, engaging in gimmicks to enhance book sales, etc. I call it writing to the smell test of dollars. Short stories are hurriedly written to order for the enjoyment of white Johns in return for dollars: “Um, write us a story, fill it with huts, army generals and peasants. I liked the line in your delectable short story, Things Rotten in Nigeria “the fish in the egusi had a face! Brilliant!”

Apparently superciliousness is not exclusive to Nigerian writers. I do love the Caine Prize for African Writing. It has been great for African literature and I applaud the vision of its founders and funders. The Sierra Leonean Olufemi Terry is the 2010 winner of the prize. After winning, however, he assured the BBC that it was “unhelpful” to see writers from Africa as a unique category. Hear Terry: “There is a danger in seeking authenticity in African writing,” He then hoped that winning the prize would help him get his book published.  This is where I lose it with our writers. Terry knew what the Caine writing prize is all about. Hello, it is called the Caine Prize for African Writing, for Heaven’s sakes. Nobody put a gun to his head to compete for the prize. He wrote a short story to the test of this particular prize and he won based on his very “African” short story.  He then proceeds to chide the West for calling him an African writer. Olufemi Terry does not deserve the Caine prize. He should return the prize.

The Naipaul in us

The writer V.S. Naipaul recently published a book, The Masque of Africa that is supposedly based on his recent visits to African countries like Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Gabon and South Africa. These travels were allegedly to discover the “nature of African belief” according to this review of the book by Sameer Rahim in the UK Telegraph. Rahim gives the clear impression that this book does not improve upon the silence. It is the same tired, stereotypical garbage about Africa and civilizations of color. You wonder if at 80 years of age, Naipaul is finally losing it.

The drama Naipaul records in the book is cringe-worthy: In Gabon, his legs give way and someone attempts to transport him in a broken wheelbarrow. Give us a break! The sad truth is that ever since Naipaul was born among the wretched of the earth, as he would probably put it, he has struggled obsessively to escape his skin. He fills great books with reams of self-loathing. The more he tries to escape his past, the more he is rejected by the interlocutors of his present. His interviewers never fail to notice this little man of color in a tweed jacket huddled in an English countryside abode. Almost every interview of Naipaul mentions with breathless wonder that this man from India via Trinidad is dressed – in a tweed jacket. It is the ultimate rejection of his claim to another civilization, and humanity. Just like us. Naipaul is us.

So, who cares what Naipaul and his ilk say about Africa? The African intellectual from the beginning has been frustrated by the constant label of “the other” that is implied in how Westerners view Africa and her inhabitants. It just seems like as people of color, there is nothing we can do or say that lets even our most liberal Western friends view us as part of a bland, no-drama humanity. It understandably upsets us, and when Naipaul, one of us, joins in the heckling, we froth in the mouth. There is plenty of blame to go around, but African intellectuals refuse to accept responsibility for any of the blame. We have abandoned the peasants who spent so much to get us an education so we could get them out of hell. We are in pursuit of our own needs, screw the people. Wine glass in hand, we mouth white words to white-out what we view as our frailties. Why would anyone look at the charade that is governance in today’s Nigeria and respect it? It is taboo to talk about these things; we say it is self-loathing and racist. With the awesome power of the white man’s own words we bully the West away from the table of dialogue. In secret, we admire these strange people that see tomorrow, and go into it fighting. They are next to their God, the Narcissus who sends mean armies after us in gleeful hunt.

We obsess about what people think of us. I say, get over it; they probably believe we are pretend humans. A pox on their houses. We are not savages. The real savages are the racists in our midst. Possessing only primitive instincts, bereft of thinking skills, they shudder at the other. Racism is savagery; it diminishes the perpetrator and assigns humanity to the garbage heap of Early Man. Only savages would spend trillions on an unnecessary war against those who cannot tell nuclear from noodles. Ask the Iraqis.

There is no defending Naipaul. Achebe already deconstructed Naipaul’s demons and I couldn’t agree with him more. But I say it is time to move from yelling at racists, real or imagined, to reflecting also on our role in this mess. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River was written over four decades ago. Today, black Africa may have regressed from that point in time. Why are things the way they are? We get defensive and yell: “Can’t you see, we are human like you, we wear suits, and we eat ice cream with cutlery!” “We are like you!” is our best defense against charges of our human ineptitude. Yet, our leaders can barely sustain what passes for modern society, even when they are given all the resources. They steal it and invest in pretend processes. Let’s face it: What is racist about pointing out that much of black Africa is a farce today, many thanks to us her intellectuals and leaders?

Raheem observes this about Naipaul: “Perhaps, like his father, he is worried about what he sees when he looks in the mirror. Is he the Nobel Prize-winning sage who has written 30 acclaimed books over 50 years? Or is he a fraud, pretending to be a country gentleman in Wiltshire when his true home is among the wretched of the earth?” The question should be directed not only at Naipaul, but at all of us, fighting gamely to flee the condition we were born into. We may be blue-suited frauds pretending to be country gentlemen even as we ignore the travails of our fellow wretched of the earth.

Who Speaks for Black Africa?

The era of brutal African dictatorships found many writers of conscience physically and emotionally brutalized. Indeed several works by the writers of that era came later as they began to explore what happened to them and post-colonial Africa. This examination has been an occupation for our writers and this is understandable in many instances. We should talk about this: Why are so many of our writers consuming several lifetimes examining obsessively what they decree is the African condition?

Do not get me wrong, we should all be grateful for the industry of these thinkers, many of whom endured heartbreaking abuse in the hands of military goons simply for owning powerful words. Their insights have been useful in understanding Black Africa, and in sharing with the world state sanctioned black on black crime in Africa. We will forever be in the debt of these fine warriors and wordsmiths. However, we should also rage against literary mulch, useful only as fodder for racist musings. I have never really advocated for positive stories out of Africa; I am simply concerned that if we are the sum of our experience, then contemporary African literature greatly distorts the rich history of the lived life of Africans.

There is now a blossoming industry of African writing that feeds on victimhood and the alleged otherness of Africans. The writers go to great lengths to market their works as truly unique. The problem is that every writer feels the same way and now each work seems to read, look and feel the same. We had Onitsha Market Literature, now we have African Literature. The title African Literature is threatening to be a parody of African culture. Most of these novels are poorly disguised personal and ideological opinions directed at the West, whose people it seems delight in self-flagellation – because they buy these books. The distortion of our history is on the march.

The worst offenders of this new dysfunction that I call African Literature are writers that live in the West. Many of them are like me, they have lived here for decades, cocooned and mummified in a culture of contrived despair. Africa lives rent-free in their heads and they could not tell you the names of their neighbors, they do not see parks, they simply mope around Babylon writing about their Africa. Writers who have lived in Western societies for decades, they clam up like drunken mummies, only to take a break from whining about their lot to write desiccated stories about the Africa of their past. And here is the hilarious irony: When a white person dares do the same thing, they raise holy hell.

This is interesting, because easily the best books on Africa that I have read recently were written by white authors. I remain indebted to them for actually doing the work, traveling to Africa, doing the research, interviewing actual people and then writing a book. Contrast that with the preferred methods of many of my compatriots, which is to simply staple together reams of personal opinions and call the result a novel. So my point is that African writers should stop yelling at white folks for writing about Africa. Let whoever wants write whatever the hell they want. We the consumers will vote with our money. In any case, most African writers have little credibility as far as this matter is concerned. They are mostly just as bad. I personally love Paul Theroux’s writing, I think he is a better writer on Africa (whatever the hell that means) than many African writers I have read. And yes, his prejudiced slips show just as magnificently as those of his African-writer brethren, so there. Who cares? I have enjoyed his perspectives on Africa.

Many times Africa’s unnecessary drama exaggerates and inflames Western prejudices. The other day, a Western liberal railed about the racism of a Western newspaper reporting about goats kept in a police cell in a God forsaken African country. I felt that he was pandering to the choir as they all always do. I asked him, “In your village, do you lock up goats in your police cells? So, don’t you think it is racism to accept less from your siblings?”

In many instances, my brothers and sisters are worse than Westerners in terms of the evil that they are rightfully upset about that. Let us turn our gaze inwards and examine ourselves. And yes, let us turn our gaze outwards and examine the savagery of the other. When you look hard, it is even more spectacular than Africa’s. Did America not just spend $35 billion on weapons that she promptly abandoned? This in the midst of the poverty of her people, and yes, Africans? Who talks about that savagery? Her African American children languish in jails at a cost per warrior of $80,000 a year and they will not spend $12,000 a year on educating her children. Who talks about that savagery? Our writers in the Diaspora are more qualified than anyone else to speak truth to power by pointing out these things. They should start writing and talking – about the Babylon that adopted them.

The Caine Prize and Unintended Consequences

Note: Reprinted for archival purposes; first published May 28, 2011

I am still fuming over the wretchedness of almost all the offerings on the shortlist of the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing. Aided by some needy “African” writers, Africa is being portrayed as an issues-laden continent that is best viewed on a fly-infested canvas. Memo to the Caine Prize folks: It doesn’t have to be all about issues. Just tell me a story, any story.

The Caine Prize is beginning to behave like much of the aid that is funneled towards Africa and black nations. The wrong people are benefitting from the West’s fascination with all things impoverished and African. Let me observe that aid (without accompanying accountability) is threatening to cripple black Africa’s ability to breathe on her own. An army of ne’er do well NGOs tramples through black Africa, armed with dollars and drunken liberal opinions, “eradicating” poverty, disease, illiteracy and saving trees and chimps from those “Africans” who love roasting bushmeat with bush twigs. These issues remain precisely because it is not in the interest of these termite stakeholders to eradicate these issues. They would be out of a paycheck. These poverty pimps are mostly self-serving intellectuals wailing all the way to the bank. The West and her liberal purveyors of snake-oil remedies for fixing “Africa” ignore unintended consequences. We were felling trees before the “explorers” came with demands for “resources.” Right after Nigeria’s civil war ended, the West decided to help all of us who survived that war. I was in my first year of secondary school. Someone must have determined that I was suffering from rank malnutrition. I was poorly fed, not because of the war; the Catholic priests who ran my school were mean cheapskates. The do-gooders supplied us tons of stockfish, wheat, and powdered milk. We were several hundred boys in this Boarding school. The rock-hard stockfish ruined all our teeth; each time we drank the milk, we all sprinted for the latrine, all six hundred of us. We were lactose intolerant.

Helped with lots of dollars, the West is now busily forcing our stories into a particularly obnoxious trajectory. The allure of fame is overwhelming and our writers are trying way too hard to be “African” writers. They seek a vision that eludes them because it is wrong. Perhaps the term African writer is too limiting. I say screw boundaries and prizes, just write. Contemporary African writing is suffering from a serious hangover, the deleterious effect of overdosing on the legacy of Africa’s misery and the over-documentation of it by the previous generation of writers. The older writers for the most part genuinely wrote what they felt in their hearts and bones – the prejudice of colonialism, racism, anxieties about postcolonial life, and the painful alienation of exile. Suffering and anxieties united the writers, and forged a bond that in many instances sharpened the focus of their minds and pens. You don’t get the sense that the stories were contrived to fit a market.  Similarly, read the poetry of that era and you feel that a historian could piece together the issues of the times quite coherently.

Today, contemporary African writing as defined by what one reads in books is struggling to find a personality. I think I understand why: Whereas the previous generation of writers had only the book and traditional publishing as the avenue for expression, today’s generation has an avalanche of avenues. And they are exploring all of them. Unfortunately, the yardstick for judging African writing continues to be what is in print. The Caine Prize will not accept short stories that do not come from publishers (although they do accept offerings from online journals). The contemporary representation of our writing is becoming offensive at a time when today’s writers are putting out some pretty muscular stuff in the new media. In fact, it is at once an exciting and a frustrating time to be reading African literature because technology forces too much of it on the reader. There is an overwhelming abundance of stellar prose and poetry in places where judges of African writing are not looking. They should look harder.

I like the Caine Prize. I love that the Prize has done writers’ workshops in various parts. I hope that the organizers spend time to reflect on its vision and purpose. They should review the short-lists and winners since its inception, and put structures in place that ensure a more rounded set of offerings each year. I am not particularly sure why the stories’ settings are physically in Africa. Is this a requirement? They may wish to explore if that is part of the reason why the range of the output is so narrow. It is not always about issues; I know many African writers who simply write to delight. Many African writers happily dominate writing genres that do not define what the world knows and expects of African writing. I have come to believe that in the age of Facebook, the term “African writing” is as useful and empowering as the term “African. I am being sarcastic of course.

The 2011 Caine Prize: How Not to Write About Africa

Reprinted for archival purposes; First published in NEXT Newspaper in May 2011

The Caine Prize for African Writing has been great for African literature by showcasing some truly good works by African writers. The good news is that the Caine Prize is here to stay. The bad news is that someone is going to win the Caine Prize this year. This is a shame; having read the stories on the short-list I conclude that a successful African writer must be clinically depressed, chronicling in excruciating detail, every open sore of Africa, apologies to Wole Soyinka. The creation of a Prize for “African writing” may have created the unintended effect of breeding writers willing to stereotype Africa for glory.

The mostly lazy, predictable stories that made the 2011 shortlist celebrate orthodoxy and mediocrity. They are a riot of exhausted clichés even as ancient conflicts and anxieties fade into the past tense: Huts, moons, rapes, wars, and poverty. The monotony of misery simply overwhelms the reader. Fiammetta Rocco, the Economist’s literary editor who chaired last year’s judges, crows that the stories are “uniquely powerful.”  The stories are uniquely wretched. The chair of this year’s judges Hisham Matar declares presumptuously that the stories “represent a portrait of today’s African short story: its wit and intelligence, its concerns and preoccupations.” Really? Is this the sum total of our experience, this humorless tasteless canvas of shiftless Stepin Fetchit suffering?

Five stories made the shortlist. Zimbabwe’s NoViolet Bulawayo has a fly-ridden piece, Hitting Budapest, about a roaming band of urchins, one of them impregnated by her grandfather – at age ten. Uganda’s Beatrice Lamwaka features, Butterfly Dreams, a pathetic story about a child soldier. Lamwaka apologetically documents Africans’ otherness by italicizing and explaining every Ugandan word – layibi, tipu, opobo, malakwang, etc. Enough said. South Africa’s Tim Keegan’s What Molly Knew, is a plodding tale about an interracial marriage gone awry filled with gunshots and ingredients that make for an African howler. Botswana’s Lauri Kubuitsile fires a volley of wretchedness in In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata, portraying the men of Botswana as drunken simpletons. South Africa’s David Medalie almost rescues the prize from the murk with The Mistress’s Dog, an affecting tale involving a well-fed dog, (what a concept, Africa without kwashiorkor!).

Medalie may not get the Caine Prize. His story is not African enough. No rapists, no murderers, no poverty. Why, there is a cell phone in the story. Shame on Medalie. Besides Medalie, Bulawayo would be my pick for the prize. She sure can write, unfortunately her muse insists on sniffing around Africa’s sewers. The tragedy is that these are good writers showcasing good prose and great dialogue.  But to the extent that literature documents the lived life, they are stuck in the fog of stereotypes. The stories are so ancient, it is a wonder they did not feature smoke signals and slide rules. Except for Medalie’s The Mistress’s Dog, there is not a single mention of the Internet and cell phones, not once. Outside of the destructive force of organized religion, wars and diseases, the Internet and cell phone technology are the most powerful forces in the ongoing restructuring of African communities.

In 2005, the Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainaina, himself a Caine Prize winner wrote the now classic satirical essay How to Write About Africa in which he caustically smirked thus: “Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment.” It is as if these writers read Wainaina and misunderstood his sarcasm and rage as the bible on how to write. Wainaina, tell them it ain’t so,

The sponsors of the Caine Prize may be looking in the wrong places. We are witnessing a renaissance in African literature; it breathes joyfully in those spaces where African writers are not self-consciously burdened by the need to tell a certain story. It is interesting, the prize’s rules do not require that you write only about misery and huts and crap, it only requires that you be a writer of African descent. With the exception of Medalie, all the writers are united by a narrowness of range, and shallowness of depth.

The Caine Prize has become a truly prestigious prize, which is a good thing. The problem now is that many writers are skewing their written perspectives to fit what they imagine will sell to the West and the judges of the Caine Prize. They are viewing Africa through a very narrow prism, all in a bid to win the Caine Prize, The sponsors of the Caine Prize should organize a retreat and invite African thinkers of history and literature to vision a prize that encourages writers of African descent to write, yes, think and write out of the box of orthodoxy. Keep the Caine Prize, lose the contrived stories. Africa has suffered enough as it is.

Hurrah for Kony 2012 and Africa’s Invisible Children

The name is Ikhide. I am an African. This African rises to applaud Jason Russell the filmmaker, and  Invisible Children, the geniuses behind the epic video Kony 2012, a riveting documentary that has now been watched by over 50 million human beings. Kony 2012 is a ringing indictment of a silent horror, of the murderous acts of a barbarian and child murderer Joseph Kony and his sick Lord’s Resistance Army, operating in Uganda and neighboring states. Please stop whatever you are doing if you care about the fate of children in this world and watch this 30-minute film. And when you are done, pay tithe to this wonderful organization that has damned the consequences to tell the truth about the shame that is happening to children in Africa. The world is silent as an indifferent political and intellectual elite sips alien wine in stolen mansions. I say to you Jason Russell, do not stop what you are doing, you are an angel.  Ignore the nattering nabobs of negativity. They are experts at babbling and doing nothing to save Africa’s children.

Let me restate this to our tone deaf Western liberals and their co-opted African intellectuals: Joseph Kony’s deadly acts are being wreaked on beautiful children whose only crime is to be born in the war that Africa has become, thanks to thieving rulers and narcissistic African intellectuals. Watch the video, it is masterful. If it does not bring you to tears, nothing other than onions will. As a brilliant side benefit, it showcases the rank incompetence and barbaric greed of the African intellectual and political elite. Let me restate once more:  I am an African, and I salute Jason Russell and Invisible Children for producing KONY 2012, and for shining a bright light on one of the open sores of Africa (apologies to the venerable Wole Soyinka). I said it, I mean every word, sue me please.

I have been reading on the Internet what appears to be some lame grumbling about the intentions of Russell and  Invisible Children. There has been some high-minded whining about Invisible Children’s methods. You can read a sample of such pointless hand-wringing and muttering in this piece in the UK Guardian, Kony 2012 campaign: Oprah and bracelets won’t solve problem by Michael Wilkerson. The patronizing mumbling of condescending white liberals aside, I am not surprised by the loud noise making by many of my fellow African intellectuals. This  is what we do best; coolly bite the fingers that feed us. It bears repeating: This über awesome video, Kony 2012, will forever be the visible face of a viral social media campaign that has raised awareness about a war against children and humanity that has been going on now for about 25 years. I say again to Russell and Invisible Children, please ignore all distractions and continue the great work that you are doing on behalf of the beautiful children of Africa. I will make bold to say that there is hardly any African intellectual on earth that has the moral right to point accusing fingers at the motives of Invisible Children. To Russell et al, I raise my fists to your industry; may you profit mightily for every child that you save.

 Hurrah for Invisible Children. A snake is dead and people are wondering who killed it. Who cares? Is the snake not dead? Western liberals and African intellectuals are baying at the moon, their favorite pastime. The mess that is today’s Black Africa has been engineered by her political and intellectual elite of which I am a card-carrying member. We are a self-serving lot parading the streets of Europe and America, sipping lattes and the best wines of the world and yelling at the white man for doing for us, what we are too lazy and selfish to do for ourselves. Let me restate this: There is virtually no African intellectual of stature that is left in Africa; we and our cute children are safely ensconced in the laps of the West from where we write beautiful but insincere twaddle about the West’s obsession with the single story.

Well, the latest single story to come out of Black Africa is the mini holocaust being perpetuated on children and women by Joseph Kony, a lunatic barbarian whose Lord’s Liberation Army has been terrorizing human beings (yes human beings) in East Africa for a quarter of a century. What started out as the lunatic malarial rant of a demented woman soon turned into genocide against children and women. As many as 30,000 children have been conscripted, maimed hurt and killed according to several estimates (we will never know since Africa’s political and intellectual elite tend to loot funds that are meant for niceties like education for children and real data).

Enter Invisible Children a non-profit that is visionary and yes, controversial (who isn’t?). They come up with a brilliant concept. Make this barbaric criminal Joseph Kony famous so that he qualifies for world attention and accountability. Plaster the fool’s face all over the world, make this deadly buffoon the face of a modern day Hitler and hold him accountable. They enlist opinion and political leaders all over the world. The video clip is a hit; by the time you have read this, about 60 million enraged people would have watched it. Please, please, please, be one of this new emerging citizenry by watching it. It is only 30 minutes. You will not be the same again. It is one of the best produced videos on human suffering that I have ever watched. I broke down in tears when a child that could have been mine broke down crying begging to die so he could go be with his brother in heaven, a child who had been slaughtered by these animals. What is misleading about that?

 In my Nigeria, Christians routinely murder, yes, murder children for being witches.  You do not hear powerful writers complaining about that. Let a white person say a word; out comes their powerful pen in defense of Africa.  This is not the first time we have risen in self-righteous indignation.  A few years back, BBC produced a harrowing documentary Welcome to Lagos, about the lives of Nigerians in Makoko, the slum from hell. It documented the shame of Nigeria, of women, children and men, living and loving under conditions that would make pigs attempt a jailbreak. This spectacular work was met with derision by some of Africa’s most powerful intellectuals, most notably Wole Soyinka and Teju Cole.  I am tired of this, I really am. White man, help yourself, knock yourself out, shine a light on the plight of the children of Africa. They are children too. They deserve a wholesome childhood – like my children’s. Nigeria produces geniuses like Soyinka and Cole and unspoken horrors like the witch children of Akwa Ibom. What is happening to thousands of African children is a silent genocide and we should all be ashamed of ourselves for babbling while children burn. Literally.

I ask: Where is the outrage? There is outrage alright – strangely directed at Invisible Children  and  those who have dared to do something even as Africa’s intellectuals mutter in their lattes at Starbucks and their friends the politicians loot everything in sight like ravenous simians.  To put things in perspective, a former governor of one of Nigeria’s impoverished states, James Onanefe Ibori has just been convicted in Britain for stealing $250 million of his state’s money. $250 million! What did Ikhide and his fellow intellectuals do? Nothing! Absolutely nothing. We mumbled, said the usual nonsense and went back to drinking Argentinian wine. Think of how much that money would have done for the children of that criminal’s state. By the way, Nigeria’s anti-corruption outfit had previously declared Ibori more innocent than Mother Teresa. If you want to see what Nigerian intellectuals and politicians have done to public education in Nigeria, please visit one of their “universities” and ask a random student to write an essay. Visit one of their primary schools; in the West such a building would not qualify as a piggery. What the Nigerian elite steal from each child annually is what the West genuinely spends on each child’s education. Let us stop fooling ourselves. We need help and I welcome those who are trying to help. And to those carping about the methods of Invisible Children, I remind you, we say to the deity, Orisa, if you cannot help us, do not hurt us, get out of the way.

For the avoidance of doubt, Joseph Kony is more than a thug, he is a mass murderer who must be found and destroyed. Uganda’s  Museveni regime (yes, it is a regime pretending to be a democracy) crows that Kony is not a problem in Uganda anymore because he had been driven into another country. We are not talking about Mars, we are talking about another hapless African country being ruined by yet another incompetent buffoon. If the man has 300 children in his custody, that is 300 children too many. That should be unacceptable to every one of us. Drop your intellectual pretensions, help a child today.

The hypocrisy around this issue is galling. The columnist Max Fisher, writing the piece The Soft Bigotry of Kony 2012  cannot quite make up his mind about the video and the intentions of Invisible Village. He makes assertions that reek of Western liberal arrogance and condescension. Hear him: “The viral video campaign reinforces a dangerous, centuries-old idea that Africans are helpless and that idealistic Westerners must save them.” Dear Mr. Fisher, I have news for you, Africans are helpless many thanks to their irresponsible, thieving leaders, many of them PhDs from Ivy League schools. Africans will take help from Wal-Mart, Oprah, anybody with a wallet and/or a conscience. Because no one else is coming to their aid in the war on them by black intellectuals and politicians.  Interestingly Teju Cole and Fisher engaged in some sort of Twitter banter that is fascinating only in the sense that no one is listening to the other. Cole’s tweets collate into whiny poetry, beautiful but not saying more than we already know about white privilege:

“Feverish worry over that awful African warlord. But close to 1.5 million Iraqis died from an American war of choice. Worry about that. From Sachs to Kristof to Invisible Children to TED, the fastest growth industry in the US is the White Savior Industrial Complex. This world exists simply to satisfy the needs—including, importantly, the sentimental needs—of white people and Oprah. The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening. The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege. I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.”

Teju Cole is spot on. The West is a big bowl of hypocrisy. So what? Invisible Children can’t win; if they had put a cute picture of my cute son asking the question that the cute white kid asked, they would have been accused of being patronizing. If you don’t like their video, go make your own. I am not holding my breath. Let Invisible Children tell our story the only way they know how, warts and all! Lord knows, Ikhide and his club of fellow intellectuals only lift their arms to grab a Malbec.

Yes, I said it. With democracy as a pretense black leaders are getting away with murder. Literally.  White liberals are guilty of double standards – white leaders go to jail for misusing a credit card, African rulers, certified wife beaters, murderers and kleptomaniacs are paraded on the world stage as statesmen. If they were white they would be paraded in front of the world as jail birds. It is time to stop the silliness. Joseph Kony must be stopped, dead or alive, preferably dead. I have one suggestion to make. Invisible Children should put a $10,000 ransom on Joseph Kony’s head,  anything more than that is too much, his mother will deliver him any way you want, dead, alive, sautéed, drawn and quartered. We are like that, we don’t ask for much to throw one of our own under the bus. I said it, sue me.

As an aside, it is interesting that folks are now rifling through the financial statements of Invisible Children, calculating how much per dollar they actually spent on a “helpless African child.” Who cares? Those that have not held the thousands of NGOs in Black Africa and Haiti accountable are now baying at the moon. I say leave Invisible Children alone.  Every dollar that they spend on a child in Africa is a dollar truly spent that will not be spent by any African NGO that I know of.

Back to the buffoon Joseph Kony: The children of Africa need help desperately; those that have been hurt could use the closure from bringing this man to justice dead or alive and liberals are engaged in hand-wringing psychobabble. Not so for Western liberals and their African intellectual sidekicks. For them ideology trumps common sense. President Bush the Republican had a well-funded, thoughtful policy toward Africa (President Barack Hussein Obama’s has been largely incoherent by the way, he is too focused on re-election and so he is ashamed of Africa). As a result, we saw the dramatic results in Aids abatement (the Lazarus effect happened mainly because Bush flooded the region with funding). You don’t hear liberals giving him credit for anything other than his disastrous foray into wars. On the other hand, President Clinton dismissed the Rwandan holocaust because according to him Rwanda is of no strategic significance to the United States. For such silliness, he is revered in pantheons of the liberal left. Sometimes you want to holler.

We may quibble with the methods of Invisible Children but they have been hugely successful. Thanks to their energy, passion, intellect and doggedness, 50 million people have engaged in a Civics lesson about a part of Africa that would have been neglected. They have also fostered a useful debate about the nature of giving etc. Russell and Invisible Children have shown us the face of the new world and it is populated by citizens without walls. They have forced President Obama to commit and deploy troops to East and Central Africa to help an incompetent regime root out a thug and a mass murderer. What is wrong with that?

Thanks to Russell and Invisible Children, the world has an opportunity to give back to Africans the humanity that is being denied them daily by narcissists who call themselves rulers and thinkers. I say lustily, a pox on all their houses. And as for avuncular patronizing Western liberals, maybe this video will begin to cure them of their condescending avuncular double standards. Now I have to run to go buy me a Kony 2012 Action kit. Please buy one. It is only $30. I am an African. I approve this message.

Related Reads:

Max Fisher: The Soft Bigotry of Kony 2012

Max Fisher: The Bizarre and Horrifying Story of the Lord’s Resistance Army

The Kony 2012 video

Max Fisher: Why Is Obama Sending Troops Against the Lord’s Resistance Army?

Elizabeth Flock: Invisible Children responds to criticism about ‘Stop Kony’ campaign

Joshua Keating Guest post: Joseph Kony is not in Uganda (and other complicated things)

Kate Cronin-Furman & Amanda Taub –  Solving War Crimes With Wristbands: The Arrogance of ‘Kony 2012’

Russ Feingold: Fighting the Lord’s Resistance Army Will Take More Than Guns

Polly Curtis: Kony 2012: what’s the real story?

Vanity Fair: Africa Bono