Father, Fighter, Lover

The book is waving us a long goodbye…

Reproduced here for archival purposes only. First published in November 2005.

For Molara Wood…  Listen, the book, the book is waving us a long goodbye… but our ancestors’ songs live on…

I don’t read books much because my frenetic lifestyle does not permit me the luxury of cradling books in my hands. I honestly believe that books are struggling mightily with digital media for relevance. My first preference is to read ideas online; I will go to a book if I am made to.  I enjoy being on the World Wide Web. During my waking hours, my laptop Cecilia is perched securely on my laps and I troll the Internet at every opportunity in search of ideas. And so there’ll soon come a time when I can tell you about ideas I have read about, rather than what medium I read them in. It won’t matter; ideas are ideas.

Something interesting happened to me this year. I found myself searching the Internet, looking for, and acquiring several books by authors that nurtured me in my youth growing up in Nigeria. And I have been reading some of them along with a couple of fairly recent books. Some samples:

 Chinua Achebe: Home and Exile

This ought to be required reading for all those who care about and have a passion for telling our story. It is clear that Achebe has thought long and hard about our story. My favorite line: “Until the lions produce their own historian, the story of the hunt will glorify only the hunter.”

 Ogali A. Ogali: Veronica My Daughter and Other Onitsha Plays and Stories

This one is a hoot. Ogali A. Ogali is in my mind one of the deans, if not the dean of that robust body of work called Onitsha Market Literature. And the play Veronica My Daughter is over the top in terms of entertainment. In a number of online forums, I have alluded to my fondness for Bomber Billy, a character in that play by slightly paraphrasing his use of bombast:

“Your statements must not indicate psychological defeatism in my cerebrum and cerebellum. You must not be a radio that utters useless words. Instead, let your conversational communication possess a cherified consciousness and cogency. Let your entamporaness, discernment and unpremitted expectation have intangibility, veroness and versity. Beware of platitudeness and ponderosity and learn to respect people’s integrity. Above all, avoid pomposity, proticity, verobosity and rapacity!”

 Peter Enahoro: How To Be A Nigerian

I read Peter Pan’s book again, with much sadness. The caricature of the “Nigerian” still lives. In many ways, things have gotten worse.  Every page of this pamphlet is a must read.

Chukwuemeka Ike: The Potter’s Wheel

Ah I love this book, I really do. It is a tale about Obuechina Maduabuchi a, spoilt rotten but highly precocious youngster who was sent off to be “trained” in the home of a teacher and his wife from hell. My favorite lines occur when young Obuechina ends up in class in Standard 2 and the teacher aka “We Shall See” is convinced that this is a big mistake because Obu is too young to be in the class. To prove this, he subjects young Obuechina to a rigorous spelling exercise starting with his full name:

“Obu spelt his name slowly and correctly. The teacher was satisfied. “Now, we shall see.” He switched over to English. “Spell me em – em – tintinnabulation”. The whole class shouted as the jaw breaker rolled out of the teacher’s mouth like bombs from the hatch of a bomber. No one in the class had heard a word so bombastic before. Obu rolled his big head from one side to the other and accepted the challenge. ‘We shall see’ was at the blackboard with a piece of chalk waiting to write the letters down as Obu spelt them. “T…i…n…” The teacher wrote the letters down.”t …i… n … n …” Obu bit his lips, held his chin with his left hand, looked at the seven letters on the board and saw the rest of the word clearly in his mind’s eye: “a…b…u…1…a… t… i…o…n” The teacher dropped the chalk without writing the last letter on the board, and rushed to shake the small hand of his new-found genius. “Wonderful Terrifious! Marvellous! We shall see this year.” Obu was the kind of boy every teacher wanted in his class – young, full of brain rather than brawn, the type who was destined to enterGovernmentCollege, Umuahia if it reopened after the war.”

One fairly new book I just finished reading is Thomas L. Friedman’s hefty tome, The World Is Flat. I read it because it was required (well strongly suggested) reading. The author was a guest at a function I was part of and it was suggested that we should read the book in order to engage in meaningful dialogue with him. I skipped the function but I read the book. The book was a very frustrating read, all 473 pages; it came across as an essay on steroids. Mr. Friedman didn’t really need to make a book out of ideas that could have easily fit into a few pages of a well-reasoned essay. He was basically saying that which ought to be fairly obvious; that the Internet and related technologies are redefining traditional relationships and in essence “flattening” the world. For example,America, indeed the West can reach out to human resources inIndia andChina and produce goods and services in a cost-effective manner. All this thanks to the Internet. According to Mr. Friedman, the world is getting smaller, “flatter”, relationships are traversing geographic boundaries and today’s world is a far cry from the way things were before the coming of the Internet. He believes that the best is yet to come as companies, institutions and nations take advantage of technology to improve our quality of life by producing goods and services cheaply and efficiently.  I recommend this book to African thinkers for one reason: The book’s treatment of Africa speaks volumes for how the West seesAfrica – not as a land of opportunity but as a vast wasteland of disease and war with little redeeming value. Mr. Friedman is well connected in the hallowed corridors of Western powers and he has the ears of the most powerful men and women of this world. In Mr. Friedman’s flat world, Africa is a little more than a footnote on life support.

I miss the writers of my youth. It is amazing; as we use powerful tools like the Internet to spawn banalities, I sometimes wonder what would have happened if those writers and thinkers that taught my generation had been blest with the Internet: I am thinking of griots like Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi, Elechi Amadi, Flora Nwapa, Ola Rotimi, Buchi Emecheta, Tai Solarin, Okot Pit O’Bitek, Christopher Okigbo, Kofi Awoonor, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Gabriel Okara, Camara Laye, Peter Abrahams, T.M. Aluko, Amos Tutuola, Chukwuemeka Ike, all the writers of Onitsha Market Literature, all of them… My generation would have died and gone to heaven. It certainly would have made for a more eclectic generation. And I understand now why I have a reverence for the writers of that generation that nurtured my youth. There was and there still remains a sonorous robustness and coherence to their collective voice, a purpose to their gift. That voice sings to me comforts me in those books that were written in long hand in the long shadows of kerosene lanterns, gifts handed to us before the coming of the computer. I will also say that the same is true of the Western writers that I read daily. As much as I resent their narcissism, they have a voice that one can respond to.

I have been quietly collecting books written by young Nigerian writers and I shall have more to say about those books once I am finished reading them. As I said earlier, I do read a lot of them on the Internet. There is a lot of creative energy, especially in the Diaspora. I must say that I am comforted, awed by the prolific works of the writers that I have been reading on the Internet. I see flashes of brilliance, I see oodles of passion, and I see hints of the love of the land that gave them birth. What I am having trouble detecting is a coherent voice.

We need a coherent voice. We need a return of a powerful voice to fight the shame that has blanketed our land. It is true that every generation must find its own voice. I will add that every generation must have the self confidence and vision to seek to shape the direction of the society that houses its muse. Our generation has not failed yet. Because we are not dead yet. It is just that I cannot say that as writers of Nigerian extraction we have a coherent voice. If it is coherent, its priorities are not really in alignment with our society’s glaring needs. I think that this is one of the unintended consequences of the new globalization that Thomas Friedman talks about: The West can with its electronic catapults pluck off the best and brightest of Africa andIndiaand use their brains to meet its own needs. And all the time, these brains are sitting inLagos, inAbuja, inAccra, inBangalore. The flesh remains in Africa andIndiabut our hearts, minds and brains are here inAmerica. It certainly gives a new meaning to the term brain drain.

We need to engage in courageous conversations about the state of the creative arts and its relevance to our society. How is this generation of writers different from the previous generation? Have we built on the past? Have we rejected the past and created a totally new genre of work? How does our work speak to our people? Or does it? I read a lot of our work, especially poetry that suggests that writers are desperately trying to be obtuse in Soyinka’s fashion.  And I ask, why? I say today’s writer needs more than ever to connect with the people – with our traders, students, everyone. Wherever we are, we should turnNigeriainto one great theatre that fosters audience participation. Instead, I detect an unnerving disconnect; even more troubling, sometimes this disconnect is worn as a badge of courage.

It is not too late for us to find our voices. I propose that more than ever, now is the time for Nigerian writers to marshal their formidable gifts to speak up against the mayhem that is unfolding inNigeriaas we speak. When I think of the shame unfolding inNigeria, I can honestly say that we replaced one form of tyranny with another. I am alarmed that I find myself trying unsuccessfully to justify the overthrow of that father of all despots Sani Abacha. For our friends are now the new locusts looting the land bare. Where are our voices? Somebody stop the looting. We should not be writing books. We should be wailing. We should not be reading books. We should be wailing. Our friends are raping the land. Where are our voices? Where is the outrage? Somebody stop the looting.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Dreams in a time of war

Reproduced for archival purposes. First published in 2010

Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s newly minted childhood memoir, Dreams in a Time of War is quite simply brilliant and enchanting. Every thinking human being should have a copy of this wondrous memoir. Ngugi returns with full force to the playground of ideas and shames those who suspect he is a spent force. He puts together many ingredients of a lived experience and serves the world a delightful stew of recollections. It is impossible to put this book down. The man can tell a story.

Dreams in a Time of War is a graceful, moving, freshly minted ode to the relentless pursuit of enlightenment by a child born into the war that passes for life in sub-Saharan Africa. The writers Barack Hussein Obama, Chinua Achebe, Toyin Falola and Wole Soyinka have explored the same theme with uncommon eloquence and pathos in their memoirs and novels. Ngugi simply adds a stunning, powerful salvo to that repertoire of musings.

This is a memoir narrated simply, prose shorn of gimmickry and most importantly, bitterness. Ngugi has mellowed and this attitude provides graceful wings to a soaring delivery. He also performs the very sly trick of making the reader bear the burden of becoming really angry about all of the unnecessary roughness that Africans of Ngugi’s generation had to bear just to live through the day. Brilliant. Even the title says a lot about Ngugi’s generosity of spirit. Upon reading the memoir, a mere mortal would be forgiven for calling it Nightmares in a Time of War.

Born in 1938 into World War II and precolonial Kenya, there were so many anxieties hovering around Ngugi as a child: The descent of his father into despair and decrepitude, the resulting marital abuse and separation and the rejection of Ngugi and his siblings on his mother’s side; the brothers’ struggles for survival during World War II and the Mau Mau uprising; and the challenge of holding on to family bonds as Ngugi and his mother coped with tragedies and trauma. These stresses shaped Ngugi’s childhood and his world view. And yet by all accounts he proved to be a star student, excelling under conditions that would be considered appalling in the West

This is a highly disciplined documentary of Ngugi’s early childhood. We see a precocious child, a student of the Old Testament, weaving tales of his childhood experiences and the tortured history of his ancestral clan with similar tales from the bible. The sense of wonder his ancestors must have felt upon stumbling into a modern city like Nairobi makes the reader gasp with the same emotion. “Before their eyes were stone buildings of various heights, paths crowded with carriages of different shapes and people of various colors from black to white. Some of the people sat in carriages pulled and pushed by black men. These must be the white spirits, the mizungu, and this, the Nairobi they had heard about as having sprung from the bowels of the earth. But nothing had prepared them for the railway lines and the terrifying monster that vomited fire and occasionally made a blood curdling cry.”

Ngugi fashions a gorgeous tapestry of stories that pulls together all the racial and ethnic relationships and tensions in pre-colonial Kenya, the result is a carefully scripted documentation of oral history fused with the written. Clear-eyed observations of the human condition politely but insistently brush aside subversive symptoms to hammer home crystal clear conclusions. This is not only about Kenya; it connects the dots of our shared humanity everywhere in the globe. There are few books that I have read in my lifetime that radiated from a single locus and connected all these dots everywhere without losing their focus.

His relationship with his mother Wanjiku wa Ngugi is exceedingly moving. It hearkened to Obama’s narrative about his mother Stanley Ann Dunham Soetero (Dreams From My Father). They shared the same traits: that gentle push for excellence and a fierce nurturing spirit. Throughout the book, Ngugi’s mother is the guiding spiritual force holding the book together. This is motherhood at its best peeping fiercely through the mean legs of patriarchy. In return, Ngugi doted on his mother and loved and lived to please her. We also see strong similarities in temperament between Ngugi’s father and Obama’s Kenyan father.

The book’s editing is a delight, kudos to the publishers, Pantheon Books of New York. There are minor quibbles: the chapters are strangely not numbered and it was tough keeping up with the cast of characters in Ngugi’s clan. A genealogical chart would have been helpful. Regardless, this is an important book, full of authentic history. It reminds us that we should not take for granted the valiant struggles of our warriors of old. They fought the good fight, for us and the land. They were not perfect people, but they had heart. Let it not be said of Ngugi’s generation and mine that we failed to lead and fight. May the birth of this pretty book inspire us to pursue anew the dream that our ancestors fought and died for.