[Guest Blog Post – Professor Pius Adesanmi] Dowry: Managing Africa’s Many Lovers

By Professor Pius Adesanmi

Winner, the Penguin Prize for African Writing

Author of  You’re Not a Country, Africa!

(Keynote lecture delivered at the annual conference of the African Studies Course Union, University of Toronto, February 15, 2013)

I’d like to thank the African Studies Course Union of the University of Toronto for the honour of being asked to deliver the keynote lecture at your annual conference. Special thanks are due to Ms Lili Nkunzimana, President of the ASCU, for her solicitude and the impeccable efficiency with which she organized my trip here today. Her last name tells me she is Francophone so I can comfortably say in my other language, Mademoiselle Lili, merci beaucoup. Je vous en sais gré! We learn all the time. It was only after I received your invitation that it occurred to me that I was hearing for the first time about an African Studies Course Union in a Canadian University. Naturally, I dug around a little bit. I am grateful to Professor Thomas Tiéku of the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, whose prestigious African Studies Seminar Series invited me here for a lecture just this past November, for giving me useful tips about your set up. However, I must say that if another University of Toronto academic unit invites me for yet another lecture in the next couple of months, you will have to start paying territorial fees to my employers at Carleton University and ownership fees to my country, Nigeria.

Because Professor Tiéku is always extremely busy crisscrossing Africa in matters of international mediation and capacity building for regional institutions (he cannot be with us this evening because he is on his way to Ethiopia), I was pleased that he found the time, between connecting flights in the continent, to warn me in an email that you “are super serious people” (I’m quoting him) and that your “conferences are usually attended by senior people” (again I’m quoting him). As it happens, Lili sent a programme which confirmed Professor Tiéku’s hints about the prestige of your events. I gasped in pleasant surprise when I noticed that your post-keynote lecture panel boasts such eminent colleagues as Professors George Elliot Clarke and Neil ten Kortenaar. That makes Professor Tiéku a master of understatement and the understated. By “senior people”, who would have imagined he was talking about George Elliott Clarke, one of Canada’s finest and most decorated contemporary poets, and Neil ten Kortenaar, one of the finest scholars of African literatures in this country? He should have warned me that you would go to the very top of the seniority shelf to assemble this panel. I thank these two illustrious colleagues for the privilege of their co-presence on this stage.

Dunno. Maybe it is completely fortuitous. Maybe the quiet hands of some benevolent ancestors willed it, designed it to happen this way. But I’m sure it has not escaped any of you that you  have asked me to reflect on Africa and the Black Diaspora today, February 15, merely a day after the entire world celebrated the feast of love known as Valentine’s day. No, I am not grumbling that you deprived me the opportunity of attending to matters of the heart yesterday as I had to spend Valentine’s day revising and cleaning up this lecture instead of buying roses and making arrangements for a candlelit dinner in a cozy, chandeliered environment. Don’t ask me how she reacted to seeing me glued to a computer on Valentine’s day. I won’t tell you.

Anyway, I am not complaining. I am just drawing your attention to the uncanny coincidence that I am delivering a lecture about love and lovers – Africa’s surfeit of lovers and the implications of that love affair for the Black Diaspora – only a day after the feast of love. Love is indeed in the air these days. Because I am a Nigerian and we are not usually accused by the rest of Africa of being dominant and having a tendency to suck the oxygen out of the room, I am not going to tell you proudly and boastfully that we have only just won the African Cup of Nations, the continent’s most prestigious soccer competition, and are therefore enjoying our moment as the continent’s beautiful bride within an overall atmospherics of continental love.

If you are still wondering what love’s got to do with it (apologies to Swiss singer, Tina Turner), a look at the title of this lecture would convince you that we are here to reflect on and share the love. You must know that he who talks dowry talks about transactions and imaginaries of love; about matters of the heart; and about a particular mode of translating that human arrangement into culturally-sanctioned nuptials in certain cultures. Dowry? In Africa? Those of you with an ear for nuance and distinction ought to be worried by now. Isn’t dowry mainly a Southeast Asian, especially Indian affair? Does this professor know what he is talking about?

I do. Admittedly, dowry is very often used whenever the speaker means bride price in many of the Englishes you hear in sub-Saharan Africa, that is not what is happening here. I have not fallen prey to that commonplace confusion. I am talking about dowry – money, goods, or estate that a woman brings to her husband at marriage – because that, precisely, has been the mode of Africa’s transactions with the throngs of suitors, fiancés, and lovers that fate, history, and oftentimes, self-inflicted vulnerabilities have thrown across her path in the last five hundred years and counting.

Indeed, it is safe to say that no continent has enjoyed more professions of love than Africa in all of human history. I don’t make this sweeping assertion lightly. In other continents, the conquered were very often spared the nicety and the hypocrisy of pretense. For instance, I am not aware that the European hardened criminals, condemned prisoners, and nut cases who would become the nemesis of the Aborigenes in Australia went there professing love for anything or anybody other than themselves. And we don’t even need to cite the case of our friends here in America. Didn’t Friar Bartolomé de Las Casas, that tireless chronicler of the Americas who wrote A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, inform us that Hatuey, a famous Indian Chief from the island of Hispaniola, declared before he was burned by the Spaniards that he would rather go to hell if heaven was where the European Christian conquerors of the Americas went? There is definitely no love lost between the violated owner of the land and the European immigrant in this picture. The more than five hundred pages of Hernan Cortes’s Letters from Mexico, translated and edited by Anthony Pagden, are a veritable testimony to this absence of love, pretext, and hypocrisy between conqueror and conquered in America.

The scenario was slightly different in Africa. The land and people were fictioned as a receptive female subject to be taken, penetrated, and had in the imaginaries of those driven to encounter the Other by the curiosities unleashed by the spirit of the Enlightenment. The dominant idiom of this taking, this penetrating, this having, was love. I am not so sure, for instance, that King Mutesa of Buganda shares Hatuey sentiments when he encounters Europe, at least not if we are to believe one of the most memorable fictional refractions of that historical encounter between African and European. I am talking about David Rubadiri’s great poem, “Stanley Meets Mutesa”. Permit me to cite the powerful last verse of the poem:

The gate of reeds is flung open,

There is silence

But only a moment’s silence-

A silence of assessment.

The tall black king steps forward,

He towers over the thin bearded white man,

Then grabbing his lean white hand

Manages to whisper

“Mtu Mweupe Karibu”

White man you are welcome.

The gate of polished reed closes behind them

And the West is let in.

White man you are welcome! Love, my friends, is in the air. In Africa, nobody is hurrying to hell to avoid contact with European Christians in heaven. If you are wondering why love is in the air, you have to consider the entire modes of discourse which preceded and framed this encounter. For such a framing of the politics of encounter, let us go to Cardinal Verdier, Archbishop of Paris in the heyday of empire and a staunch opponent of fascism. Describing World War II as a “crusade”, Cardinal Verdier enthused that “we are struggling to preserve the freedom of people throughout the world, whether they be great or small peoples, and to preserve their possessions and their very lives. No other war has had aims that are more spiritual, moral, and, in sum, more Christian”. Now, this is all very beautiful. You can’t possibly fault these sentiments. The problem begins once Cardinal Verdier thinks beyond the platitude that he calls “peoples”. Once he logs into more specific referents such as colour and geography, his humanism takes on the dimension of ecstatic love, hence this famous statement of his about the project of love that was the civilizing mission of France in Africa:

“Nothing is more moving than this gesture of the Frenchman, taking his black brother by the hand and helping him to rise. This hierarchic but nonetheless black collaboration, this fraternal love stooping toward the blacks to measure their possibilities of thinking and feeling…this art, in a word, of helping them progress through wise development of their personality toward an improved physical, social and moral well-being; this is how France’s colonizing mission on the black continent appears to us.”

Although our Roman Catholic Cardinal was talking about fraternal love in his framing of French colonialism and the subsequent régimes of coloniality it spawned, history teaches us that Africa was the object of all the manifestations of that intense human emotion throughout her history of encounter with conquerors. Name any kind of love – fraternal, agape, carnal – and you are sure to encounter a very rich cast of characters, sallying forth from their European homelands in waves after the Portuguese blazed the trail in the 15th century, for picaresque adventures of love in Africa. So, in a way, Wole Soyinka is only partially right to have insisted in his latest book, Of Africa, that Africa possesses one unremarked distinction of having not been the subject of claims of discovery like the Americas or Australasia. Writes Soyinka:

“No one actually claims to have “discovered” Africa. Neither the continent as an entity nor indeed any of her later offspring – the modern states – celebrates the equivalent of America’s Columbus day. This gives it a self-constitutive identity, an unstated autochthony that is denied other continents and subcontinents. The narrative history of encounters with Africa does not dispute with others or revise itself over the “discovery” of Africa… Africa appears to have been “known about”, speculated over, explored both in actuality and fantasy, even mapped – Greeks, Jews, Arabs, Phoenicians, etc, took their turns – but no narrative has come down to us that actually lays personal or racial claim to the discovery of the continent.”

I say Soyinka is only partially right because Africa has a second distinction that even the Nobel laureate appears not to have noticed. She is the only continent whose modes of encounter with and insertion into modernity were fictioned almost exclusively through registers of love by those with a superior capacity to narrativize and globalize those love stories. Let me emphasize this point: Africa is humanity’s only labour of love. No greater love hath the Arab invader, the European explorer, slaver, colonizer, missionary, captain of industry, corporate CEO, Multi-National Corporation CEO, humanitarian aid worker, Christian charity worker, NGO worker, expert, expatriate, Hollywood celebrity serial child adopter; no greater love hath all these characters for Africa that they gave up the comforts of Arabia and Europe and came to risk mosquitoes and malaria in the heart of darkness. Even this imperative of love accounted for the obduracy of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan on the question of sanctions against apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. So great was their love for black South Africans that these two leaders of the free world opposed sanctions against the apartheid state for fear that their beloved blacks would suffer disproportionately.

These lovers introduced dowry as the only mode of transaction with the beautiful bride on whose account they travelled. Africa has been paying this dowry to her numerous lovers in the last five hundred years of her history. She has paid in cash and kind. She has paid dowries of land and territory to these lovers; she has paid dowries of copper, gold, diamonds, cocoa, coffee, rubber, ivory, coltan, uranium, crude oil. Africa is the bride fated to pay expensive dowry to lovers and fiancés who do not mind polyandry. Never mind the rivalry between today’s princes charming –America, Europe, China – seeking Africa’s hand in marriage. So long as the dowry payments continue to flow from Africa, these guys don’t mind polyandry.  Sometimes, Africa’s dowry payment has a name, a face, black flesh, and red blood. Patrice Lumumba was dowry and so were Eduardo Mondlane, Steve Biko, and Thomas Sankara.

Other times, the dowry is neither quantifiable nor measurable because it operates mostly as emotional jouissance for the career lover of Africa. The humanitarian aid worker, the Christian charity worker, the NGO development volunteer, the Hollywood celebrity serial child adopter, all kinds of organizations without borders, Bono, Jeffrey Sachs, Angelina Jolie, and Madonna are all career lovers of the continent functioning within a mechanism I have referred to in previous lectures and essays as the Mercy Industrial Complex. This category of Africa’s lovers does not demand the sort of dowry exacted by the colonizer or the CEOs of Shell Petroleum, Halliburton, and Siemens. Their dowry lies in the unmappable emotional satisfaction of the messianic complex. Another child adopted away from the poverty of mealie in Malawi offers more than an occasion for media razzmatazz. To the Hollywood celebrity serial child adopter, the gesture offers the psychic satisfaction of the hand that giveth.

Other times still, the dowry régime has yielded consequences that have altered the course of history forever. The lover of Africa who was a slaver carried his human dowry across the Atlantic for more than three hundred years. At the purely economic level, Eric Williams assures us in his monumentally important book, Capitalism and Slavery, that the labour of that human dowry paid by Africa informed the complexion of capitalism as we came to know it. In other words, Africa’s dowry produced a black diaspora in such a way as to profoundly inflect the topography of wealth creation and accumulation in the West.

Now, this is where this dowry business really gets interesting. We know that to create a diaspora is to create novel cultural life-forms, new imaginaries, new modes of being and apprehension, new modalities of sentience that are not just locked in the politics of emplantment in a new world but must also contend with that which cannot be disappeared: home. “That’s all it takes really, pressure, and time,” says Red in one of my favorite films of all times, The Shawshank Redemption. Pressure and time may dissolve the concrete geographical essence of home for the diaspora population but they never really empty it of psychic content, symbolic force, and matricial value. They never empty it of its capacity to mobilize and interpellate the diaspora population affectively in terms of articulations of identity. This explains why registers of tracery and connections underwrite the cultures of the black diaspora, of any diaspora: roots and routes, origins, sources, memory, remembering, re-membering become crucial to a telos of subjectivity that Brent Hayes Edwards refers to as “the practice of diaspora” in his magnificent book of the same title.

To animate the emotion of “home” or “source” despite the wear and tear placed on memory by pressure and time, to articulate modes of being in the present nurtured by the political and philosophical resonances of origins naturally involves a scrutiny of the transaction between the self-professed lover of Africa and the dowry-paying bride. This query is an epistemological obligation for the black diaspora population. Was dowry taken at gunpoint by a lover who would accept it only in human form capable of working on his plantations in the Americas or did Africa, the mesmerized bride, offer that dowry too quickly and too enthusiastically, carried away by gifts of rum, mirrors, and other industrial products dangled before her by the lover from across the seas?

The answer which various generations of black diaspora intellectuals have found for these questions have had profound implications for the genre of self-fashioning and self-writing known as the return narrative. If you look at a certain black radical tradition of home and memory, which encompasses the divergent and disparate intellection and praxes of, say, W.E.B du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley, Aimé Césaire, Léon-Gontran Damas, and Molefi Kete Asante, you will encounter imaginaries of Africa and return narratives which devolve from what appears to be a clear conviction that Europe exacted that dowry at gunpoint. It is not for nothing that Bob Marley’s Buffalo soldiers were “stolen from Africa”, not sold in Africa by Africans. And we know who Bob Marley is accusing of theft. No text articulates this position better than Césaire’s slim but powerful book, Discourse on Colonialism. For Césaire, the dowry was forcibly taken not just by Europe but also by the particular kind of Europe that the other encountered: a Europe that was at her most rapaciously and brutally capitalistic.

There is a second model associated notably with the Henry Louis Gates of the Wonders of the African World fame. I call it the dirty linen model. This model somewhat shifts the responsibility for slavery from the lover of Africa who went in search of slaves to the beautiful bride, Africa, who is deemed to have been too eager to offer the dowry. This model, obviously, has spawned more problematic imaginaries of Africa in the diasporic imagination. Lingering resentment of the home that sold you – if that is how you elect to see it – into slavery hardly allows for the romanticized memory-making of the first tradition. When Léon-Gontran Damas, one of the three founding fathers of Négritude, sings, “give me back my black dolls/so that I may play with them/the naïve games of my instinct,” I don’t think Henry Louis Gates would supply any chorus to that song. Rather, I imagine him quipping: pray, Monsieur Damas, how did your black dolls get to the Americas in the first place?

Despites these tensions, something unites these two modes of diasporic engagement of Africa and that is the desire to make Africa mean, to make her fundamentally mean something. Whether you are claiming Africa radically, romanticizing her, and longing for the day that your soul shall make the return journey to Guinée, like le vieux Médouze does in Euzhan Palcy’s great film, Sugar Cane Alley; whether you are probing history and memory in order to establish what you call Africa’s complicity in and responsibility for slavery, as is the case with Henry Louis Gates and those of his persuasion, you are involved, as a black diasporic subject, in a quest for meaning marked by an initial anxiety of contact. The anxiety here is not akin to the silence of assessment that brokered the encounter between Stanley and Mutesa. Rather, this is an anxiety spawned and fed by the fear and the undecidabilities of the unknown. She is been gone for more than three hundred years this black diasporic sister. Africa is now a narrative to her and she is apprehensive of what this narrative might portend. In a keynote lecture I delivered to the annual conference of the Stanford Forum for African Studies at Stanford University last year, I tried to map this anxiety using the example of Richard Wright. Permit me to quote from this lecture at some length:

“This anxiety is captured most vividly in the opening page of Richard Wright’s Black Power. “Now that your desk is clear, why don’t you go to Africa”,  Dorothy Padmore tells Mr. Wright. “Africa?” Mr. Wright’s dumbfoundment is italicized in the text. Then this bit of introspection: “Africa”, I repeated the word to myself (N.B: Africa is still only a word) then paused as something strange and disturbing stirred slowly in the depths of me. I am African! I’m of African descent… Yet I’d never seen Africa; I’d never really known any Africans; I’d hardly ever thought of Africa”. The entire opening section of Black Power is a paean to the anxiety of contact.”

The anxiety of contact, the fear of the unknown, which makes a dumfounded Richard Wright exclaim –Africa?- on hearing that word is also at the root of the torn and divided consciousness which powers Countee Cullens’s famous poem, “Heritage”. The poem speaks for itself and we need not remind ourselves more than its first stanza here:

What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?

The black Canadian novelist, Dionne Brand, who figures black diasporic anxieties as “a tear in the world”, underscores the double consciousnes in Cullens’s poem more poignantly. The business of remembering and re-membering that tear in the world of the Diasporic sons and daughters of Africa often involves, among other gestures of reconnection, symbolic voyages to Africa to visit the sites of memory. Those voyages to the Atlantic slave coast of Africa, those emotional narratives about returnee sons and daughters breaking down in tears in Gorée, Elmina, Cape Coast, and Badagry, are all part of a multilayered ritual of reconnection. There is, however, a problem with this mode of re-entry. If you explore the wealth of documentaries of re-entry, the literature, and even accounts that one collects in fraternal encounters with members of the black diaspora community, you will discover that the Africa that is most sought after is largely a synchronic one, imagined as ancestral, fixed in her past and ancient grandness.

Irrespective of the actualities of the continent, Africa is where you go to find your history. Lagos, Accra, Dakar, Bamako, and Luanda are just locations of passage, intrusions or distractions that you must deal with before your grand encounter with the sites of memory. On arrival from the United States, from Canada, from the Caribbean, Africa’s capital cities offer you an airport and a hotel to spend the night and prepare your trip to Africa – the Africa that is history, the Africa that is memory, the Africa that is ancient. You hardly have time to notice or connect with the postmodern whirl around you. You are in a hurry to get to sites of psychic communion with Kunta Kinte and Olaudah Equiano. You are more interested in Kumbi Saleh than Accra. Askia the Great and Mansa Kankan Musa speak to you more than Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the insipid Goodluck Jonathan. The African Union and NEPAD are ancient Greek to you. You are looking for slave forts and slave routes and you don’t want Africa’s present all around you to get in the way. What accounts for this apparent fixation with the part of Africa that is historic as opposed to her actualities and contemporaneous vistas of meaning in the diasporic imagination? Does this harbor a desire to reconnect with Africa precisely at the point at which one left in the 16th century?

I think something deeper is going on and it is related to the postcolonial forms of dowry that Africa is paying to a nebulous lover we shall describe as Western desire for want of a better descriptor. I am talking about the desire which Chinua Achebe famously describes in his Conrad essay, “An Image of Africa”. Writes Achebe: “Quite simply it is the desire — one might indeed say the need — in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest.” The dowry of the image or the dowry of the single story – apologies to Chimamanda Adichie – is what Africa now pays to this lover, Western desire. Now, this is a much powerful lover, with considerable technologies of dissemination.

With considerable impunity, this lover takes only the single story of poverty, hunger, and disease and broadcasts it in Western imagination as Africa’s present. Mr. Western Desire singlehandedly determines what he wants to consume of Africa. A budding American scholar of African literatures and cultures, Mr. David Mastey, is currently working on a doctoral dissertation on the privileging and consumption of African child soldier narratives in the United States. Mr. Mastey is working under my supervision and I am learning a lot from his work and inquiry into the hunger for African child soldier stories by the American public. There is a desire for the single story of trauma and vulnerability and Africa pays that dowry willy-nilly. It doesn’t even matter whether what is at issue concerns Africa or not, she is the continent that must keep on giving a singular idea of herself to feed Western desire. Witness Gail Collins, a columnist for The New York Times, assessing the Lance Armstrong tragedy in a January edition of her column:

“There’s always a chance. Armstrong could demonstrate his remorse by dedicating the rest of his life to fighting rural poverty in an extremely remote section of Africa, preferably one where residents are limited to a quart of water a day. His fans would come flocking back, although Armstrong would hardly notice because the critical part of the deal would be staying in Niger or Burkina Faso forever.”

Now, how did this columnist make the leap from Lance Armstrong to the idea of rural poverty in Africa? You could essay the explanation that deep in her subconscious lies the idea of Africa as a site of redemption for Western rejects and abjects but that would be cold comfort. It doesn’t account for the reflex. That reference is gratuitous and silly but such, often, is the first point of contact with what is constructed as Africa’s present for her sons and daughters in the Diaspora. Everywhere the Black Canadian or the African American turns to in terms of the imagery of Africa that is fed into Western imagination and consciousness, they encounter a depressing tableau of abjection, trauma, and tragedy. Africa’s past, recycled and romanticized in robust traditions of black intellection and identity making, comes to represent – at least in the diasporic imagination – a safe haven from the monolithically constructed ugliness of the continent’s present.

If you are an African American or a Black Canadian beginning to take a very serious interest in Africa, Gail Collins just made Niger and Burkina Faso (trust me, she won’t write about Burkina Faso’s recent story of triumph in soccer) very unpalatable for you. If your interest in Africa survives your encounter with Collins’s column, chances are you would prefer Négritude’s Africa of beautiful bucolic black dolls of the ancient times to Collins’s Africa of contemporary misery. And if you persist in tracing your origin, it is unlikely now you will claim to have discovered that your ancestors came from Burkina Faso or Niger. I wouldn’t blame you if you rigged things in favour of Botswana.

Sometimes, the single story of the African present comes from her own sons and daughters in the diaspora. Witness the damage done by Keith Richburg in his 1997 book, Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa. This is one angry black man who spends years covering some of the continent’s most brutal conflicts for The Washington Post and arrived at the conclusion that he is extremely lucky that those African savages sold his ancestors into slavery. At least they are now Americans and have escaped Africa’s horrendous present. Make no mistake about this, I may grumble about Mr. Richburg’s book but I do perfectly understand where he is coming from. In fact, a Nigerian is not in the position to grumble too loudly about Mr. Richburg. To grumble too much is to elicit the question: so what have you guys made of fifty years of the Nigerian present? Have you not produced your own brood of postcolonial black Nigerian lovers of Nigeria who are now exacting dowry from the Nigerian people, leaving them in unbelievable poverty and corruption even with so much oil wealth? If you look too closely at Nigeria’s present as it has been produced since 1999 by Africa’s most corrupt and most cruel ruling elite, it is not too difficult to understand why a Black Diasporic subject may want to have nothing to do with the African present.

The responsibility of Africa’s ruling class in producing a present that could be so unpalatable for our Black diasporic cousins aside, what does Africa try to do about this postmodern dowry of the singular image that she keeps paying to the much more determined lover that is Western desire? How does she struggle to get past the impunity of silly and gratuitous negative referencing as exemplified by Gail Collins? Africa could offer counter-narratives into which the Black diaspora could plug for glimpses of a present much richer than what the single stories present. Despite the nightmare that is her ruling elite, this is what my country, Nigeria, has achieved for instance with the phenomenon that is Nollywood. I believe it is no news to anyone in this audience that Nollywood is the world’s third largest movie industry. And you also know, I presume, that Nollywood movies are not just immensely popular across Africa, they constitute a new cultural bridge between Africa and her diaspora. In Canada, in the United States, and across the Caribbean, Nollywood offers counter-narratives of the African present to the Black diaspora.

Sometimes the counter-narrative of the present comes in the shape of youth culture and agency. The Azonto dance, for instance, originates from Ghana, sweeps through the rest of the continent, especially Nigeria, and has become a cultural connecting point with the continent for young black and African diasporans in the West. I mention Nollywood and Azonto because Africans, hung up on science and technology, often underestimate the power of culture to globalize every area of their genius, including their technological innovations. There is no better narrative of the Japanese people – and her technology – than the statement that Sushi makes on Western and non-Western palates alike. Never underestimate what Gangnam style is doing for the South Korean brand on the global stage. Who in the West is developing a taste for Korean cars and technology after encountering Korea through Gangnam style? That is what culture has the potential and capacity to do.

The bitter truth, however, is that counter-narratives of the African present function in asymmetrical power relations with narratives of impunity which insist on Africa as a single story. Nollywood may have made inroads in Canada, for instance, and may have even gone beyond the black Canadian community since Nollywood movies are now often represented in Canadian film festivals, all it takes to roll back the gains is one powerful Canadian single story about Africa. Consider something as simple as language. The linguistic diversity of Nigeria, Ghana and other African countries is shown even through the deployment of various Englishes. Then one Canadian novel is published. This novel talks about language but constantly hints at “dialects”. For the perceptive reader, language comes across as an intrusion into a world of dialects. Language is only comfortable in its world whenever the plot shifts to Canada. Then this Canadian novel goes ahead and wins the 2012 Scotia Bank Giller Prize, by far Canada’s most prestigious literary prize.

That novel is 419 by Will Ferguson. Mr Ferguson is a travel writer. He has travelled extensively and published four travel books. He did not travel to Nigeria or Africa to research his novel. Africa is the place you can represent with impunity, especially if you have expatriate friends in Africa who “know” the culture. Says Mr. Ferguson:

“I was fortunate to have several superb early readers who provided insights, advice, and corrections: Kirsten Olson; Jacqueline Ford, who has travelled extensively in the francophone region of West Africa; Kathy Robson, who has lived and worked in Nigeria; and Helen Chatburn-Ojehomon, who is married to a Nigerian citizen and working in Ibadan, north of Lagos. Many thanks to all of them for the feedback! The depictions of Nigerian culture and customs are solely my responsibility…Helen and Kathy in particular gave me excellent advice on the English spoken in Nigeria but in the end I found the richness of the dialect too difficult to capture on the page. Instead, I added only the slightest touch, to give readers just a hint of the full flavor.”

I guess it is too much to expect Mr. Ferguson to get off his butt and go to Nigeria for this gigantic project instead of relying on a handful of expatriates for expertise on “Nigerian culture and customs?” There is mention of more sources on his website but I found none when I visited it. Well, let us examine the quality of the expertise offered Mr. Ferguson by his expatriate knowers of Nigerian culture and customs. No Nigerian would read this howler on page 117 by the omniscient narrator – with strong hints of authorial intrusion – without risking a heart attack: “Egobia was from the Yoruba language, the language Winston spoke with his grandparents. Ego meant “money,” and bia meant “come to me,” making Egobia more an incantation than an actual name. “Money come.””

The mislabeling of two Igbo words as Yoruba is not a one-time occurrence in the novel. Make no mistake about the gravity of this howler. There is a Sergeant Brisebois in the novel. As Canadian readers of the novel, this is the equivalent of your being told by the narrator that the last name, Brisebois, is from two Anglo-Canadian words, “briser” and “bois”. Imagine what our French friends from Québec would have done to Mr. Ferguson if this had happened. Sadly, there are more howlers in the novel. Of the January 1966 coup, Mr. Ferguson’s omniscient narrator informs his Canadian readers that this was “the same coup that left Nigeria’s prime minister dead and the regional premiers rounded up and imprisoned.” I wonder who, among his “superb early readers”, told Mr. Ferguson that Samuel Ladoke Akintola, the Premier of the Western region, was rounded up and imprisoned. Somehow, none of Mr Ferguson’s expatriate experts of Nigerian “culture and customs”, none of his editors at Viking Canada, none of the judges of the Giller Prize caught any of these howlers. I wager that Mr. Ferguson could very well have written that “Ego” and “bia” are two Gikuyu, Swahili, or Lingala words and nobody would have noticed. In Africa, we are interchangeable.

Yet, this is the canonized cultural artifact, an award-winning novel, that will shape Nigeria and Africa in the Canadian imagination, carrying the imprimatur of the Giller Prize and the considerable capital that comes with it, in the foreseeable future. Can Nollywood as a counter-narrative stack up to a novel that has won the Giller Prize in Canada? No matter how well spoken Desmond Elliot, Ramsey Nouah, and Genevieve Nnaji are, they and their ilk are now fixed for Canadian consumption as a bunch of dialect-speaking Africans.

When a black Canadian picks up this novel in a Chapters book store and encounters “Nigerian culture and customs” described by a powerful Canadian writer relying mostly on the second hand accounts of his expatriate friends, would this black Canadian wonder if Mr. Ferguson would not have spent months in France immersing himself in the culture and the language of that country if he was writing a novel about France? Would this black Canadian want to move beyond this novel to ascertain 419 is not Nigeria’s greatest innovation as Mr. Ferguson claims? And, most importantly, would the black Canadian understand that the Nigeria trapped in the 399 pages of this prize-winning Canadian novel is yet another dowry paid by Africa to one of her lovers in 2012?

I thank you for your time.

For Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani: Between her America and her Nigeria

In America, all men are believed to be created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. But Nigerians are brought up to believe that our society consists of higher and lesser beings. Some are born to own and enjoy, while others are born to toil and endure.

–        Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

The Nigerian writer, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is at it again. Her February 9, 2013 op-ed piece in the New York Times (In Nigeria, You’re Either Somebody or Nobody) in which she referred to some Nigerian house helps as “smelly” and “feral” is living rent-free in my head. I wish it would just go away. Nwaubani’s piece, on the fate of “househelps” or “servants” in Nigeria, is a profound commentary on how the West continues to view much of Africa, with the active connivance of many African writers, who traipse the West, hawking tales of grime, gore, wars and rapes – what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the single story” of Africa in this riveting video. I would only add to Adichie’s profound observations that it just seems that it is mostly African writers propagating the “single story.” Imagine the New York Times publishing a piece by a white author that refers to her help as “smelly” and “feral.” Heads would roll – as they should.

adaobi-192x300Let me also observe that research would show that the vast majority of essays in Western newspapers written by African writers are narrow in range, oscillating between protest anthems and Stepin Fetchit silliness. Nwaubani’s essay is groveling Stepin Fetchit Blackface pantomime designed specifically to gain space in a Western newspaper – for pennies. It is especially tragic how she has trivialized an important subject. Our writers need to own some responsibility for how we are viewed in the West. Some of that may be changing; many writers are shunning the West and her appetite for silliness, and writing and publishing their own stories themselves. Fame is not everything. Indeed, the writer Teju Cole has distinguished himself by his thoughtful provocative pieces about his world, our world, that display a wide range of interests and anxieties. You may not always agree with Cole but you come away wishing many African writers would look out the window and write about the world as Cole writes in this intriguing piece about the African writer and US president, Barack Hussein Obama and his unmanned drones.

Okay, let me take a deep breath and start over. Generalizations aside, Nwaubani’s essay, as appalling as it is, (yes it is, folks, it is awful, let’s not pretend otherwise) does serve the purpose of depicting much of Nigeria’s middle class as crass, narcissistic and shallow apostles of materialism, mimic people, in the habit of treating “the help” as feral simians, sub-humans not to be allowed in their living rooms, except to clean them, definitely not to be allowed to use their china. Is this a fair assessment? Who knows? Nwaubani may have unwittingly started an intra-class war. On social media, depending on where you end up, she is either an unsophisticated villain according to her literary peers, or a heroine, according to the moneyed class who race to London and America for premium ice cream and return to find that the “help” has made off with their jewelry and Euros. For the latter subclass, you only have to go to Linda Ikeji’s blog (here) to read the comments. In broken sentence after broken sentence, the mostly anti-intellectual crowd (“the thing is too long jor!”) offers high praise and  unrestrained glee at every sentence in Nwaubani’s essay.

How bad is Nwaubani’s essay? It is bad, really bad. Where should we start? There is the naïveté in assigning silly utopian qualities to America:

“Bigots and racists exist in America, without a doubt, but America today is a more civilized place than Nigeria. Not because of its infrastructure or schools or welfare system. But because the principle of equality was laid out way back in its Declaration of Independence.”

You wonder if she deliberately wrote a damning indictment of the Nigerian moneyed class as vacuous, unfeeling and materialistic, considering this stunning outburst which makes this reader want to scream, you are shitting me!:

My father detested it when our househelps sang. Each time a new one arrived, my siblings and I spent the first few evenings as emissaries from the living room, where our family watched TV after dinner, to the kitchen, where the househelps washed dishes or waited to be summoned.

Then there is the patronizing condescension:

“Some years ago, I made a decision to start treating domestic workers as “somebodys.” I said “please” and “thank you” and “if you don’t mind.” I smiled for no reason. But I was only confusing them; they knew how society worked. They knew that somebodys gave orders and kicked them around. Anyone who related to them as an equal was no longer deserving of respect. Thus, the vicious cycle of oppression goes on and on.”

And then there is this, and words simply fail this reader who gasps, Is Nwaubani for real?

Melancholic singing was not the only trait they had in common. They all gave off a feral scent, which never failed to tell the tale each time they abandoned the wooden stools set aside for them and relaxed on our sofas while we were out. They all displayed a bottomless hunger that could never be satisfied, no matter how much you heaped on their plates or what quantity of our leftovers they cleaned out.

childpoverty use thisSo, yes, I was appalled by what I thought was a shallow, poorly thought out essay that only served to diminish Nwaubani and all those like her that belong in that “high society” class of “the feral help stinks.” However after going through the comments in Linda Ikeji’s blog, I am beginning to think that Nwaubani may have unwittingly started a debate, even as she’s exposed her own narcissism. Everything has to have context. I have been away from Nigeria for decades and each time I visit, I am reminded of that fact. The things I witness when I visit sometimes make me shudder and the things I say as a result amuse my hosts. And their eyes go, “Dis one don loss for America!”

As Ebere Nwiro points out on ThisDay, here, child labor is a huge problem in Nigeria. Nwiro points out that what happens to the children of the poor and the dispossessed in many of those homes like those of the Nwaubani’s is unspeakable.

The Nigerian NGO’s Report reveals that a staggering 15 million children under the age of 14 are working across Nigeria. Many of these children are exposed to long hours of work in dangerous and unhealthy environments, carrying too much responsibility for their age. Working in these hazardous conditions with little food, small pay, no education and no medical care establishes a cycle of child rights violation.

Nwaubani missed an opportunity to showcase to the world the plight of poor children in Nigeria, In Nigeria, millions of children are simply born into wars that they did not ask for. In an unregulated labor market that is generally abusive of adults, children are worse off. Many are beaten, starved, yes, physically and emotionally abused by unfeeling adults. And many of them are fated to attend the schools depicted in this horrific video. Poor adults who serve as “househelps” fare slightly better. Compared to the US, where I could never afford help, labor is cheap in Nigeria. And those with the means take advantage. Drivers routinely ferry the middle class to parties and drinking joints and wait in the cars for hours on end until “oga and madam” are ready to go back home, or to the next joint. As Nwaubani points out, many of these children come from the hinterlands, places of little hope. As horrible as it sounds, for many of them, in a country like Nigeria, ruled by the unfeeling, stepping into the dangers of indentured servitude may be their best way out. Many have struck it rich by stealing from their masters and escaping into the darkness. Labor is largely unregulated in Nigeria and abusive child labor is the big gorilla in Nigeria’s living room. If this was the issue Nwaubani was trying to highlight, she chose a strange way to do so.

hausa ng_children_childlabourAgain, if the New York Times had published an essay that described an American socio-economic class as “smelly” and “feral”, heads would have rolled. This is an outrage. But I have us only to blame. Nwaubani is smirking quietly somewhere, perhaps nursing a drink prepared by a “feral smelly help”; she knows the drill. This is all noise-making; it will pass. And she will live to write another silly piece again for the gleeful West. She knows that Nigerians are long on emotional outbursts and chatter but short on enforcing laws and abiding by good structures. In the absence of unenforceable laws, the hell that the dispossessed go through in Nwaubani’s Nigeria will continue. That is how we roll.

This is not the first time Nwaubani has gotten folks baying and howling for her head. She is a darling of Western newspapers because she routinely sends them absurd howlers that exaggerate her intellectual challenges and amplify Nigeria’s woes. Here is a piece she wrote for the New York Times, titled, In Africa, The Nobel Laureate’s Curse, in which she famously pronounced, “Ngugi, Achebe and Soyinka are certainly masters, but of an earnest and sober style.” As if that was not bad enough, she dismissed Ngugi’s call for writers to write in indigenous languages by uttering this baffling one:

Many fans have extolled his brave decision to write in his mother tongue, Kikuyu, instead of English. If he truly desires a Nobel, I can’t help but wish him one. But I shudder to imagine how many African writers would be inspired by the prize to copy him. Instead of acclaimed Nigerian writers, we would have acclaimed Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa writers. We suffer enough from tribal differences already. This is not the kind of variety we need.

This exasperating opinion inspired vigorous rebuttals like these ones from writers and blogs: Carmen McCain, Chielozona Eze, Chuma NwokoloKinna Reads, Nana Fredua-Agyeman on ImageNations, Kola Tubosun on NigeriansTalk, and Molara Wood. An uncharacteristically angry Eze, seeming to speak for the group railed: “To me though, what began as a promising essay somehow turned into a mishmash of cowardly ideas, the core of which sought to suggest that it is separatist for a writer to write in his native language or even to claim that he is a writer from his ethnic group.”

To be fair to Nwaubani, she does think a lot about these things and she is never shy about sharing her views, as in this piece in the UK Guardian about Nigeria’s reaction to the BBC documentary on Makoko, that squalid place where some of these “househelps” come from. In responding to the yelps of racism, etc, by many Nigerian intellectuals of stature, she said this:

The Nigerian obsession with image often approaches neurotic proportions. What people think of us appears to take manic precedence over who we really are. You might imagine that the rational response to some of the infamies we are accused of across the globe would be: “Are we really like this? If we are, then let’s do something about it – quick.” Instead, we perpetually harangue and speechify to “correct” the world’s impressions of us. If it isn’t moaning about the depiction of Nigerians as criminals in the movie District 9, it is berating Hillary Clinton for daring to describe the situation in our country as heartbreaking and our leadership as a failure, or boycotting Oprah for warning against Nigerian 419 scams on her show.

When all of the dust settles, it is quite possible that Nwaubani is in her own way, an incredibly honest commentator on Nigeria’s current condition. She had to know she was indicting herself and her family in this shame that is child slave-labor. There is no excuse for what happens to thousands of children in Nigeria daily, none whatsoever. There is no excuse for what passes for democracy in today’s Nigeria, none whatsoever. There may be an explanation; which is that we are undergoing a perverse form of Darwinism, the rich eating the poor. Our ruling and moneyed class is doing to Nigerians what the colonialists would not have dared do to them. Black-on-black crime is what I call it. At some point, the rich will run out of the poor to feast on. Maybe then, like Nwaubani’s America that was “founded” by those who saw the original owners as game to be hunted down and annihilated, maybe then we will all live in peace and liberty and prosperity. For now, the beat goes on.

For Mali: Hurrah to the French!

We were sent the wrong people. We asked for statesmen and we were sent executioners. – Wole Soyinka

I salute the French for rescuing Mali from her oppressors. A pox on the houses of those African intellectuals muttering into their navels about imperialism, prattle, prattle, prattle. I wish the French would land Nigeria and come and rescue my mother from this perversion called “democracy.” Actually, a “No Fly Zone” over her village would be very nice, thank you. Any African intellectual who doesn’t like my attitude should go find the largest rock in Olumo and hit it repeatedly with the head.

There is something profoundly hypocritical about today’s African intellectual. The African intellectual most probably lives in the West, is funded by Western largesse and structures, children and family members are far away from the scene of the crime, attending good schools and hospitals in the West, yes, receiving good Western education, protected by Western structures and processes of Western civilization, in effect living a lush life of Western colonization, yet, insisting that the liberation of less fortunate Africans, those who have no voices must be from within Africa. How hypocritical is that?

You are protected day and night in the cafes of Europe and America by unmanned drones and you rail against unmanned drones liberating your people from their people? You and your family are in effect luxuriating in the laps of the imperialist, enjoying the trappings of your capture and you deny your siblings the same privilege? How hypocritical is that? If your child cannot attend the primary school in this video, please do not come talk to me about “imperialism.” I pray every day that the French, anyone comes to rescue these children from the war they found themselves in. Someone should chase you from that Starbucks. Go get your own WiFi, free-loader. I said it. Sue me. *cycles away slowly*

There was a Country: Baying at the ghost of Biafra

For our father, Corporal Ohanugo, you who never came back to the children of the barracks…

[In which I compile my  various thoughts on Professor Chinua Achebe’s book, There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra culled from my numerous postings on Twitter, Facebook and listserves. This is intended to serve primarily as a historical archive of my views. So I (we) may not forget.]

I enjoyed reading Chinua Achebe’s memoir, There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra. Many devotees of Achebe will recognize several chapters from previous essays; however he does a good job of putting them together to tell a majestic story. It is an important book, one that should adorn every thinker’s book shelf or e-reader. What I am going to say here  is not a review or critique of the book; I don’t think that the world could stand yet another review of that book. Yes, there are some really good reviews of the book and there are many atrocious rants posing as reviews. My favorite review is by Tolu Ogunlesi whose coolly cerebral analysis puts to shame the reams of hot air from several architects of Nigeria’s ruin.  Reading the book clearly makes the profoundly sad point that many who have “reviewed” the book dispensed with the inconvenience of reading it. Too bad. Achebe’s memoir is a great, nostalgic look back at a very complex era, one that should have elicited a more coherent and respectful engagement than what we witnessed when the book was released. To be fair, Nigeria’s educational system is at best incoherent, in reality in shambles.  Not much of what Achebe had to say can be gleaned from Nigeria’s classrooms. And so, many people have reacted with pieces of dog-eared crap because Nigeria has not invested in an instructional and intellectual infrastructure that keeps her history intact. It is Nigeria’s loss, not Achebe’s.

The noise making and intemperate dance of shame that heralded Achebe’s book are a sad commentary on how many Nigerians conduct the business of scholarship these days. Many people should be stripped of their academic degrees; they are a disgrace to scholarship. There are many things to disagree with Achebe about, but one comes away with a sad realization that we are witnessing the passing of an era, of principled hard-working writers and thinkers, well-educated and brought up to believe in intellectual rigor. I say to those who “reviewed” the book before reading it, please go and read that book before you open your mouths one more time. Talk about a hardworking scholar; the man puts together an impeccable compilation of academic sources including my favorite historian, the indefatigable Professor Toyin Falola, in order to tell a compelling story about his life and our world. And yes, There Was A Country is not all about Biafra. There are powerful passages there for instance about the burden of the writer of African extraction, profoundly moving are his thoughts on what we should be preoccupied with as writers and thinkers. Achebe is a meticulous writer, providing sources everywhere appropriate. And that’s the other thing; many Nigerian writers would not know to go to Professor Toyin Falola as a reference, not as long as there is a Western scholar babbling stuff about “Africa,” Achebe did.  The sources alone are worth the price of the book.

The truth must be told: Most people commenting on Achebe’s opinions were merely reacting to what he wrote about Chief Obafemi Awolowo in an Op-ed piece in the UK Guardian on Tuesday, October 2, 2012.

This is what Achebe said about Chief Awolowo:

“The wartime cabinet of General Gowon, the military ruler, it should also be remembered, was full of intellectuals like Chief Obafemi Awolowo among others who came up with a boatload of infamous and regrettable policies. A statement credited to Awolowo and echoed by his cohorts is the most callous and unfortunate: all is fair in war, and starvation is one of the weapons of war. I don’t see why we should feed our enemies fat in order for them to fight harder.

It is my impression that Awolowo was driven by an overriding ambition for power, for himself and for his Yoruba people. There is, on the surface at least, nothing wrong with those aspirations. However, Awolowo saw the dominant Igbos at the time as the obstacles to that goal, and when the opportunity arose – the Nigeria-Biafra war – his ambition drove him into a frenzy to go to every length to achieve his dreams. In the Biafran case it meant hatching up a diabolical policy to reduce the numbers of his enemies significantly through starvation — eliminating over two million people, mainly members of future generations.”

It is not the most elegant critique of Pa Awolowo’s role and complicity in the genocide that was Biafra. But then, there is something offensive about expecting Achebe to be “objective” in his narrative. There was a horrific conflict and he is telling his side of the story. Readers are mature enough to understand that Achebe is coming from a certain perspective and they respect that.  As Achebe reminds us, until the lions  produce their own historian, the story of the hunt will glorify only the hunter. Facts are facts and not even the saccharine hagiographies offered by insincere architects of Nigeria’s ruin can change that. To my dying day I will always maintain that Pa Awolowo and Pa Enahoro are culpable in the genocide that wiped out millions of Nigerians. They said it themselves, garrulously and loudly. We cannot and should not run away from that.  Simply Google their names and the truth will come tumbling out of their boastful mouths.

Yes. Chief Awolowo virtually accepted responsibility in the blockade that starved millions of women children and defenseless women of Biafra. In response to Achebe’s biting words about Pa Awolowo, many exhumed a 1983 interview in which he tried to defend his role in the civil war.  It is an awful interview with patronizing and condescending opinions about the other. He says of his role:

“You won’t hear of a single lawyer, a single doctor, a single architect, who suffered from kwashiorkor? None of their children either, so they waylaid the foods, they ambush the vehicles and took the foods to their friends and to their collaborators and to their children and the masses were suffering. So I decided to stop sending the food there. In the process the civilians would suffer, but the soldiers will suffer most.”

If you do not start from a point of truth and courage, you have a broken compass. What happened in Biafra was genocide, no ifs, no buts. I have always thought that as a (contrived) people, our cowardice is primeval and savage. The criminals who did this to millions of women, children and the defenseless are still alive as “statesmen.” The evil dead are immortalized in currency notes and their evil names adorn airports. I respect Pa Awolowo but I think he was not only wrong, he and Chief Anthony Enahoro are culpable in the genocide that was Biafra. I am not Igbo, not that it should matter, but  I could tell you about what it meant to be caught in a war-zone (Benin City under the Biafran army occupation) at age 8, without your parents, tending to your six-year old brother while living in a two-room lean to of a distant relative. I could tell you that the terror lives with both of us to this day. Because war is hell.

Yes. the Nigerian civil war is infinitely more complicated than any book I have ever read can script it. My parents’ ancestral land is part of my experience but not in terms of a formal education. It is quite possible that without a free primary education powered by Pa Awolowo’s vision, I would not be here today. It is also true that many Biafran children are not with us today because Pa Awolowo denied them that which he offered me so generously; food, water and life. That is the absolute truth and Pa Awolowo confirmed it in the God awful (yes, awful) interview that many proudly brandish all over the place. It is impossible to forget Biafra, but today, Nigeria is in a very bad place, on many levels. Those that ruined our country are still strutting about handing us gobs of malu droppings. In the meantime in medieval places like Aluu, youths are slaughtered and burnt alive for allegedly stealing phones. Nigeria’s retired crooks are on social media tweeting quotes from Mahatma Gandhi. I mean, how difficult is it to say that the forced starvation of children and women was wrong?

Again, I say to these people, read the book. Despite Achebe’s anger, he devotes space in the book to reflect on the positive qualities of Pa Awolowo and he gives him due credit.

“By the time I became a young adult, Obafemi Awolowo had emerged as one of Nigeria’s dominant political figures. He was an erudite and accomplished lawyer who had been educated at the University of London. When he returned to the Nigerian political scene from England in 1947, Awolowo found the once powerful political establishment of western Nigeria in disarray— sidetracked by partisan and intra-ethnic squabbles. Chief Awolowo and close associates reunited his ancient Yoruba people with powerful glue— resuscitated ethnic pride— and created a political party, the Action Group, in 1951, from an amalgamation of the Egbe Omo Oduduwa, the Nigerian Produce Traders’ Association, and a few other factions….

Initially Chief Obafemi Awolowo struggled to woo support from the Ibadan-based (and other non-Ijebu) Yoruba leaders who considered him a radical and a bit of an upstart. However, despite some initial difficulty, Awolowo transformed the Action Group into a formidable, highly disciplined political machine that often outperformed the NCNC in regional elections. It did so by meticulously galvanizing political support in Yoruba land and among the riverine and minority groups in the Niger Delta who shared a similar dread of the prospects of Igbo political domination.” (Kindle Locations 784-797)

Yes, Achebe said all that about Pa Awolowo. Read the book first before reviewing it. Too many of the combatants in this shameless orgy of finger-pointing dunked the conversation in the filthy lucre of true and tired orthodoxy, to hell with a new realistic way of looking at our world. Think about it; in a certain sense, for a long time now, Western education and civilization have foisted on Black Africa, two tribes, one made up of the self-serving intellectual and political elite, and the rest, the dregs, the dispossessed. The poor are the ones that die by the millions, they are the ones that watch their children die of malnutrition, and endure abusive public education in the hands of intellectuals and politicians. They are the ones that are doubly victimized by thieving pastors. Their suffering knows no end. I ask my fellow intellectuals and professionals today: How many of us are in Nigeria? How many of us have children in Nigeria? How many of our children can speak an indigenous language? How many of our children give a hoot about any of this? It is our collective hypocrisy that even as we fight over dead leaders like Pa Obafemi Awolowo, our children are abroad at Starbucks, sipping lattes with their Spanish teachers. We will line up the poor, struggling in the dying remnants of ancient civilizations, to fight for our ideals.

What has happened to Achebe’s book is ordinarily an outrage. But it sells books and Achebe should be chuckling all the way to the bank. Ignorance sells. It bears repeating: Our intellectual and ruling elite know one fact – fiefdoms are not sustainable in the 21st century. We see this in their behavior. Their children and families are ensconced in the best communities and schools of the West, learn English, Spanish and lately Chinese, and busily acquire skills for 21st century survival while they force the dispossessed to look back in anger at their version of history. This they know: Expanding the boundaries of their world, their new ethnic enclave of middle-class living to embrace even more is anathema to their civilization. Our people are the new savages; our leaders are the new Conrads, little Naipauls shivering in the warmth of the other, dressed in ill-fitting Tweeds. The children of our pretend-tribal warlords do not speak a single “African” language, would not know a Yoruba from Siri. That is our Achilles heels, the rank hypocrisy of the intellectual and ruling class.

621486_10151539704259616_1621884748_oChinua Achebe has said his piece and we should applaud him for jumpstarting a conversation. I believe his narrative more than that of a Pa Awolowo or Pa Anthony Enahoro garrulously defiant about the need to starve to death children, just to make a deadly point. By the way, I did not need Achebe’s book to come to that point. I am also very interested in the minority narrative, something which Achebe mostly ignores in his book and which many others gloss over, as if it is a patronizing afterthought. It is what it is, those of us cursed with the minority  label daily endure the ordeal of our communal balls being squeezed by the big three groups – the Yoruba, Hausa/Fulani and Igbo. I will concede that many Igbo intellectuals have reflected deeply on the war and to their credit have been unsparing of Igbo leaders in the horror that was the Nigerian civil war.  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for instance managed a certain distance from the war in her lovely book, Half of a Yellow Sun. That book, which I reviewed here, should be required reading in every classroom everywhere in the world.

Many things I don’t understand, but perhaps, Africa is where bad ideas go to die. And yes, my point is this: Chinua Achebe’s book, There Was a Country, has fueled the bile of ancients, flag barriers of ethnic prejudices, shaking gnarled fists at the truth of Nigeria’s shame. There was a country indeed. Perhaps I exaggerate a bit, but nations and physical boundaries are so 20th century. Nations as we know them are dying, and not just because the great teacher, Chinua Achebe says so. Even as thriving nations are helped along to the new paradigm shift by their intellectuals, there is no end to the finger-pointing and recriminations among Nigeria’s narcissistic, navel gazing, and in many instances, thieving intellectuals. My generation of intellectuals and rulers (I would not call them leaders) has proven eloquently that we have lost the plot when it comes to Nigeria’s desired future. Many of us have taken to open looting, and virtually all of us have become defensive and perhaps abusive when it comes to getting feedback. Follow our intellectual and political elite and their buffoonery and Biafra seems so far away:

Our intellectuals are asleep at the wheel of divination. That is a shame. It is time for us to face some honest truths. Today, for many intellectuals, Biafra is an academic exercise for the most part and a dishonest one for that matter. Any notion that Biafra would have been a nirvana is easily dispelled by the state of Eastern states today. Corruption has eroded the people’s sense of self; the struggle continues, to use the cliché. There is not a single credible museum dedicated to the war effort anywhere in Nigeria. There are pretend-museums, but nothing like you would expect in honor of millions dead. In Anambra State, children of the traumatized and dispossessed are “educated” in hovels as this appalling video shows.

Back to Achebe’s book. Achebe needs no one to defend him and I am sure he expected some reaction to the book because he makes many statements in there that are controversial. There is plenty to disagree with in the book, for example, Achebe says:

“I have written in my small book entitled The Trouble with Nigeria that Nigerians will probably achieve consensus on no other matter than their common resentment of the Igbo. The origin of the national resentment of the Igbo is as old as Nigeria and quite as complicated. But it can be summarized thus: The Igbo culture, being receptive to change, individualistic, and highly competitive, gave the Igbo man an unquestioned advantage over his compatriots in securing credentials for advancement in Nigerian colonial society. Unlike the Hausa/ Fulani he was unhindered by a wary religion, and unlike the Yoruba he was unhampered by traditional hierarchies. This kind of creature, fearing no god or man, was custom-made to grasp the opportunities, such as they were, of the white man’s dispensations. And the Igbo did so with both hands. Although the Yoruba had a huge historical and geographical head start, the Igbo wiped out their handicap in one fantastic burst of energy in the twenty years between 1930 and 1950.”

Achebe, Chinua (2012-10-11). There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra (Kindle Locations 1226-1233). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.

Achebe lost me here. My own people do not resent the Igbo. Achebe lost me there, yes. But I certainly understand why he would say that. The Igbo have suffered pogroms, massacres, genocide, economic and political marginalization and a man can be forgiven for those feelings.  Everything has context. These words that I excerpted above were first written in that great little book of his that roared, The Trouble With Nigeria. Indeed, it is the case that many thoughts in There Was A Country are previously articulated in several other essays as Achebe meticulously documents in the various sources in the book. It is not a hagiography of the war; He is harsh in his assessment, not only of the Nigerian experiment, but on the Biafra leadership. Achebe is harsh on Biafran leader Chief Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu and provides credible sources who are severe critics of Ojukwu. He is harsh on the January 15, 1966 coup plotters and he ridicules Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, one of the masterminds of the coup.

What I find surprising is how little of Achebe’s works have been read even by many of Nigeria’s intellectuals. Very little of it in this book is new that Achebe has not previously said. I will say however that the beauty of the book is how it tells a story as if it is all new. Achebe is a master story teller. If children can now ask elders questions about Biafra because of Achebe’s book, then he has been successful beyond my wildest imagination. What Achebe’s new book has told me is that there is hunger in our land – for stories; that Nigerian youngsters pine for history, for the written word; that perhaps, writers must reflect on their role in creating a culture of people actively engaged in their writing.

Decades of decadent irresponsible governance have robbed millions of Nigerian youths of their birthright – a good education, safety and security. Add to that a future that is certain only in the sense that there is probably none. Again, Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is a good book for those who want to read something contemporary,  engaging and evocative regarding Biafra There are many contentious issues that Adichie brings up – and there is no shortage of robust debate about them. That is what a book should do. Dan Obi Auduche also has a helpful bibliography of eighty books on the Biafran war here. Adichie’s book has a reference list of thirty books. My favorite essay on Biafra by the way is My Biafran Eyes by Okey Ndibe. You may feast on it freely on Guernica here. Achebe has achieved what many intellectuals like him have attempted and failed – which is to write an engaging story of that period of our history when the world watched as children’s tummies swelled from hunger, not from food. Achebe, the eagle chuckles atop the Iroko. I salute you, Professor Chinua Achebe.