Ikhide

Father, Fighter, Lover

Month: June, 2014

The 2014 Caine Prize: Stories in the age of social media

As the world knows, the 2014 Caine Prize shortlist is out. The shortlisted stories are: Phosphorescence by Diane Awerbuck of South Africa; Chicken by Efemia Chela of Ghana/Zambia; The Intervention by Tendai Huchu of Zimbabwe; The Gorilla’s Apprentice by Billy Kahora of Kenya; and My Father’s Head by Okwiri Oduor of Kenya. No Nigerian made the shortlist. Which begs the question, is it an authentic Caine Prize if no Nigerian is on the shortlist? The answer is, YES. Nigerians, get over yourselves, abeg. There is a short biography of each of the five writers here. Reading the stories wasn’t a waste of my time, but compared to the fun I am having on social media, it was a collective near-yawn. I was not overly impressed by any of the stories, well that is not entirely correct, a couple of the stories held my interest quite a bit.

What are the stories about? The theme of this year’s shortlisted stories seems to be relationships. Even as the writers explore old and familiar themes, they still manage to experiment with the exploration of all sorts of relationships, sometimes inanimate objects and animals form bonds with human beings and I must say that in each instance, the relationships are convincing and even poignant. 2014_awerbuckThese new African writers are moving away in glacial installments from the single-story pejorative that has defined and limited the works of those before them. There are some admittedly timid experiments away from traditional notions of African literature. It is not enough to stem the allure of social media but we are making progress.

So what do I think of the stories? Diane Awerbuck’s Phosphorescence  explores a relationship between a woman and her troubled granddaughter. It is an intimate love story, well done, too well done, one that features a pool, an inanimate object as a living breathing major character. A girl takes a respite from her abusive demons to go visit her grandmother. Well written. Too well written. Reading it is like driving on a too-smooth road, the eyes glaze over; you fight deep sleep all the way. It reads like a piece written by an expert in the technical arcana of fiction writing. Everything is in its place, no sloppiness here. That is its major weakness. It is clinical, edited almost to a sterile standstill. It does not excite, it assures you only that the person who wrote it went to serious fiction school where they teach these things.

I would be pleasantly surprised if Awerbuck wins the Caine Prize. She should. There is a sense actually in which Awerbuck is over-qualified for the Caine Prize, her writing towers above the others in a way that makes her an outlier. Despite itself, Phosphorescence is perhaps the only one of the five that can lay claim to being serious literature. In design and substance, it is head and shoulders above every story on the shortlist. The story is not your typical image of Africa. If you are expecting “African literature” here, you will be disappointed. You will roll your eyes at the expressions of self-absorption by the (white) wealthy. Who would relate to the anxieties of a white African teenager born of privilege? Only a black African teenager born of privilege. We don’t write about those. There are wars, rapes, filth and distended stomachs to obsess about. SMH. Phosphorescence is also different from the other stories in one important aspect: Its characters are not wretched caricatures, somehow through the banality of their lives, they retain their dignity and humanity. Also, it is not mere social commentary pimping as fiction. This writer dares to write about the banal, about life. That is writing.

By the way, Phosphorescence is not all agnostic clinical aridity. There is good prose; sometimes it is exciting, like this:

Under Brittany’s dumb gaze Alice straightened her back in her black costume as much as she could, grateful for the coming dark. Still, her bones curved like forceps and there was only so much good posture could do. Her son Sidney, the plastic surgeon, always said that it was the skeleton you couldn’t change. Boob jobs, tummy tucks, facelifts were easy to execute, but when your patients hauled themselves up from their towels on the sand to hobble to the water, they hunched over like the old ladies they were. Plastic surgery was as much a mystery to Alice as the idea that in another century Sidney himself had emerged, smeared and screaming, from her body. She couldn’t imagine wilfully visiting radical change upon herself.

And this is really beautiful:

The two of them fell quiet. Above them the moon was swollen orange and fully risen, the rabbit scrabbling his paws to prevent his fall into mortality as the earth and sun lined up.

Efemia Chela’s Chicken starts out with the best opening lines I have read in a long time:

It was a departure of sorts, last time I saw them. Or maybe not at all. I had left sigh by sigh, breath by breath over the years. By the time my leaving party came, I was somewhere else entirely. From this place, I watched fairy lights being looped low over long tables and rose bushes being pruned. The matching china came out with the crystal glasses. The guards in our gated community were paid off to pre-empt noise complaints, as were the local police. Our racist neighbours were invited in time for them to book a night away. A credit card and a note on the fridge told me to go and buy a new dress (“At least knee-length, Kaba!!”).

But then Chicken is a story in three incoherent parts; the first part features nice disciplined sentences daring you to look away. You can’t. The other two parts are divorced from the first part. Weird. Chela should have ended the short story at Part I. She did not. Sadly. Part I is dark and beautiful. Hear Chela:

Uncle Samu, my mother’s brother had driven away his third wife with a steady rain of vomit and beatings. As the family’s best drunk he could play palm-wine sommelier. His bathtub brew was mockingly clear. Getting drunk on it felt like being mugged. And by midnight he and Mma Virginia, who according to family legend were kissing cousins in the literal and sordid sense, could always be counted on to break out ‘The Electric Slide’ to the entertainment of everyone watching.

2014_ChelaChela can sure put together sensuous pretty prose. Part I is a culinary experience, a food festival that reminds the alert reader of a certain passage in Wole Soyinka’s You Must Set Forth at Dawn. One learns quite a lot; Parson’s nose is chicken butt, a delicacy of my childhood. By the way, I absolutely love that these writers no longer italicize or go into apologetic explanations of “ethnic” words. Let the reader do the research; that is what Google is for, yes. Confidence has returned to our storytellers. When Chela described grasscutter meat, “slightly hairy with a bit of gristle dangling from it,” it was exactly as my exiled taste buds remembered them and they wept. Chela sure can write, you can imagine the scenery, touch the ambience even and almost eat the bushmeat:

A chitenge-covered desk beside the second buffet table was for the DJ. There was a stack of records and the glow of a MacBook illuminated my older brother’s face. He played eclectically, switched from computer to record player. Computer to Supermalt. Supermalt to record player. Mostly high life, with Earth, Wind and Fire, Glen Miller and Elton John. The musical liturgy of the family. Everything he knew would please. Near the bottom of the pile of records I saw a tiny snail that had escaped being stewed, creeping slowly upside down on the underside of a WITCH LP.

Chela’s story explores the familiar and the new – sexuality, alcoholism, relationships, boundaries, etc. It is the best use of prose by any of the shortlisted writers. By far. It reminded me of the joy of reading Petina Gappah’s delightful collection of short stories, An Elegy for Easterly. But then, it bears repeating; Parts II and III were unnecessary, a narcissistic appendage tacked on from the drawers of forgotten forgettable manuscripts, the writer obediently complying with a request for filler material to stretch a beautiful story into a vacuous stretch limo. They featured the usual sin of your stereotypical African writer, supercilious, needy, self-absorbed and obnoxious, cringe-worthy self-absorption glorifying clinical depression in lovely prose. Let’s just call it creative nonfiction. In sum Chela celebrates life joyfully in Part I and loses herself in a pity party in Part II and III. Even so, there are delicious pickings of tart, juicy prose to be plucked off from under Chela’s pity party canopy. Chela is a writer to watch. I can even see her winning the Caine Prize.

2014_huchuTendai Huchu’s The Intervention may be summed up in one word: Forgettable. It features the worst opening lines of all of the stories, actually of all the stories I have read in a long time. The first sentence begins with a grammatical misunderstanding: The first thing I did when we got to Leicester was ask Precious to use the bathroom. It was not Precious that used the bathroom. It is a silly tale that goes nowhere and in a bad way. It ignores all the rules of storytelling and writing and in a bad way. Huchu’s attempt to use humor as a vehicle ensures a fiery crash landing; his jokes fall flat – each time. The Intervention is a needy story too eager to please, dropping lame jokes off-key, like a bumbling drunk. Huchu does have the potential and skills of a good writer. If you are patient enough, you will find good prose sticking out of the weeds of cheesy impossible dialogue. But then one sneezes uncontrollably from the prose pollen. Huchu would be very good at creative nonfiction. Maybe the problem is we see African writing only through the lens of fiction. Do Africans write fiction poorly? Let’s examine their essays. Huchu is an unwitting visionary though. Hear him:

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” Z apologised, “Simba is a poet.”

“A poet?” someone said.

“I’m a member of the Zimbabwe Poets for Human Rights,” I said.

“What does that mean?” Precious asked. “Like, forgive my ignorance, but how can one be a poet for Human Rights. Does this mean that as a poet for Human Rights you’re not interested in love, landscapes, the stars, ordinary life?”

#GBAM

2014_kahoraBilly Kahora’s The Gorilla’s Apprentice was a nice surprise. I am not sure why it is fiction; it reads more like creative nonfiction. But I did enjoy reading it. It is about a relationship between man and ape with a lot of social issues thrown in to complete the script. I like how the gorilla is one of the main protagonists, pretty clever. Kahora employs good imagery to keep the reader connected to the story. It works:

Week after week, year after year, he listened to the screeching conversations of vervets devouring tangerines, peel and all; the responding calls of parrot, ibis, egret: the magenta, indigo and turquoise noises fluttering in their throats like angry telephones going off at the same time.

It took him away from real life. Real life was Evelyn’s College for Air Stewards and Stewardesses which he had attended for a year. Real life was the thin couch he slept on at home. Real life was his mother screaming that he needed to face Real Life. Waking up on Sunday morning and staring at the thin torn curtains of the sitting room, the stained ceiling that sagged and fell a few inches every week and smelt of rat urine, Jimmy often felt he needed to leave the house before his mother asked him to join her and her latest boyfriend for breakfast. Real life was the honey in her voice, the gospel singing in the kitchen as she played Happy Family for her new man.

It goes on and on and on like this, prose that is enthusiastic but does not overwhelm the senses. It is a dark story wrapped around an alcoholic mother, a gorilla and a man:

Jimmy had been born not far from State House where the President lived. The house he remembered smelled like the Animal Orphanage. It smelled of the giant pet tortoise that had disappeared when he was eight. After he had cried for a week his mother brought him Coxy, and the house came to smell of rotting cabbage and rabbit urine. Later, when he was older, Mum allowed him to keep pigeons, and they added to the damp animal smell of the house. It smelled of the bottom of the garden where he eventually strangled Coxy and the second rabbit, Baby, and drowned their children, overwhelmed by three squirming litters of rabbits; the piles of shit to clear. His mother found him crying at the foot of the garden and said in consolation, ‘What are rabbits anyway? Your father is a rabbit. Always up in some hole.’

 It is not exactly serious literature, but it is a nice piece, that effectively describes urban decay and squalor and kitsch. There is a certain confidence in Kahora’s language, an earned swagger.

 2014_oduorOkwiri Oduor’s My Father’s Head is a sleepy puzzling story about a father’s ghost or memory, an oedipal longing for an absent rejecting father, dark but not quite dark enough, a story that went on too long, no energy in the story, no zing. It is an experiment that fails ultimately because it is timid. Again, I do like how these writers now own their own words – with pride. New words are created everywhere every day, the English language is ours now, screw the dictionary, Google does not discriminate. Bodaboda na okada. Try it.

 Oduor speaks of dusty desolate places, of nameless faceless people who mostly lead lives puzzling only in their meaninglessness, pregnant only with the drudgery of subservience to man and his narcissistic God:

Let me tell you: one day you will renounce your exile, and you will go back home, and your mother will take out the finest china, and your father will slaughter a sprightly cockerel for you, and the neighbours will bring some potluck, and your sister will wear her navy blue PE wrapper, and your brother will eat with a spoon instead of squelching rice and soup through the spaces between his fingers.

There is prose poetry but it has little or nothing to do with the piece. It makes the piece even more incoherent and puzzling. The parts do not gel, all the ingredients revolt against the clay pot.  It does show that Oduor can write though.

Whatever the failings of these writers, the Caine Prize has little or nothing to do with it. Writers have to accept responsibility. A prize can only do so much. Ultimately, writers have to step up their game and take advantage of the incredible opportunities that these prizes offer. I have had my issues with the Caine Prize (here and here) but I have grown to really like and appreciate it. The Caine Prize is organic – it taps into the vast sea of stories online written by an army of young African writers. It is the only credible avenue I know that gives aspiring writers an opportunity at stature. And there is a long history of African writers of stature stepping out of the shadows thanks to the hard work of the organizers of the Caine Prize. I do not know of any other prize targeted at African writers that does it so effectively. And for that I salute the Caine Prize.

It bears repeating: African writers need to up their game significantly; their products are completing poorly with Twitter and Facebook. The world of traditional writers is still very 20th century. Most of them cannot fathom the world they live and breathe in; no wonder they are totally disconnected from the 21st century reader. How many young people under 30 would relate to these shortlisted stories? For them it would be a collective yawn that would send them sleepy into the arms of social media. Our writers can do better than this. Be bold. Create new frontiers. Wean yourselves off of orthodoxy and the stifling confines of the classroom. Contemporary African literature as is taught in classrooms is pathetically 20th century. The keepers of those gates tend to think of contemporary African literature in terms of the three As: Achebe, Adichie, and Abani. When pressed, they add Habila. It is pathetic, really. The bulk of our literature is on the Internet and ancient professors are still photocopying what Achebe wrote in 1958. This must stop.

Writers, I beg you, write, just write. Do not write to the test of any prize, write, just write. And experiment for heavens’ sake! These stories are neat paragraphs adorned by lame titles, same old model designed eons ago before the advent of contemporary tools. One reason these stories hardly engage is that they are too one-dimensional for the new world and the new generation. Dare to place hot links in your stories and listen to the laughter of readers as they click and travel the world through your stories. Hot links are the pictures of my childhood that took me to Hyde Park and to the bazaars of India, that connected me with the world out there. Many stories today that keep readers chuckling do not use paragraphs and stuff, they are called apps. Use today’s tools to tell today’s stories.

 And oh, I move that we simply call this prize the Caine Prize, NOT the Caine Prize for African writing. What is that? In the 21st century, it seems faintly offensive. What is “African Writing”? Please let’s call it the Caine Prize. Yes. I love the Caine Prize.

[Guest BlogPost – Professor Pius Adesanmi] #WhoOwnsTheProblem?

By Professor Pius Adesanmi

Winner, the Penguin Prize for African Writing

Author of  You’re Not a Country, Africa!

Carnegie Diaspora Visiting Professor, University of Ghana, Legon

(This keynote lecture was initially delivered as part of the opening session plenary addresses at the Fourth Annual African Renaissance for Unity Conference convened by the Africa Institute of South Africa and The Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute, Pretoria, South Africa, on May 22, 2014. A modified version of it was subsequently delivered as Professor Pius Adesanmi’s valedictory lecture at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, Legon, on May 29, 2014, in conclusion of his tenure as a Carnegie Diaspora Visiting Scholar.)

Your Excellency President Thabo Mbeki, organizers, sponsors and co-sponsors of this conference, esteemed colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, you must forgive me for the peculiar title of this lecture. It is true that the organizers of this timely conference gave me an unambiguous mandate about what they wanted me to do: share some reflections with you on the subject of finding African solutions for African problems. Specifically, they wanted me to engage the subject from the perspective of culture. Let me state from the onset that the singular, culture, is not my making. That is how it appears in my letter of invitation. Coming from a disciplinary background where the producer of knowledge must constantly watch out for traffic cops eager to hand out tickets for the offences of monolithization and essentialism, I probably wouldn’t have dared to speak of an African culture in the singular purporting to solve African problems in the plural.

padesanmi_large-carleton-uHowever, not even the most audacious enforcers in all the humanistic and artistic disciplines with which we engage Africa would dare to hand out a traffic ticket to the scholar who drags the hashtag into the arena of serious scholarly reflection on the unending dilemmas of the African condition in the 21st century. These, indeed, are great times to be a hashtag. In my second life, I’d prefer to come back not as a bird or a flower as is the wont of nature lovers but as the world’s most recognizable symbol, the hashtag, previously only known to Americans and the English as the pound key on their phones but catapulted to planetary celebrity status in a little under a decade by Twitter. The hashtag is the only subject that can legitimately claim to be more famous than Kimye – that conjugal combination of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.

Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to describe the hashtag as the highest stage of globalization, what with its ability to go viral within seconds, crisscross geographical borders and ideological boundaries, connect cultures and peoples in defiance of difference, break down walls between causes and create a common village square for actors as far apart as gay rights activists of the global north and anti-gay cultural fundamentalists of the global south in Nigeria and Uganda, animal rights activists in Scandinavia and the whale and shark hunters of Japan, gender rights activists in the global north and the bearded guys preventing women from driving in parts of the Arab world. Every time I reflect on this singular capacity of the hashtag to unite the world’s largest community of strange bedfellows, I am almost always tempted to conclude that more than three decades of intense theorizing in the humanities and the social sciences have been reduced into a tiny symbol.

The intellection which yielded world systems theory, globalization, and everything in between, and gave us illustrious cross-disciplinary thinkers of global flows, fluxes, and linkages such as Achille Mbembe, Mahmood Mamdani, Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, Adebayo Olukoshi, Thandika Mkandawire, Ato Quayson, Immanuel Wallerstein, Frederic Jameson, Edward Said, Arjun Appadurai, Gloria Anzaldua, and so many usual suspects in the arena of contemporary global thought now all boils down to the performative power of just one symbol: the hashtag. For the hashtag is world system, borderlessness, and globalization on steroids.

Some of you are already probably thinking that you know the reason why a Nigerian public intellectual would start an exercise such as this by singing the praise of the hashtag. Folks, don’t blame me. My country, already a famous subject of all kinds of fair and unfair stereotyping here in Africa and the rest of the world, has seen her notoriety attain stratospheric heights courtesy of the hashtag. Doubtless some of you have already participated in what may now rightfully be termed a global hashtag movement. Perhaps some of you will take selfies in the course of this conference, brandishing a cardboard on which you would have inscribed the reigning marker of collective global activism: #BringBackOurGirls.
The phenomenal career of this particular hashtag – #BringBackOurGirls – has very obvious theoretical implications for those who have been thinking and theorizing the borderlessness of our postcolonial and postmodern world and the modes of Africa’s insertion into it in the last three decades or so. But, more importantly, this conference will have to zoom in on the possessive adjective, “our”, map its trajectory and modes of articulation, listen intently to its politics in order to determine who is speaking – or more appropriately, who has acquired the agency to speak – every time you encounter this celebrity hashtag.

In essence, this conference must ask the question: who is the “our” in #BringBackOurGirls? I don’t know the answer but how you, esteemed colleagues, answer this thorny question will have very serious implications for the aims and goals of our gathering. For when I saw the theme of our conference, “African Solutions for African Problems”, and the rider stating that more than a hundred scholars from Africa, Europe, and North America would gather here to find “African Solutions” to whatever we eventually agree – or agree to disagree – are “African Problems”, my mind immediately went to #BringBackOurGirls (and even the Joseph Kony campaign before it) and I asked: who owns the problem? Or, more appropriately, when was the last time Africa possessed the critical agency to own problems that are defined and narrativized as African? What are the possibilities of localizing the ownership of problems in the age of the hashtag? To make the inevitable allusion to Gayatri Spivak, can the subaltern own her problems?

Some of you may have noticed that no sooner had the #BringBackOurGirls handle gone viral than conflict over its origin and ownership arose, with CNN and the Wall Street Journal devoting time and space to clearing the air. And this war over ownership and narrative raged even as the girls were still in captivity. Who started it? Is it an offshoot of President Goodluck Jonathan’s bring back the book campaign? Or is it more directly linked to Wole Soyinka’s variation – with acknowledgment – on that presidential buzz with his own bring back the pupils retort? Or is it Oby Ezekwesili’s making? Or is it the making of the American woman who immediately claimed ownership of it and rushed to edit her Wikipedia biography to include ownership of #BringBackOurGirls?

In the context of the politics – for there is always politics involved – of owning problems that are defined as African, it does seem to me that the advent of the hashtag and social media has introduced the dimension of separating the localized reality of problems from their modes of articulation, representation, and, I daresay, marketing. It seems to me that Africa is being told: you may own the scrawny children with countable ribs and mucus-soaked nostrils studying under baobab trees with chalkboards donated by UNICEF, we reserve the right to adopt those malnourished children with full media fanfare and scold you if you grumble – even if you are the President of a country like Malawi; you may own the lives and limbs being blown up in Kenya, in Congo, in Mali, and in the ungoverned Boko Haram Territories of Nigeria, we own the glamour, glitz, and razzmatazz attendant upon the global dissemination and narrativization of those horrors.

This leads me to a second set of questions that must detain this conference. You may have noticed that I have been using the passive voice when talking about “African problems”. In fact, I have avoided that particular phraseology employed by the conveners of the conference. Instead, I have been talking about “problems that are defined and narrativized as African”. This mode of address is deliberate on my part. Apart from wondering whether Africa has the agency to own problems and their modes of articulation, the theme of this conference also made me wonder if we didn’t need to problematize the problems before finding African solutions for them. Perhaps my unease is further heightened by the suspicion that a certain neoliberal sleight of the hand underwrites the expression, “African Problems”. I believe the ability to smell neoliberal modes of framing, of naming, of engaging the actualities of Africa from a thousand miles come with the territory of what we do as the thinkers and writers of this continent. Hence, we must ask: what exactly are these African problems? How do problems acquire African citizenship? Who does the designation? When is an African problem?

For anybody familiar with the usual laundry list, these questions may appear to be no brainers. African problems? Oh, that’s poverty, illiteracy, disease, hunger, comatose infrastructure, tribalism, bad governance, wobbly democracy and allied problems of leadership, crises and conflict, corruption, environmental degradation, the familiar tableau of human misery associated with the girl child , human trafficking and, above all, the failures of the postcolonial state – some would say her complete demission. This is by no means an exhaustive list of problems that have acquired African citizenship in global imaginaries of discourse. Each participant in this conference could draw up his or her own list but I am sure we would have considerable overlaps. Consider, for instance, Professor Joseph Ki-Zerbo’s list and see how close it is to mine:

“raging genocides, mass movements of refugees, tortures and mutilations, random destruction of the environment and bio-diversity, hostage-taking of the young generation as cannon fodder for warlords, the decimation of whole populations by pandemics, the stranglehold of the republican army, the giving away and eradication of age-old cultures and distinct knowledge.”

Professor Ki-Zerbo’s list of the pressing challenges of the continent obviously devolves from the register of wars, conflict, and crises. It is easy to run through the said list and think of Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Kenya, Nigeria, Mali, Congo, and all the ongoing hotspots in the continent – if one wasn’t in the mood for immediate past spectres of bloodletting in Rwanda, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. However, if you leave out any geographical referents, it is also quite possible for observers in other parts of the global south to run through this generic list of problems that has acquired the tag, African, and assume that one was describing those places and spaces. What is there in my own list, for instance, that is not part of the politics of everyday life in significant parts of Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Arab World?

Consider poverty. You’ll be amazed by how comparable the indicators and the statistics are if you looked at, say, the situation in Peru, Honduras, Bangladesh, Ecuador, Papua New Guinea, Cambodia, the very black deep south of the USA, the First Nations reservations of Canada, and Cameroon. Yet, only Africa becomes a synonym for these problems. The same applies to infrastructure. I’ve been reading that decrepit infrastructure is going to be one of the major headaches of the new Indian Prime Minister. The New York Times recently framed this problem, drawing on the capacity of Indians for self-deprecating humour. Indians, the newspaper claims, have a saying that while the English drive on the left of the road, Indians drive on what’s left of the road. Booker Prize winner and activist, Arundhati Roy, also paints a grave picture of poverty and infrastructure in India in a post-election interview. Yet, that part of the register of underdevelopment that deals with dilapidated infrastructure is also almost always framed as an African problem.

These scenarios lead to some pressing questions. Do problems and human tragedies which also exist elsewhere become African because of perceived differences of spread and intensity? Do these problems become African because of imagined or real differences in the readiness of the institutions and opportunities of African modernity to rise up and solve them using critical human intelligence and innovation? Are these problems African because the websites of global actors in what I have previously theorized as the Mercy Industrial Complex (donor agencies, humanitarian organizations, aid and charity organizations, Bono, Jeffrey Sachs, career saviours of African children through adoption such as Madonna) almost always label them as African? More questions: do these problems become African because the continent is powerless against the modes of representation so powerfully captured by Binyavanga Wainaina in his classic piece, “How to Write about Africa”? There is even a latest variation of this problem of discursive and epistemological violence. I am told that there are particular ways to design the cover of the African novel, the African book, if you are a serious publisher looking for serious buyers of books about Africa in the global north.

The acknowledgement by the organizers of this conference that culture has a role to play in finding African solutions for African problems is perhaps a conscious admission on their part that despite contemporary pressures to the contrary, history has a huge role to play in solving many of the said problems. To solve a problem is to understand it in all its manifestations and ramifications and this includes its origins and modes of perpetuation. Yet, mentioning the colonial origin of many of the afflictions of the continent has become unfashionable in many of our disciplines. In my own discipline, it is taboo and could earn you a citation by the essentialism police.

As if Latin American thinkers like Anibal Quijano and Walter Mignolo never theorized coloniality (the persistence in our present of the fault lines and effects of colonialism), you are told that the recourse to colonial paradigms to explain the benumbing dilemmas of the African present amounts to disciplinary laziness and an attempt to excuse, rationalize, or justify the self-imposed woes and tragedies of Africa. Yet, how could Mahmood Mamdani have explained Rwanda without going back to the colonial origins of the problem? How can I explain Boko Haram, how can I propose solutions to Boko Haram, without going back to 1914 in order to understand and map the errors of the rendering that have inevitably produced this gory Nigerian present? The search for more than 200 school girls is only the latest stop in a journey programmed for tragedy and disaster by Lord Frederick Lugard in 1914. The Igbo genocide and the attendant civil war are also significant stops in that journey.

To recall Chinua Achebe, how do you begin the process of drying yourself when you are told that it is no longer fashionable to try and understand when, where, and why the rain began to beat you? How do you solve a problem when you are told that the ordained discursive procedure is to acknowledge and focus on your own contribution in making the rain that is beating you today and leave well enough alone with regard to yesterday’s rain made by foreign rainmakers? Do these two epistemological propositions have to be mutually exclusive?

If history helps us to understand the origins and trajectory of many of the problems blighting the African present, culture is what explains why the problems became African or why outsiders of the neoliberal bent have been able to attach a fixed African identity to problems that are transcendentally human, even where we make allowances for differences of intensity. Culture is the location of the original injury of modernity. Culture was the first target of the discourses and the institutions of modernity at the moment of encounter. Many of the problems that Africa still has with the orders and institutions of modernity – democracy, governance, corruption, etc – devolve from the unresolved contradictions of the original injury of modernity.

Let us not forget that modernity was imposed on the African largely through institutions of discipline and punish, to borrow from Michel Foucault. The prison, the Christian mission, and the school did not stop at inflicting corporal punishment on the “African native” while scrupulously pursuing the civilizing mission, they equally all had very specific ideas about the cultures and worldviews of the African that we do not need to repeat here. If we need any reminder about this discipline and punish approach to the introduction of the structures of modernity in Africa, we need not look beyond the workings of the said institutions in Ferdinand Oyono’s famous novel, Houseboy.

Thus, the African was culturally alienated from the institutions, protocols, and orders of modernity from the very start. This cultural alienation explains in large part the apathy to institutions, especially public institutions, in the continent. Institutions of modernity evolved as alienating structures of discipline and punish under colonialism and have retained that identity in the postcolonial phase of African life. The postcolonial state has failed woefully in detaching itself and its institutions from the colonial socius of violence that birthed it.

Hence corruption! Hence the impunity with which the public till is plundered in so many African states, especially in my own Nigeria. As Kwame Gyekye reminds us in his book, Philosophy, Culture, and Vision, the cultural relationship of the African subject to his precolonial cultural and political community conduced to a collective ownership of institutions and modes of cultural citizenship which enhanced the notion of the common good. The communal stream, communal farm lands, communal institutions of governance and public order, were not just in sync with the psychic world of the African subject, you took care of them because they commanded your loyalty and were not structures of violence and alienation.

Here then is the dilemma. Precolonial institutions, with all their warts and weaknesses, worked to a great extent and corruption was minimal – and punished adequately whenever it occurred – because those institutions acquired legitimacy and hegemony (as opposed to exercising only dominance and violence) through an historically developed sense of collective ownership. Postcolonial institutions have trouble working or functioning properly in Africa because they are orphans. Everybody steals from them; everybody leaves them to rot precisely because nobody owns them. The precolonial cultural attitudes of ownership of institutions and the collective good were never carried over because the new institutions destroyed or looked down upon the cultural values and worldviews that would have aided their insertion into the African space and psyche. These are contradictions that the modern African state is yet to resolve. She still hasn’t been able to sell herself culturally to the African.

The story is told – and it is a true story – of the late Alhaji Barkin Zuwo, a Governor of Kano state during the Second Republic in Nigeria which lasted from 1979-1983. The task of making the daily trip to the public treasury to steal money became too cumbersome for this Governor. To solve the problem, he introduced the practice of home delivery of stolen public funds into the lexicon of corruption in Nigeria. He simply had raw cash delivered to him in large quantities in his official residence which we call Government House in Nigeria. When the coup happened in 1983 and soldiers stormed Government House to arrest him, they were astounded by the quantity of raw cash they found in his bedroom. When queried, Barkin Zuwo famously quipped: “Government money in Government House, what is the problem?” This sums up the story of the African subject’s conceptualization of the institutions of the postcolonial state. Would Alhaji Barkin Zuwo have had the same attitude to public office and to public property in the precolonial Emirate of Kano? Your guess, ladies and gentlemen, is as good as mine.

Like corruption and institutions, most of the problems and challenges that postcolonial Africa has encountered in the arena of democracy and governance can be explained on the ground of our radical departure from the economic and political cultures of precolonial Africa. All over the continent today, the state and her economy are hyper-centralized because they were carried over unmodified from the hyper-centralization of the political and economic structures of the colonial state. We are all familiar with the consequences of the hyper-centralization of political and economic power at the centre all over the continent. It foreclosed the possibility of good governance and genuine democracy and facilitated the emergence of authoritarianism, supervised by the big man and his cronies.

Because the big man’s cronies are almost always from his ethnic neck of the woods, tribalism enters the picture as the handmaiden of political and economic hyper-centralization. This has particularly been the case in much of Francophone Africa’s postcolonial history, a period bloodied by the Father of the Nation and his single party monolithism. This spectre of hyper-centralized authoritarianism haunted the Francophone African novel of the 1970s and the 1980s with novelists like Alioum Fantoure, Williams Sassine, Henri Lopes, Aminata Sow Fall, and Sony Labou Tansi leading the guard in the production of dictatorship novels. Wole Soyinka would respond in Anglophone Africa with A Play of Giants.

What sort of political and economic cultures did Africa evolve before the moment of colonial truncation? The case of the Igbo in eastern Nigeria is too well known to bear repeating here. Those of you who don’t know Igbo republicanism in real life have encountered it in the political life of the six villages making up Umuaro in Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God. Gyekye has also explored what he describes as “consensual democracy” among the Ashanti and other ethnic groups in precolonial Ghana. I will therefore illustrate this part of my submissions with the precolonial political and economic cultures of my own people: the Okun people in the present Kogi state in Nigeria. Okun land is made up of a number of major towns around which gravitated hamlets and villages. Some of the major towns include Kabba, Mopa, Egbe, and my own Isanlu. Although the major traditional ruling stool was located in Isanlu, all the satellite villages and hamlets also had their own stools which related in a traditional confederal fashion with the central stool in Isanlu.

Complementing this political confederacy was the fact that all the villages were economically autonomous and had their own independent markets and other economic structures. Colonialism destroyed this intricately decentralized political and economic culture and replaced it with the model with which we are all familiar. The postcolonial state completed the rout of Okun political and economic confederacy. Isanlu and all the adjoining villages and hamlets now had to start looking up to the local government, the state government, and the Federal government in that order. I don’t believe that we need to rehash the consequences of the collapse of the culture of confederacy and consensual democracy in Nigeria and elsewhere around the continent.

What needs to detain us here is the price that the continent continues to pay by stubbornly holding on to the machineries and institutions of political and economic centralization inherited from the colonial state instead of retracing her steps back to the precolonial cultural template in order to adapt, modify, and modernize it for contemporary usage. The first and perhaps most significant casualty of political and economic centralization is African innovation. The contest for resources at the centre has stunted African innovation because we have evolved a culture in which an entire nation is fixated on just that one source of prebendal patronage. A rapacious political elite very often enlists the help of a confused intellectual class to think and theorize programs aimed at the consolidation of the current arrangement. For instance, Nigeria’s erstwhile military dictator, General Ibrahim Babangida, was notorious for his generous use of Professors to theorize and legitimize his policies.

Yet, recent developments in the continent point to the continued relevance of culture to any idea of renaissance and innovation. It is no longer a secret that Nigeria recently rebased her economy and announced her new status as the Africa’s largest economy, a distinction which promptly earned her the hosting rights for the recently-concluded World Economic Forum Africa (WEFA). I am a man with an ear to the ground here in South Africa so I was made to understand that the news of being overtaken by Nigeria – with her pre-medieval infrastructure and epileptic power supply – was considered a huge joke in this country. I am told that you received that news like a rude slap in the face. You are not alone. Those of us who are consistent critics of the Nigerian establishment also took the same tack. However, reality is reality: Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy and culture played a significant role in the attainment of that feat.
What went into Nigeria’s rebased economy were the IT revolution and the cultural innovation represented by Nollywood and the Nigerian music industry. Just two decades ago, in the 1980s and 1990s, the party scene, the dance floor scene, in this continent was dominated by American rap and R & B. On University campuses all over the continent, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, R Kelly, 112, Next, Changing Faces, Joe, and Boyz II Men reigned supreme. I particularly liked rocking in the nightclubs to the tune of 112’s “Only You”. Some of you may remember the lyrics. Sing along with me if you do:

Ohhhh I, need to know, where we stand
Do we share this special thing called love *
I know I do, what about you
I just can’t get enough of your love *
I need you in my life
Where do we go, what do I do
I can’t live without your love
Thinkin of you * makes me feel
Like I’m the only one for you

And how about this one from Boyz II Men? I am sure you still remember? Let me hear you:

Although we’ve come to the end of the road
Still I can’t let you go
It’s unnatural, you belong to me, I belong to you
Come to the End of the Road
Still I can’t let you go
It’s unnatural, you belong to me, I belong to you

These are great memories of the ancient times of the 1990s on the dance floors of Africa. Today, there has been a cultural revolution on dance floors and party halls across Africa. Whether you are in Belle Aroma night club where I unwind most weekends in Accra or you are checking out Lagos, Nairobi, Kampala, Monrovia, or Cotonou by night, the new cultural gospel is called azonto, skelewu, eminado, and dorobucci. Let me treat you to a youtube clip of dorobucci so you can have a taste of what we are talking about. Ladies and gentlemen, these Anglophone African musical styles, along with Francophone African offerings such as “couper decaler”, “mapouka”, and “sagacite”, have checkmated American musical imperialism on the African dance floor. And this cultural revolution has had such a seismic consequence in the arena of political economy that Nigeria quite almost literally danced her way to the top spot as Africa’s largest economy. I guess you can tell from my familiarity with the latest grooves from the nightclubs of the capital cities of the continent that some of us are deconstructing and funkifying the image of the Professor.

There are two lessons to be drawn from these scenarios. Culture is where Africa was written out of modernity; culture is where her development, genius, and innovative spirit were discounted. Culture is where her path to self- recovery is located. Cultural innovation is where Nigeria came into its own as Africa’s largest economy and also joined Mexico, Indonesia, and Turkey in the MINT economies. Nigeria has no infrastructure fit for the 19th century, she can hardly generate a week’s supply of electricity, and corruption is stratospheric. Yet, cultural innovation intervened and saved Nigeria’s behind when it mattered most.

Secondly, you are nothing if you cannot even own and narrate your own problems. You are nothingif you are a fringe player in the global theatre of naming and ascription. Those who name your problems for you will prescribe neoliberal solutions that fly in the face of your realities. As we have seen, the instruments for a global narrativizing of what constitutes African problems are cultural: social media – that is, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Linked-in, Myspace etcetera; and, of course, print and broadcast media.. Problems are essentially African and not human problems because global culture names them so. It does not mean that Africa does not have and suffer disproportionally from the said problems.
However, losing the means to own, narrativize, and engage your problems on your own terms is a double jeopardy. I am also not proposing Africa’s isolation from the arena of bilateral and multilateral solutions to problems in this age of globalization and inter-dependence. Solutions would be skewed if problems are owned, narrativized, and skewed on your behalf. It is only through a conscious ‘re-basing’ of culture, that is, a re-creation and owning of culture in the 21st century that Africa will be able to identify, name, and engage her own problems on her own terms.