Ikhide

Father, Fighter, Lover

Category: African Writing

The 2016 Caine Prize: The burdens of identity and fading memories

The 2016 Caine Prize shortlist is out and the stories have the African literary community  abuzz: Abdul Adan’s, The Lifebloom Gift, is a dark, troubling story about sexuality and other identities; Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky, is a dark, fascinating, and brilliant story about identity, and gentrification; 2013 Caine Prize winner, Tope Folarin’s Genesis, is a dark, haunting commentary on mental illness and a heart-warming story about children growing up in the shadows of their parents’ and Utah’s anxieties; Bongani Kona’s At Your Requiem, is a dark tale of childhood wars (rivalries, child sexual abuse, etc.); and Lidudumalingani’s Memories We Lost, is a dark, affecting tale about sibling and communal love and mental illness. You get the point. It’s all dark, these writers thrive on the edges of a dark, dark, world.

Identity. There is a good conversation to be had: What is African Writing? Who is the African writer? What should the African writer write about? Should we care? This year’s stories shove those questions in the reader’s bemused consciousness. These stories, apart from their unremitting darkness, seem to be about identity (bending). It is called the Caine Prize for African Writing, however it would be interesting to do a study of the places of abode of all the shortlisted writers since inception. African writers love to settle in the West; those that are left behind might as well be in the West, because where they live and love in the lush spaces of Cape Town, Abuja and Lekki could hardly be classified as the Africa of their stories. The Ugandan writer Bwesigye bwa Mesigwire’s question, The Caine Prize for African Writing: Offsetting the continental-diaspora deficit?, remains a debate. Last year, four out of the five shortlisted writers lived abroad in the West. Of the five shortlisted writers of 2016, three live abroad and the other two live in South Africa. Maybe we should call it the Caine Prize for Diaspora Writing. Nah, let’s just call it the Caine Prize, period.

Did I have trouble staying awake while reading the stories? Well, a few  of the shortlisted stories are well written, feature muscular thinking and a truly engaging, but in some cases,  it is a chore for the average reader to stay engaged. Why? Let me make bold to say that this is no longer how we enjoy our stories, not in the 21st century. Today, literature as we know it struggles, and is becoming a dying middle class pastime. As I read some of these stories, I could see people reading them, shrugging halfway, dumping them and moving on to a heckler’s social media timeline. There is a new army of storytellers on the Internet and social media; they have become incredibly influential even as traditional writers jostle for space in the cafes of America and Europe to write traditional pieces for literary prizes.It is our loss, thanks to a failure of (literary) leadership. There should be an innovative way to bring the literature of old to social media and let the  young feast deep on beautiful – and instructive stories. How that is done remains a mystery but it is clear that the traditional way of looking at literature is becoming threatened by the new writing.

 abdul_adanSo what are these stories about? Much of Adan’s The Lifebloom Gift reads like creative nonfiction, sometimes like mere reportage, but it is fairly engaging nonetheless. There is a good interview of Abdul Adan here; I would like to ask him where he rents his demons from. In this story he fights terrifying images that include “giant snakes slithering on bare backs of sunbathers, the kisses of toothless elderly Kazakh couples, the penetrative mouths of hyenas as they disembowel fleeing prey, the longing eyes of Akita dogs, the sweaty waists of African female dancers, the heaving chests of death-row inmates on the execution gurney, the tight jaws of some vindictive men.” And the reader is awed by Adan’s inquisitive energy:

 Ted himself told me that to experience something, one had to touch it. He denied the existence of anything he couldn’t touch, including air, the sun, the sky, the moon, and people he hadn’t touched or at least brushed shoulders with. The untouched individual, he said, is a nonentity. To claim a place in Ted’s gloriously green universe, the individual has to be touched.

Arimah-320Arimah, the Africa regional winner of the 2016 Commonwealth short story prize is a highly regarded writer whose stories regularly make the rounds of prestigious literary magazines. Here is a good interview of her in the New Yorker. Her story, What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky is perhaps the most complex and innovative offering on the shortlist. It is playful, experimental, ambitious and quite innovative, with disciplined, gorgeous prose thrown in. This sci-fi story is about love, longing, sexuality, race, racism, boundaries, and class. Arimah upends traditional notions of boundaries and identities with sweet muscle and deftly returns the reader to the present reality. This is not just back to the future. This is back to the future – and the now. Imagine a  near apocalypse:

 Most of what had been North America was covered in water and a sea had replaced Europe. Russia was a soaked grave. The only continents unclaimed in whole or in part by the sea were Australia and what was now the United Countries but had once been Africa. The Elimination began after a moment of relative peace, after the French had won the trust of their hosts. The Senegalese newspapers that issued warnings were dismissed as conspiracy rags, rabble-rousers inventing trouble. But then the camps, the raids, and the mysterious illness that wiped out millions. Then the cabinet members murdered in their beds.

In a delightful play on today’s global reality, there is a global upheaval, and those that were displaced and offered succor (whites) triumphed and the hosts (people of color) were none the better for their generosity. You chuckle wryly as  the protagonist observes that a roomful of the children (of color) of the displaced “was as bare of genius as a pool of fish.” It is a lovely story, there are all these sophisticated sentences showing off deep beauty:

The only time she’d felt anything as strongly was after her mother had passed and her father was in full lament, listing to the side of ruin.

folarin

Oxford. 8/7/13. Bodleian Library. The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013. Winner, Tope Folarin. Picture by: David Fleming

Folarin’s Genesis is about a tough childhood that manages to touch all your emotional spots. In this seemingly semi-autobiographical piece (Folarin is quite candid about his mother’s health issues as this interview shows) every word is a living breathing witness of the struggles of young children trying to survive a war:

There is the sweet pain of the parents’ exile in America, away from Nigeria:

But this was America. And they were in love. They moved into a small apartment in Ogden, Utah, and began a family. I came first, in 1981, and my brother followed in 1983. Dad attended his classes during the day while Mom explored the city, and at night my parents held each other close and spoke their dreams into existence. They would have more children. My father would start a business. They would become wealthy. They would send their children to the best schools. They would have many grandchildren. They would build their own version of paradise on a little slip of desert in a country that itself was a dream, a place that seemed impossible until they stepped off the plane, shielding the sun from their eyes, and saw for themselves the expanse of land that my father had idly pointed to on a fading map many years before.

 There is the deep pain of the burden of the mother’s descent into mental illness and resulting marital abuse:

My mother’s illness began to reveal itself to us shortly after we moved into our two bedroom apartment, a tiny place near the center of town with pale yellow walls and bristly carpet. Mom’s voice, once quiet and reassuring, grew loud and fearsome. Her hugs, once warm and comforting, became cold and rigid. And then Mom became violent—she would throw spoons and forks at my father whenever she was upset. She quickly worked her way up to the knives.

 Kona’s At Your Requiem is your traditional African writing fare. Delivered in the first person, it reads like a piece of a long work in progress, perhaps a book. It is ostensibly about childhood and the ravages of adult dysfunctions and the quiet horror of child sexual abuse:

One night Aunt Julia was naked when I got under the duvet. It was winter. I remember the percussion of raindrops splashing against the tiled roof. She held me close, tight, my head pinned against her breasts. I pushed her away, or tried to, but she held firm. She unbuttoned my pyjamas. I lay in there, limp, my eyes wide open. I felt her bony fingers, cold against my chest, circling lines around my ribcage. ‘My beautiful boy,’ she whispered, as she kissed my belly button. ‘You’re my little husband. Who’s my little husband? You’re my little husband.’

 I think I cried, but I’m not sure.

bongani_konaThis was my least favorite read; deadly proxy for the stereotypical African writer’s cringe-worthy self-absorption, narcissistic, with a false sense of the invincible reeling out paragraph after paragraph of familiar, tired reportage. Kona’s story dredges up familiar issues, it is social commentary (child abuse) wrapped in the dignified toga of fiction, like stories made to order for an African NGO’s  hustle. The design is awkward, defective even. It is a forgettable story considering that it is a crude attempt at magic realism; one of the two main protagonists commits suicide, is hastily resurrected, presumably for the benefit of the Caine Prize, goes back in time to assist the author to tell a too tall tale. Too bad; the character – and the story should have been left alone to die and rest in peace. It doesn’t help that Kona’s story suffers from sloppy editing. There is documented evidence that at one time the story may have been written in the third person. And the attempt to resuscitate Dambudzo Marechera’s spirit: “You got your things and left.” SMH

Lidudmalingani It is easy to fall in love with Lidudumalingani’s Memories We Lost. It seems autobiographical, this tale of a community’s attempt to help a family deal with mental illness, but don’t be fooled; Lidudumalingani is an awesome artist, and he writes as one who knows and loves his corner of Africa intensely:

 I stared out into the landscape that began in my mother’s garden and stretched far beyond sight. The sun was setting behind the forest and dust was floating everywhere. Where the dust was dense, one could see it sway this way and that way as if in the middle of a dance. A sophisticated dance, the kind that, I imagined, happened in other worlds, very far from the village. The village was settling into repose. The cold summer air had begun to torment the villager’s bare legs and arms. Everything was in silhouette, including the horses that trotted across the veld, the cattle that lowered their heads to graze, and the water that flowed down the cliff. The mountains, ancient but nevertheless still standing, were casting giant shadows over the landscape. The shadows stretched so far from the mountain that they began to exist as if they were solid entities on their own.

 … Those without torches or candles walked on even though the next step in such darkness was possibly a plunge down a cliff. This was unlikely, it should be said, as most of them were born in the village, grew up there, got married there, had used that very same field as their toilet for all their lives, and had had in overlapping periods only left the village when they went to work for the white man in large cities. They had a blueprint of the village in their minds; its walking paths, its indentations, its rivers, its mountains, its holes where ghosts lived were imprinted in their blood.

 And on and on the narrative goes in seductive prose; portraits everywhere. Lidudumalingani’s eyes are a pair of powerful cameras that combine with his talent for prose to engage the reader on a journey of love and pain. Incidentally there is a good piece here on his eye for photography. I thank the Caine Prize for introducing me to Lidudumalingani’s restless and eclectic world. And oh yes, I have a long review of his story on Brittlepaper (here).

So what do I think about all of this? It is interesting, Alison Flood, writing in the UK Guardian about Tope Folarin, notes the comments made by Delia Jarrett-Macaulay about the emergent theme of the Caine Prize entries.

The five shortlisted stories were chosen from 166 submissions, representing 23 African countries. Chair of judges, the writer and academic Delia Jarrett-Macauley, said there had been an increasing number of fantasy and science fiction stories submitted this year, also noting a “general shift away from politics towards more intimate subjects – though recent topics such as the Ebola crisis were being wrestled with”.

The shortlist, she said, is “an engrossing, well-crafted and dauntless pack of stories … It was inspiring to note the amount of risk-taking in both subject matter and style, wild or lyrical voices matching the tempered measured prose writers, and stories tackling uneasy topics, ranging from an unsettling, unreliable narrator’s tale of airport scrutiny, to a science-fictional approach towards the measurement of grief, a young child’s coming to grips with family dysfunction, the big drama of rivalling siblings and the silent, numbing effects of loss,” said Jarrett-Macauley. “The panel is proud to have shortlisted writers from across the continent, finding stories that are compelling, well-crafted and thought-provoking.”

From my perspective, apart from one or two stories, I did not see much in terms of risk-taking and innovation. There were some good attempts but writers need to do more. And then there is the issue of the purpose of the prize, in the 21st century. Don’t get me wrong, the Caine Prize has done all the right things in the pursuit of excellence in writing among writers of African descent. Over the years, a robust conversation has ensued as to the purpose and trajectory of the prize. Lizzy Attree, director of the Caine Prize spoke to some of these concerns in this interview with Nick Mulgrew. Last year’s Caine Prize winner, Namwali Serpell, caused a stir when she gave some candid feedback to the organizers of the prize and split her winnings with her fellow contestants. Identity has been an issue; who should vie for these prizes? An unintended consequence of the competition for the Caine Prize in this question: Where is the equity in seeming to pit Diaspora writing against indigenous African writing (by those based at home)? What should folks be writing about? Who should be the audience? Is it appropriate to allow previous winners to continue to vie for the prize? So many questions.

The Caine Prize is in search of a fresh purpose; today’s Africa is not really the postcolonial Africa of old, and all prizes targeted at African writing should reflect the new realities of writing and Africa, especially in the age of the Internet and social media. In the initial years of the prize, one could honestly say that the Caine Prize helped in identifying new talent; indeed many of them went on to become internationally renowned stars. That is changing, and I don’t think it is a good thing. A few hopefuls are repeat returnees to the shortlist (Elnathan John being the most famous) and this year, Tope Folarin became the second prior winner to be on the shortlist again (Segun Afolabi returned last year). Does Arimah really need the Caine Prize? Some would say she is already a precious commodity anywhere in the world where serious writing is judged. She is already a word goddess, what is the point of holding up to the light people who are already blinding the world with the brilliant lights of their literary stardom?

Those who criticize the Caine Prize raise excellent points, but I concede that to the extent that it is directed at the Prize, the criticisms give the impression of entitlement and privilege. Today’s writers should bear most of the blame. The reader seeks genuine innovation in the writing; bold and energetic pieces that keep folks glued to the reading monitor. This is the 21st century. In all seriousness, I pray daily that the equivalent of iTunes comes to rescue the vast majority of African writers from the tyranny of orthodoxy. They seem to spend the best part of their productive lives hoping to land that book contract or win that prize. The odds are beyond intimidating. Which is sad. And frustrating. The best writing of this generation of writers is on the Internet and on social media. And it is really good stuff. Sadly, but understandably most African writers have no choice but to submit themselves to the tyranny of the lottery that passes for traditional publishing.

 Again, let me be honest, there are good pieces on the shortlist (Arimah, Folarin, Lidudumalingani were my best reads) but, beyond those pieces, even with them, I’d rather be on the web reading. Let me repeat: Traditional, analog writing is losing readership and influence. Writing (especially in Africa) is becoming a dying middle class pastime. Why? I see innovation on the web, I see precious little of that elsewhere. Meanwhile, really brilliant writing is being read for free by gleeful readers. Writers should be paid for their innovation and industry on social media. There is hope. Soon, an app will come that will lock down all these offerings and allow readers access to them – for a modest fee. I am having way too much fun. For free. That is not the fault of the Caine Prize. It is what it is.

Finally, and this is important, we must reflect on why the Internet and social media have introduced true, indigenous African English to millions of African readers, and why as a result traditional writing is suffering from benign neglect. I previously wrote about this in this essay, Of African literature and the language and the politics of the stories and I said this:

The West deserves credit for almost single-handedly sustaining African literature with funding and an eager paying readership. However, it has come at a cost on at least one important level; many African writers eager to be published and salivating at prestigious literary platforms have largely allowed the West to distort the literary language in their books. It is almost understandable, these writers are not negotiating from a position of strength, so they watch helplessly as words and terms that make sense in African settings are jury-rigged for Western tastes by Western editors whose awesome editorial skills are hugely compromised by their cultural cluelessness. As an aside, I really believe now that Western editors need to collaborate with the few African editors out there as they prepare African literature for the print shop. The Western reader enjoys the new language of discourse but it is painful to read as an African. So much in contemporary fiction in the books published in the West has been distorted for the simple reason that there is a buying audience that needs to understand these things. It is an economic decision but the implications for Africa and the trajectory of her stories are enormous and mostly tragic.

In these works of fiction, we see the unintended consequence of Western patronage of African writing – a crippling loss of language. And a muffling of powerful voices drowned in the alien applause of an adoring Western audience. It is not all bad, there is some hope; the advent of a robust literary culture on the Internet and on social media has amplified this issue; the democratization of story-telling in the digital space has allowed an emerging generation of writers to just be themselves – to simply write in their own “African English” language. Sadly, to the extent that African literature is judged almost exclusively by books published in the West, it is appropriate to address the distortion in language – and trajectory of the narrative, because the gatekeepers of African literature continue to ignore the fact that the vast majority of African writing today is on the Internet.

I rest my case. Now, let me go back to typing “LOL” on salacious, delightfully inane crap on Facebook. LOL!

On Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun

There are many reasons to read Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s novella, Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun. It is a thoughtful, gentle, dignified and deeply insightful work with pretty, no, elegant prose thrown in for good measure. The beauty and depth of the prose alone are enough motivation to read this book. This is not your traditional fare from the dusty shelves of orthodox African literature, this is good stuff, recommended reading, not only for individual readers, but for classrooms where these kinds of things are taught. This is how to write. Yes, the first thing the reader notices about the book is its quality. There is quality everywhere you look; in the production, in the prose, and in the depth of the content. All of this is wrapped in sublime elegance. Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun hearkens to a time when African writers were not so consumed by superciliousness, a time when the dialogue was respectful and deeply insightful, a time when African characters were not Stepin Fetchit stick figures mumbling in the dark, caricatures hastily erected by African writers for the poverty porn single story that sells in the West. Indeed the book says we are the sum of our experiences, life is complicated and identity is what you make of it. This reader was so taken by this slim volume (a little under 120 pages of dreamy pleasure) he read it twice. It is a slim volume but that is deceptive; there are so many layers to the story. Manyika is expertly coy and cunning in rousing the readers’ curiosity. Words expertly placed at literary attention make you reach for Google – and revel in enchanting worlds within worlds.

Manyika’s approach to writing this novella is unique and innovative. It is a narrative in the first person built around Dr. Morayo Da Silva, the main protagonist. The world is not what it seems, certainly not according to Dr. Morayo Da Silva. She is a retired professor of literature living a charming existence in beautiful San Francisco. At 75, retired and divorced, she is enjoying the winter of her life. The aging process with its associated medical, social and spiritual challenges inspires Da Silva to reflect on her life’s journey so far. The story is told with the aid of several other characters who as they weave in and out of her life help the reader through an engaging thread of conversations around several themes. This slim volume is is what Chinua Achebe would have called dry-meat-that-fills-the-mouth. Manyika introduces you to new knowledge, slyly, ever so slyly, she drops hints and you go looking for them, lovingly, many times using the works of writers, like the “love crumbs” in e.e. cummings’ erotic poem, i like my body when it is with your.

 MuleLike a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun is a marked improvement over Manyika’s first novel In Dependence. Where In Dependence seems tentative and unsure of itself, this novella is a bundle of quiet self-assured confidence and eclecticism. Take the title, it is inspired by Mary Ruefle’s oddly eclectic and brilliant poem, Donkey On which, like the novella, ends on a hopeful, joyfully defiant note, giving a sweet middle finger to what passes for living. The book is about relationships and connections to hearts and spaces spanning decades and bleeding into the 21st century, with its promises and challenges. Globalization is not a cliché here, the call centers of Mumbai are a reality and a looming menace. In between the spaces of time, there are all these anxieties that the reader can relate to; sexuality, ethnic cleansing, feminism, and power struggles against patriarchy and class. The themes seem familiar but they come across as fresh. This is not the effete and tired faux narrative of the allegedly, dispossessed, Africa Rising, that reverse pity party of the African middle class taking selfies in front of mimic cafes and fast food restaurants in Lekki and Abuja. Kudos to Manyika; it takes quiet brilliance to start a conversation – for example, without once mentioning the word feminism and Manyika pulls it off mostly. In this book, the reader listens to the voice of a mature sage, and the mind is soaked in the rich perks of age. It bears repeating: Manyika’s novella is gentle and respectful, it is not the caricature that passes for life in many works of African literature. It tackles the same subjects but one gets the sense that one is reading a complex narrative, not just a memoir wrapped in the pretend toga of fiction. The reader is immersed in a good conversation about identity and it is impossible not to think of some of the works of Taiye Selasi, Teju Cole, and to a lesser degree Chris Abani (in The Virgin of Flames), without the in-your face, edgy, and, sometimes contrived, deep drilling of subject matter. Like the works of these authors, it is brilliant still. Afropolitanism is not a word in the book, but it shines through and you want to have that conversation, instead of a yelling match. It’s all about identity: Dr. Da Silva is a Nigerian, but is she? Why? In the 21st century, she is the sum of all the places she’s been.

 What is this book about? It is complicated: The book’s protagonist, seems to suffer from age-related memory loss, she is possibly a hoarder who hides money in strange places in her apartment. She does yoga and poses in tadasana, and is passionate about hot rods and pretty shoes. She is into Scuba diving, swimming, and tattoos. A  near idyllic existence is broken literally by a fall. And things fall apart. But then she rebounds. She is an enigma, full of paradoxes, sophisticated but not too sophisticated to fall prey to Nigerian scam artists. Through her ordeal we engage love, betrayal, longing, heartbreak, exile and everything in between those anxieties. We read a lot through this eclectic woman; there is the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks and we learn about writers like Nadine Gordimer José Saramago, Derek Walcott, Jean Rhys. James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Earnest Gaines as well as C.L.R. James. The book invites you to read it carefully, there are intriguing riddles in many sentences, one learns a lot.What the protagonist remembers about Nigeria are not always pleasant but they are the reality. The reader learns about Boko Haram and sectarian violence at a time when the country is helpless at violence in Agatu and Enugu, fuming at the effete insolence and silence of those sworn to protect the people. There is a sad commentary on Nigerian societies’ attitude toward mental illness:

 As a child I only remember one mad person – man or woman, I forget. Was it a bare-breasted woman who removed her wrappa to reveal a torn and dirty petticoat? Did she shriek and scratch her head? Or does this memory come from the book of my imagination? Or was it a man with thick, knotty, lice-infested hair? He was the only bearded man I saw in those days. I never dared to look too closely for fear that his curses might land on me. All the children knew that somewhere between this madman’s legs hung a large penis. Swinging. Menacingly. (P 45-46)

 That penis. And Abulu the iconic mad man in Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen comes to the mind, nothing changes:

 He was robed from head to foot in filth. As he rose spryly to stand, some of the filth rose with him, while some was left in patches on the ground. He had a fresh scar on his face just below his chin, and his back was caked with a dripping mess from some dead mango in a state of putrefaction. His lips were dried and cracked. His hair was unkempt; it stretched like tendrils, giving him the appearance of a Rastafarian. His teeth, most of which were blackened as if singed, reminded me of fire-blowing gypsies and circus players who blew fire from their mouths and probably, I thought, burned their teeth. The man lay bare before our eyes, stark naked except for a shred of rag which hung loosely from his shoulder down to his waist; his pubic region was covered with a dense foliage of hair in the midst of which his veiny penis hung limply like trouser rope. His legs were bursting with taut varicose veins.

Obioma, Chigozie (2015-04-14). The Fishermen: A Novel (pp. 80-81). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.

 Nothing changes, but change is all around Dr. Da Silva’s world. It is the 21st century. Da Silva keeps a healthy distance from the communication tool du jour – social media, the internet, texting, etc. And she asks wistfully:

Whatever happened to all those friends who used to send letters and postcards? Now people just zap off emails or no notes at all. And then, of course, so many friends have died. (p 4)

The dysfunctions of class rear their head; we see the upper middle class thumbing their noses at the less privileged who are privileged to be their house help using language the African middle class inherited from the colonial masters, treating the house help as subhuman beings. One could get a doctoral dissertation from studying this aspect of Nigerian culture.

 It is not a perfect book. It is well-edited, however in Chapter 2, the narrator is in the second person, but then Mrs. Da Silva, the main protagonist shows up – in the first person. Jarring. What makes the book unusual also makes it weak on the surface. You won’t find a plot, just like life. Instead it is written and presented like a thick juicy center cut of a larger work that will appear in the future. Manyika invested a lot of quality time in the development of a few characters; the rest seem to suffer from her inattention. The result is some characters that seemed inchoate, loitering around and then disappearing abruptly like puzzling question marks. The central character suffers from a certain narcissism and some key subjects like bigotry are only scantily sketched. But then, this is America, who needs the constant reminder of Babylon’s madness? Manyika could have deleted a couple of chapters and the novella would have been better for it. But then you read elegant to-die for prose like this and you forgive the book’s flaws: “… and pats of butter so cold they sit, like hard-boiled sweets, refusing to melt on the hill of pancakes.” (p 45)

 Interestingly, Paul Auster’s memoir, Winter Journal mentioned in the book and seems to have inspired Manyika’s novella, because the themes of both books are parallel. The reviews of Winter Journal are scathing. J. Robert Lennon writing in the Guardian says this:

The new book is a rambling, informal collection of memories, musings, and minutiae, presented in the second person and loosely connected by the themes of ageing and the body. It strives to give the impression that is was written extemporaneously, for the author’s own pleasure, and never intended to be published. In fact, it feels posthumous, as though discovered among Auster’s papers after his death and rushed to publication to coincide with some anniversary or memorial.

 Not to be outdone, Meghan O’Rourke of the New York Times piles on rather cruelly:

 Written in the second person (as if Auster were trying to separate, once and for all, the writing self from the body whose life it is describing), “Winter Journal” is a fragmentary and circuitous essay about aging that feels, a little too often, more sketched out than digested. It contains an examination of the body and its frailty and desires; a catalog of the author’s many residences in Paris and in Brooklyn; a reflection on the end of his first marriage; and an elegy for his mother, who died in 2002… “Winter Journal” is not all that philosophical, and its meditative sections have a turgid quality, like a sauce that’s overthickened.”

 There are some who would quibble similarly with portions of Manyika’s book, especially if they measure it against orthodoxy.  This reader enjoyed the book and appreciates the fact that Manyika dared to be different and did not strive to check the boxes of orthodoxy in order to be accepted, especially in the West. Which brings me finally to Manyika’s decision to use an African publisher, rather than to publish it in the West, where her contemporaries take serious pieces to. She starts out the conversation in the UK Guardian:

 “Some people are sceptical about my decision to work with an African publisher, especially given the fact that I live in America and have access to American and European agents. They ask: does my decision make economic sense? Will an African publisher do as well as a western publisher? Behind these polite enquiries, the real question that I feel is being asked is whether an African publisher can be as good as a European or an American. The assumption is that the west does things better than Africa.

My answer is: of course, they can be just as good or just as bad. They can be even better or even worse.”

manyikaManyika’s decision is a brave gamble; the surest way to attain international stature and prestige is to be published in the West. Here is a good piece by Catherine Byaruhanga that explains why in much of Black Africa book reading is an upper middle class pastime. The cost of books has priced most out of a habit that should be a civil right. Many African readers are self-medicating on free fare from the Internet. This is a small but necessary step; if all Africans started subjecting themselves to the compromised institutions of Black Africa they would be more motivated to fight for structural change. In the age of the Internet, Africa has to look at holistic and comprehensive ways to provide a robust analog and digital infrastructure that supports publishing and reading. Kudos to Sarah Ladipo Manyika for walking the tough talk. This reader has grown to admire and respect Cassava Republic, Manyika’s publisher. Over the years, they have become more competitive and showcased works that can compete anywhere in the world. It is good that writers like Manyika are patronizing indigenous publishers, brave souls, but I encourage everyone to look for good publishers anywhere they can find them; life is too short to be that patriotic. In any case, it is the only way we can foster competition. As far as I am concerned many of these “publishing houses” are giant stapling guns. They should just go away.  In the meantime, read this book and marvel at the brilliant mind of she who knows a lot and shows it off sassily as she tools around the catacombs of San Francisco in a 993. A 993? Google it, that’s what your smartphone is for, LOL.

Petina Gappah: Unreliable witnesses and the burden of memory

The biggest surprise about prison is the laughter.
– Petina Gappah, The Book of Memory

Interesting and ambitious: Those two words best describe The Book of Memory, Petina Gappah’s new work of fiction, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It is an interesting book, burdened with many ambitious experiments. This fascinating novel follows many long years after Gappah’s highly successful collection of short stories, Elegy for Easterly. Years from now, scholars will debate whether Gappah’s transition from short story writing to this full-length fiction novel was successful. At the very least, this was a listless production for the most part, lacking the passion and joy of Elegy for Easterly. There are many brilliant parts, which make the book recommended reading, but the parts do not jell, largely thanks to an improbable plot with even more improbable twists and turns that gleefully compromised and undermined the book.

The story is narrated in the first person by Mnemosyne or Memory, the main protagonist, an albino born some years before Zimbabwe’s independence (in what was then Rhodesia) to loving parents (well, the mother, not so loving). Memory is inexplicably sold, at age nine, to a white man, Lloyd Hendricks and moves from the poor Mufakose Township to live with him in the wealthy and spacious upper class estates of Umwinsidale. This dislocation from childhood to adulthood sets up class clashes on several levels and she finally ends up on death row accused of murder. It is an improbable plot made even more farcical by twists and turns many of them seemingly designed to keep the story going. The story goes on and on and fills a book, broken up into three parts. The book should have stopped at the first part. One gets the sense that Gappah spent many harried hours with her editor, haggling and fighting over how to get all of this into a book, as if by hook or by crook, a book contract had to be fulfilled. Well, they did get their book.

gappahbookDo not get me wrong: There is plenty to like about the book and there are many excellent reasons why you should read this book despite its flaws. Gappah writes some of the most beautiful prose that any reader will ever come across, turns of phrases sneaking up on you and delighting the senses. A disciplined writer, she spends time with every sentence, it is difficult to fault anything she writes (there were a few editorial issues but my copy was an advance review copy). Many aspects of the book benefited from exquisite research; when the book was good, it was like watching history come alive in black and white (Rhodesia) and in full color (Zimbabwe). Reading many sections of the book felt like flipping through the pages of a photo album lovingly put together by a gifted artist who truly cares about her subjects:

My mother wears a white dress with big red poppies all over it. Around her waist is a cloth belt in the same material, and on her head a red hat with a white plastic flower on it. Her shoes and bag are white. My father is in a safari suit whose colour I can no longer remember. Or perhaps it wasn’t a safari suit at all that he wore, and I have only put him in one because it is what all the men wore in those days. His hair shines with Brylcreem. (p 1)

The Book of Memory is a treatise about exile; prison, and the sale of a child and the resulting dislocation as metaphors for exile and longing. It is about the pain of stigma seen through prison and albinism. There is homophobia, mental illness, and marital violence – by a woman directed at the man and the children. Zimbabwe comes alive, Gappah knows her ancestral land. The book fills the soul with tender memories of the strong and sometimes dysfunctional bonds of the clan and community, of a dad, a gentle soul who upends the chic stereotype about African men as bumbling, drunken misogynists, a dad who dotes on his wife and kids, a dad who works from home, to take care of his kids and wife and who endures marital abuse with grace and calm. This is the work of a well-read, well-traveled and eclectic mind. Intimidating is the breadth and depth of her imagination. You can taste the townships in song and dance and want to eat at a certain restaurant called Zupco:

You will discover as you walk around the city that it was planned to keep the direct heat of the sun away from the faces of white people. In the mornings, they left the northern suburbs to go into town to work, and the sun was behind them, and in the evenings, when they went back home, the sun was behind them still. The streets of the northern suburbs are lined with avenues of jacarandas and flamboyant that give cooling shade. But in the townships, the sun is always in the faces of the people. And there are no tree-lined avenues, no cool grass beneath the feet, only the hard heat of the dusty streets. (p 38)

In many instances in the book, Gappah displays an amazing dexterity with words; she can arrange simple words in sentences that make you really think about the way things are. She offers the best analysis of the African condition that I have ever read and puts to shame those who hurl the word “poverty” at Africans:

We were poor without knowing it. There was nothing ennobling or romantic or life-affirming about our poverty. It just was. And you could say that we did not know just how poor we were because everyone else around us was the same. We accepted the simple order of our lives in the ignorance that other, richer lives were possible. (P 39-40)

I can see this book in the hands of a gifted scriptwriter and superb editor becoming a stirring movie about Zimbabwe’s numerous triumphs and challenges. Sadly, that would require a lot of work pruning the filler weeds from this inchoate production but it can be done.

There is the trademark superciliousness of the African writer, exaggerated by the fact that the narration is in the first person, lending the protagonist a superior all-knowing haughty air. The superciliousness is aimed squarely and gleefully at the white settlers whose ways are caricatured mercilessly as leading soulless lives but it is also turned inwards at the narcissism and self-serving agenda of African intellectuals and artists:

His career has risen with our country’s collapse. His paintings are different from the realist paintings that he said he wanted to paint. It is all tortured faces and screaming mouths now, slashed genitals and dismembered breasts, ‘Evocative images of his tortured homeland,’ as the reviewers have you believe.

His painting speaks truths that the government wants to hide, it is said. He is the artist exiled from his homeland because his work shows a reality before which the government flinches.

None of it is true, but who cares for truth when there is a troubled homeland and tortured artists to flee from it? The more prosaic truth is that he did not flee, but rather left on the arm of his German girlfriend, on a ticket bought with Deutschmarks, and that, having gone to Germany, he got himself a nice new passport before he traded her in for someone richer. (p 178)

The Book of Memory features a brief but brilliant take-down of the shakedown that passes for many NGOs in much of Africa and Haiti. There is also an incursion into Zimbabwe spirituality juxtaposed with Western spirituality. The subject of albinism got a good treatment here, it is not overblown, over-the-top, but respectful. In treating Memory as a human being dealing with biological issues due to her albinism as well as societal prejudices, Gappah humanizes albinism and effectively educates the reader about the subject. This book houses robust discourses on race, misogyny, and class (in this regard, juxtaposing Memory’s life with her parents with life with her white owner was masterful). As a delightful side benefit, many readers will be surprised by Africa’s love affair with the radio and country music:

My mother… liked the more mournful music of Jim Reeves and Dolly Parton and Porter Wagner and Kenny Rogers, particularly the songs that were also stories.” (p 93)

It bears repeating: The Book of Memory is not a perfect book. The book’s chapters sometimes seemed like passive-aggressive members of a dysfunctional family; as if Gappah wrote the chapters independently of each other, like failed short stories. A character or two appear out of the blue as it they’d been previously introduced in the book, the forensics research was poorly done and the construction of the death scene stretched credulity. Readers who remember the playfulness and unrestrained defiant abandon of Gappah’s Elegy for Easterly will be quite disappointed by the tentativeness of The Book of Memory. The humor is there no doubt:

She is in prison for biting the penis off a man who refused to pay her after sex at a nightclub. ‘Prostitute Bites Man’s Privates’ is a frequent enough headline in the papers to make it a common-place occurrence, but Jimmy’s attack was so ferocious that her victim fainted from blood loss. When he recovered, it was to find that Jimmy had fled to the women’s toilets, where she spat out an essential part of him into Harare’s sewers. (p 22)

Sadly, the humor is shy, unsure of itself, never letting go of the hem of self-doubt. At its best, the reader’s face cracks into a smile, and stops. There is little room for mirth, this is a restrained book, too restrained. It is as if the Petina Gappah we know was held hostage by an army of humorless editors:

The bulk of this book happens inside a prison, thankfully, it almost liberates the book. Gappah knows the prison culture and it shows. This is an exquisitely researched book about life inside a female prison. The scenes are convincing, the characters well developed and the riotous sorority of prisoners and jailers, soul stirring. Whenever the book strayed out of prison I would pine for the cells where brave but flawed women spoke defiantly of the injustices that landed them in the unjust arms of a semi-blind and prejudiced judicial system.

gappah2pic

The Book of Memory continues a conversation about (the English) language and the stories of Africa, what gets lost and what gets mangled in the translation. It is a book written with immense pride, there is little attempt to explain indigenous Shona terms. Gappah takes the conversation one step further by simply writing entire songs and sentences in Shona with absolutely no explanation. This would not be a problem if one could easily google them and get translations. Google does explain terms like Voetkek to the world, and Zimbabwe’s history becomes accessible. One learns from instance that there was a cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe’s prisons in 2008 thanks to Gappah’s delightful penchant for weaving history into the folds of fiction. The reader however soon tires and curiosity grows into frustration as Shona songs and terms are too obscure for Google to translate or explain. In the confrontation between Shona and the English language, Shona loses.

The Book of Memory is like an airplane, roused, it rumbles, grumbles and growls, then starts a slow ride that rises into a flight – and then comes down crashing in a slow burn. Out of the smoldering rubble, the reader sees islands of spectacular brilliance connected by long stretches of drudgery and monotony. Memory, the protagonist reminds the reader of Ikemefuna, that tragic figure in Chinua Achebe’s epic Things Fall Apart: “That boy calls you father. Do not bear a hand in his death,” the elder Ezeudu warned Okonkwo. This reader felt like advising Gappah, “That girl loves her family. Do not sell her off, it makes no sense, it will kill your novel.”

 

Elnathan’s song: Born into a war on a boiling Tuesday

“Let your women study,’ Sheikh said, ‘and let them vote. Let them learn how to read. The wives of Christians read and write and our wives cannot even read the Quran. There is no sin if a man accompanies his wives to go and queue up to register or to vote.”

– Born on a Tuesday, Elnathan John p116

The writer Elnathan John is something of a celebrity renegade in the African literary scene. He rules the waves on social media, this eccentric and eclectic Twitter Overlord who sits perched on an imaginary throne, dispensing carefully crafted snarky but profound tweets that throb and seethe with controlled rage and truth, tweets that often develop lives of their own in the re-tweeting and re-telling, as they utilize the magic of the multiplier effect to replicate and go viral in infinite directions. Elnathan could probably make a nice living by allowing ads on his Twitter site; he has the kinds of followers that make him an opinion – and possibly brand leader.

Elnathan is probably not well known in Western literary circles where the keepers of the gates of African literature live, but it has not been without trying. He has been shortlisted twice for the prestigious Caine Prize; in 2013 for his short story Bayan Layi, and in 2015 for Flying. He is yet to win the prize. I almost expect him to be back on the shortlist in 2016, he is quietly relentless. Elnathan can also be quite controversial, he seems to court and relish the drama of being the center of literary and social media attention. His spat with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is well chronicled here. Here is a television interview of Elnathan that gives further insights into the numerous demons that drive his creativity.

elnathanprofileSo, Elnathan has a new book out, Born on a Tuesday, published by Cassava Republic Publishing Press. It is just the case that even as the world is changing few writers feel accomplished without writing a book. This is interesting because it is not as if Elnathan needs a book to establish his cred as a writer. He is easily one of the most important writers to come out of Africa in the 21st century and the world has the gift of the Internet to hold responsible for his restless presence in readers’ daily lives. It is a sign of the changing times that he is his own publisher, on social media and on his blog, spewing forth thought provoking material laden with sardonic humor without the permission of avuncular gatekeepers.

It is the truth: Few African writers feel accomplished without being published by a publisher in the West. There they have all the tools that a writer needs and they also have access to a willing paying audience. There seems to be a movement to change that, thanks to a new crop of writers like Elnathan (most of them living inside Africa) willing to work with publishers on their own terms. Rather than endure the clinical editing of Western publishers, they are turning to African publishers. This is a leap of faith and a gamble, for many African publishers are pretend publishing outfits, giant stapling guns with a lot of heart but little to offer writers. However, having just read Saah Millimono’s Love Interrupted published by Kenya-based Kwani Trust and now Elnathan’s Born on a Tuesday, published by Cassava Republic, it is my fervent wish that I am not forced to eat my words. Like Love Interrupted, I was impressed by the quality of print and editing of Born on a Tuesday. I looked hard but I could not find a single typo or sentence that was out of place in that book. This book can compete with any book published outside Africa. The book said to me, “My writer and publisher are serious people.” That is so refreshing and I sincerely hope that this is an upward trend for African publishing. Kudos to the people behind Cassava Republic.

Yes, I read Born on a Tuesday. And I liked it. I was taken by this little book that took me places in Nigeria and in the heart that I did not know existed. There should be a special place in hell for those who think Africa is one large country. This book confronts prejudices and ignorance about a large swath of Nigeria and then suddenly the reader understands why Elnathan would look the world in the eye and insist on writing what he refers to on social media as his own reality. This time I agree with Elnathan, Born on a Tuesday is not poverty porn, but a serious exploration and analysis of a very important part of Nigeria. In the process, Elnathan makes a powerful case: His life’s journeys are far removed from those of the average Southern reader and writer. In that respect, alone, this is an incredibly important book, one that needed to be written despite the risk that it would be put under the category of poverty porn. There is another sense in which Born on a Tuesday is an important book; it joins a robust body of literary works that are now shaping an intellectual dichotomy between Diaspora writing and writing from within the continent. That alone is enough to keep several PhD candidates busy.

Born on a tuesdayIn Born on a Tuesday Elnathan wraps several issues around a simple plot: The protagonist, a boy Ahmad Dantala leaves home to attend a Muslim school far away from his parents. Through this simple act of dislocation, the reader is taken through a bloody roller-coaster of emotions and violence in Northern Nigeria as life becomes a theater of war for this boy and he is forced to live in strange places and be mentored by even stranger people.

It is easy to fall in love with Dantala, this inquisitive kid, this autodidact who knows Hausa and Arabic and in between the spaces of his anxieties studies English with great success. Spoiler alert: This is a very graphic novel and if you don’t have the stomach for blood and other bodily fluids, this book is not for you. It is a book of unspeakable sadness. Grief is a leaden blanket that almost overcomes. Fleeing darkness, Dantala moves from place to place mentor to mentor and repeatedly suffers heartbreak of the bone crushing kind. He is almost clinical and detached in narrating the child abuse that is his daily lot. He says matter-of-factly in that voice that haunts and hurts the soul, “I have never memorized anything without a whip in front of me.” Your heart goes out to the voice, the narrator.

Dantala’s voice is the terrified voice of a boy who has seen too much. Somebody’s hand is chopped off for stealing meat, women are beaten savagely by cruel men for the sin of being married to them and children grow up to learn that cruelty is normal. The book reads like a movie from hell. I can see this as a movie actually. Yes, there is unspeakable cruelty in the form of torture; human beings are slaughtered like mere goats. At some point, the violence becomes monotonous and meaningless and the reader asks, “What is the purpose of all this?”

There is purpose and beauty in this book. It does help that the book is immensely readable with beautiful unpretentious prose that keeps you wondering what will happen next. Born on a Tuesday is pretty prose-poetry rolling past the eyes, lovely words conjured by an artist filled with a quiet self-confidence. There is nothing to prove here, Elnathan can write. Born on a Tuesday is a well-paced book, sometimes, the reader’s heart races as the book teases the senses. In a sense the book is almost prophetic. Nigeria seethes, held hostage by ignorance and arrogance, people will not be bothered about history because history is no longer being taught in Nigeria’s classrooms. Boko Haram is on a rampage, the politicians of old are here draped in new agbada and ancient ideas and Biafra is back into our consciousness roaring on the dysfunctional backs of philistines with a mission.

Is that not how they told us that, during the Civil War, the same man who was pushing the Nyamirai to attack Nigeria jumped on a plane and ran away when he saw that his people were defeated? People never learn. p228

There is anger in the land because, as the book demonstrates, the people do not remember. Actually you don’t remember what you don’t know. This book teaches you about these things, so you will never forget. This book should be taught in the classrooms, it packs so much in, it would make a great text for instruction in literature, politics and (the ethics) of organized religion. This is a book about war and living and loving. It is deceptive in how it reads like a simple story in the beginning but soon gets serious and almost tedious towards the end. It is stunning how much Elnathan packs into this one story. I would like to see this book paired with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s epic, Half of a Yellow Sun as instructional text in graduate studies. I would take that course in a heartbeat.

There is compassion and the humanity shines through. Elnathan displays a good grasp of Islam and its attendant culture and educates the reader with great discipline and patience. The reader learns many things; do you know kosai is akara? To my great delight, Elnathan did not bother giving helpful explanations and footnotes – I had to google unfamiliar Nigerian terms like Dambe and tozali. And I found out that koko is also akamu.

Born on a Tuesday makes the case that in Nigeria, many dysfunctions have rushed into the huge vacuum left by a rank failure of leadership. Citizens, rich and poor are thus terrorized as they try to survive in a state in which structures and institutions have been compromised by graft and incompetence. There is politics featuring violent political rivalry. Between the Small Party and the Big Party. There is anti-Semitism, the alert reader learns about sects, divisions and anxieties within the Muslim community in Nigeria. The reader learns about the evil of scammer-NGOs fleecing donors. Google Dan daudu. And there is bigotry:

A Yoruba man is a Yoruba man. No matter how Muslim they become. They stab you in the back. That is how they are. Hypocrites.  p121

Elnathan displays courage in his quiet but in your face, matter-of-fact narration of things many would rather not talk about. It is a time of discovery among boys and girls struggling through adolescence and taboo issues like masturbation and homosexuality; two boys engage in gay sex and the resulting guilt and confusion feels like mourning:

Malam Junaidu said it was a sin fasting could not cleanse. I had heard of men being together, read many hadiths about sodomy, but I had never seen it with my own eyes. I wondered what they did before I came and how they did it. When I imagined how painful it was sometimes to shit in the toilet, especially when I ate a lot of bread, I wondered if Bilal didn’t feel pain allowing Abdulkareem’s penis inside him. I thought of the hadith that said that the earth trembles whenever there is an act of sodomy and wondered how many times they had done it and if I ever felt the earth tremble. It made me feel nauseated when I thought of it—Abdulkareem touching Bilal, Bilal bending over—how they could prefer themselves to girls?

Born on a Tuesday is quietly funny, brimming with sardonic humor. My favorite chapter is the one named My Words, in the protagonist’s hand writing. That chapter alone is worth the price of the book. It is perhaps the most creative thing I have seen from a writer in a long time. It is so cute and adorable you fall in love with the protagonist, Dantala. It is as if he is walking around in a drugged, poetic daze amused, if not bemused by an ever-changing dispensation that stays new and unknowable:

I walk past the ward where they say the oldest patient in the hospital is. Everyone says he has been here for many years. Sometimes he goes unconscious for months and just when they think he might not make it, he wakes up. Only Allah knows what type of sickness that is that makes a man go to sleep for months. p121

Sometimes I wish I knew why Allah does His things. Why He lets good people get shot and bad people get all the glory; why He lets bad people have such gifts like the power to move crowds and convince people and make grown men cry. It is His earth. p128

I am happy that I know the difference of piece of paper and sheet of paper. It use to worry me. But now I know piece of paper is paper that is not complete that somebody tear to write something and sheet of paper is a full paper that is complete. p134

In Dantala’s world, we find pockets of wealth lying side by side with a culture of poverty and misery marinated in a sea of organized religion. It is a society that is deeply dysfunctional and violent even as its leaders preach peace. Dantala finds comfort in violence – and his religious fate. As if they are both linked. His religion takes him to a peaceful place but the road is strewn with violence. He is awed by raw wealth, power and education. It’s all about power:

The deputy governor has so many people around him. He has someone holding his bag, someone pulling out a chair for him, someone holding his phones and someone writing when he speaks. I wonder why one man needs so many people as if he were a cripple. Sheikh does not even let me carry his bag. p140

Born on a Tuesday opens Northern Nigeria to the world in a way that Cyprian Ekwensi’s Burning Grass did decades ago, albeit more intensely and with an edgy attitude. Also, as I reflected on the fate of the young Dantala and Aisha, his love interest in a time of war, I remembered Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s Weep Not Child, and the love of children in a time of Mau Mau and marauding colonialists.

Dantala is Elnathan’s Obierika of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the sensitive soul who thinks about these things. He is socially awkward but he asks interesting questions: “A bra is an interesting piece of clothing. I wonder who came up with the complicated idea.” And like Obierika he thinks about a lot of things and he struggles to understand the world or the war he was born into:

Malam Abdul-Nur opens with a long Arabic quotation from a book by Bakr ibn Abdullah Abu Zayd. He then translates it into Hausa and explains how Islamic societies were self-sufficient and pious and progressive. The Europeans, he explains, needing to conquer Muslim people, sought to start by conquering their culture through worthless and sinful education. He says that if the Europeans had come with guns and ships, it might have been easy to fend them off. But they came with liberal ideas and education to slowly eat at the root of Islamic civilisation and control. He calls the modern Islamic universities ‘so-called Islamic universities’ because they have adopted Western education. Then he takes a more direct hit at Sheikh by saying that the basis of the Nigerian government is kufr because democracy is ‘a disgusting, anti-Islamic, Western invention which seeks to introduce liberal ideas and kill Islamic values. p196

There is one reason you should read this book. Elnathan paid a lot of attention to character design and development and it shows beautifully. You will love the characters in the book, these are not stick figures, these are not caricatures; these are thinking people. Africa has thinking people. They even have books in their homes. Wow, what a concept. African writers would do well to read this book and see what it means to talk about a people without feeding the bigoted jaundiced views of an entire continent. By the way, if you are interested in having a taste of Born on a Tuesday, please read his short story, Bayan Layi, which earned him a place on the Caine Prize shortlist in 2013. It resurfaces as the first chapter of the book.

Finally, Born on a Tuesday is about purpose. What is the purpose of writing? What should writers be writing about in a world filled with anxieties and terror? Is it the writer’s burden to be the moral voice of those without voices? Elnathan has earned my respect and admiration. He and many other writers have stayed firmly rooted in the earth in Africa quietly telling their truths with every canvas available to them. This book screams to be taught in every classroom out there. In Elnathan’s fiction, there is history, that subject deleted from Nigeria’s classrooms. I would love to see this book read to millions of youngsters in the world. It is not just a good book, it is an important book. I love the new literary warriors, most of them writing from within the continent as opposed to Diaspora writers, writing with a new-found confidence, and unapologetically doing their thing. With this book, Elnathan joins that army of writers. In Born on a Tuesday, nothing indigenous like egusi is italicized, not much is needlessly explained. Like A. Igoni Barrett in his book, Blackass, Elnathan says, If you don’t understand it, Google it! I love it!

Essays from exile: The oporoko chronicles

for you Mrs. C!
Princess of  the Earl of Sandwich!
Your eyes are teasing me again…

I am hungry. Very hungry. And hunger drives my brain cells to a certain point of brilliance, that hell-nirvana that my adversaries, and quite a few friends, call stark raving, certified lunacy. And as always happens when hunger places my growling stomach under house arrest, I commence esoteric ruminations, thinking deeply profound thoughts, or as my detractors would say, hallucinating. I am wondering for instance, when will Chinua Achebe, the world’s greatest writer of all times, get the Nobel Prize for discovering the Internet? Achebe lives! Yes, when will that brooding god of the white man’s letters sue the United States Government for stealing his ideas about a world without boundaries? Achebe lives! It is a poorly kept secret that Chinua Achebe discovered the Internet but the white man took credit for it. Achebe lives!

The white man has what we in Africa would call chutzpah if we were Jewish. I can’t believe that the white man is claiming that he discovered the Internet. Hell, any dolt who has read Achebe’s legendary book Things Fall Apart will readily come to one incontrovertible conclusion: The Internet was a deep dark secret in Achebe’s fecund brain way before the CIA became three measly letters in Washington DC ’s bureaucratic alphabet soup. Alphabet soup! Sandwiches! Today is Monday! Yesterday was Sunday and on Friday, my lover cooked me a pot of fresh fish peppersoup and I forgot to eat it on Saturday because I hid it so well on Friday. I hid my lover’s peppersoup from my weekend friends, pretend food critics, interlopers whose job it is to fawn over my lover’s cooking while eating it all!nigerian-soup-ewedu-egusi

I am hungry. Very hungry. Where did I keep my lover’s peppersoup? I must be at that age when I must write down the exact location of all the good stuff that I have stashed away in all my hiding places. I know exactly what I have hidden from my friends, my children and my lover – assorted delicacies lovingly cooked for me by my lover, bars of ice cream, cookies, US dollars… But first I must remember the locations of all my hiding places. I tell you, the aging process is a humbling, if not humiliating experience. In the beginning of the beginning of the twilight of my life’s journey, I am wondering, what goes first after the flight of youth; sex or memory? It is a brilliant question, and I know the answer to the riddle. But first I must go fetch my answer from its hiding place. Along with my lover’s fresh fish peppersoup.

I am hungry. Very hungry. And profound thoughts come rushing at me like large Americans assaulting McDonalds’ at lunch time. I am thinking of lunch. White folks have sandwiches and they have recipes. Everything is calculated. My mother doesn’t do recipes. Never did. But man, she doled out pots of heavenly miracles from the bowels of that “kitchen” behind our compound. What passed for the kitchen of my childhood was severely allergic to things like measuring spoons and recipe books. My mother doesn’t do recipes. Never did. She cooked just like she lived her life; she made things up and it was a glorious mess. That delightfully chaotic tradition of making things up as life demands was passed on to my lover. For which I am immensely grateful. My lover doesn’t do recipes. Never did. Our kitchen in America does allow for fancy notions like measuring spoons, cutting boards and recipes. But my lover regards those notions er kitchen utensils as decorations. Show me a Nigerian woman who cooks egusi soup with a recipe and I’ll show you a white woman who garnishes her ogbono soup with carrots and cucumbers. No, my lover doesn’t do recipes, perish that thought. And like my mother’s cooking, my lover’s cooking reminds me every day that it would be sheer murder for her to divorce me.  If she deserts my sorry ass, who else will cook for me in the grand tradition of our ancestors?  I know this Nigerian dude who was embroiled in a bitter, nasty, divorce proceeding with his wife. He was willing to pay child support, alimony and all other forms of divorce ransom just to be free of his miserable marriage. Under one condition. He requested the court to grant him ogbono soup alimony from his wife. He made a strangely compelling case that his soon to be ex-wife had a moral, if not legal obligation to continue to provide him ogbono soup since he had become addicted to that sauce of gods. The judge granted him ogbono soup support on one condition – he had to provide his own pounded yam. He died a few months later of food poisoning. The ex-wife was never charged with murder – apparently the fool ate all the evidence before he died.

I am hungry. Very hungry. And I am thinking of the sandwich, that veritable substrate of multitaskers. I know now why the white man landed on the moon several moons before my people. It was all thanks to the sandwich. The white man discovered the sandwich. What has the sandwich got to do with the moon? I don’t know, I am hungry and hunger causes me to hallucinate. All I know is this: when the white man wanted to go to the moon, he created the sandwich. The sandwich fosters progress. You see, you can eat a sandwich and do other things at the same time, like drive, think, use the bathroom… Show me any Nigerian who landed on the moon after a meal of pounded yam and ogbono soup and I’ll show you someone suffering from the terminal stages of malaria. I can happily say that the Nigerian will never go to the moon. Because the pounded yam is like the jealous wife that our ancestors nicknamed “The Only One.” After a good meal, Americans like to indulge in a scrumptious dessert, like chocolate cake or ice cream. After a good meal of pounded yam, the only dessert you want between your lips is a toothpick. The pounded yam is delicious history posing as the present tense. The pounded yam was meant for farmers and warriors, not us, sedentary civil servants. We eat like farmers; we have no farms. But I love the pounded yam, nonetheless.

stockfis cod body-500x500It would be nice if our meals came in the form of sandwiches so we can get some serious work done and stuff our faces at the same time. But they do not. Who has ever heard of rice and stew sandwich? What would the bread be made of, scented banana leaves? Who would want to eat such a creation? Jeff, my American friend loves to drive his jalopy, eat a corned beef sandwich, play with his smartphone and talk to me while ogling scantily clad girls preening on the streets. All at the same time. Yet, he has had only four serious car accidents this year. Let me just observe that it would be extremely unwise to do anything else while attacking a mound of pounded yam and ogbono soup. Certainly not while driving. Indeed, the last Nigerian that tried to drive while eating pounded yam and ogbono soup did not live to repeat that foolishness. He died with his car wrapped around an Iroko tree. He died happy though. The dude died with a beautiful grin on his face, with a healthy ball of pounded yam coated in  egusi soup in each fist. Now, my people, that is how to die. After his death, his people went to the dibia, the wise man up the hills. And the dibia said that the fool deserved to die because he allowed his enemies to feed him pounded yam while driving his dilapidated Volkswagen Beetle on Nigeria’s death-traps euphemistically called roads.

I love ogbono soup, especially one stocked with chunks of smoked fish, tripe, ox-tail, cowfoot, snail and goat meat and stockfish. Panla! Oporoko! Stockfish!  Dried cod, aka stockfish comes from Norway and is compelling proof that the Norwegians are light-skinned descendants of our great country Nigeria. Stockfish has a distinct odor that some of its detractors have described with adjectives that are unfortunately unprintable. It is no secret that we Nigerians consume stockfish in great quantities. We normally cook it for a long time to soften it otherwise it would do great damage to your teeth. If you have teeth. I love stockfish, smell and all. It is an acquired taste, I must admit. And the smell, oh, the fragrance lingers on like a bad relationship and it clings to you all the way into corporate board rooms: Hear the white man ask “What is that interesting smell? Is that your cologne?”

I was in secondary school when the Nigerian Civil War ended. That war claimed a million people, thanks to the Western world’s generous insistence on supplying both sides with weapons of mass destruction. After the war, the West, eager to assuage its guilt in supervising a pogrom, embarked on a “rehabilitation” effort, a grand initiative which involved flooding us with bales of stockfish, bags of wheat and tons of powdered milk. I did not understand at the time why I was being “rehabilitated.” My side of Nigeria did not see a whole lot of that unfortunate war, but I was happy to humor white do-gooders by happily dining on tough strips of stockfish dried milk and “wheat” foo-foo. I quickly learnt that I had bad teeth plus I was lactose intolerant. I also found out that I could do a mean 100 yard sprint to the latrine after ingesting powdered milk. Every ten minutes. I should probably sue the white man for feeding me tubs of lactose intolerance. Except that the evidence is long gone down the latrines of my childhood.

As I was saying, it is impossible to do anything else after feasting on a mound of pounded yam. Well, anything else, except sleep. You have no doubt heard the story of the newly-wed Nigerian lady who complained to her mother that she was always physically exhausted because her husband was in the habit of demanding (and apparently getting) sex every night. Her mother assured her that if she fed her husband a mound of pounded yam every evening, the horny goat would go to sleep! It apparently worked because I can report that they are still happily married. Only in Nigeria. American women feign headaches to get out of having sex. Our women drug us to an impotent stupor with great balls of pounded yam!

I don’t take lunch to work. Well I did once. And the experience was a disaster. You see, I don’t care much for the sandwich. The whole concept of stuffing meat between slices of bread, I find quite fascinating. Not so our children. I can honestly say that our children are not Nigerians. I believe that my children were probably switched at birth; they have no genetic affinity for pounded yam. Instead they treat hamburgers and hotdogs with the reverence that I normally reserve for a bowl of piping hot rice and goat meat stew. Now, that is a meal! I wish it would come in a sandwich so I can get some work done in the office during my lunch break. My fellow workers come to work with their lunch boxes. They arrange their lunches in these cute little boxes like intricate art work – there is the sandwich, the potato chips, the carrots and the apple and sometimes the cookie (biscuit!). One day I brought my lunch to work in two Ovaltine tins. Ovaltine tins? Well, you are probably aware that the Nigerian is the world’s greatest recycler. Let me just say this: It is highly recommended that you do not assume that the ice cream container that resides in a Nigerian’s refrigerator houses ice cream. The jar container may have contained ice cream once upon a time but today, the real contents may be egusi, ogbono, peppersoup… I must be really hungry. Sigh!

Well, this one day, I took my lunch to work in two Ovaltine tins. One tin held my pounded yam and the other housed my ogbono soup. Man, my ogbono soup was chock full of strips of goat meat, smoked fish, stock fish, ox tail, cow foot, tripe, and snails the size of an elephant’s ear. Everything was fine in the office until I tried to microwave the ogbono soup. Someone in the office must have had major issues with the fragrance ensuing from my ogbono soup because that evil someone called the 911 emergency line. The ensuing fracas was a great theatrical production. You would have thought that terrorists were attacking America again. Specialized crisis teams swooped down on me and my ogbono soup; we are talking Hazardous Materials (HazMat) teams, fire trucks, ambulances, and grief counselors (some idiot apparently thought someone had died inside our office kitchenette). I would say more about this humiliating experience but my lawyers have asked me to refer all questions to them until the conclusion of a pending lawsuit where I am asking for a few hundred million dollars as compensation for the assault on my dignity. And I want my Ovaltine tin of ogbono soup back from the HazMat lab. Those assholes took my ogbono soup that houses my snails! It took a lot of ingenuity to smuggle those snails past Homeland Security at the airport.

So, acting on the advice of my lawyers, I don’t take lunch to work anymore. I do miss chomping on cow foot, ox tail and stockfish at lunch time. I don’t know what it is about the fragrance of stockfish that drives ordinarily reasonable Americans insane. I used to have an American room-mate, George Wallace, a quiet kid from rural Alabama; a kid used to chomping on chitterlings, the African-American cousin to ngwon-gwon that delectable dish of the gods that materializes from the offal of cows! Well, George Wallace was my room-mate until that fateful day when he walked in on me boiling stockfish. He walked out of my life in disgust, sputtering the sage words: “Damn! That shit stinks!” I love stockfish, but I won’t lie, that shit stinks! I know a highly revered Nigerian professor here in the United States who has banned the cooking of stockfish in his home. Apparently, his neighbors confronted him about a certain smell coming from his kitchen on certain evenings and accused him of trying to bring down the property value of their homes. One day, he overheard one of his neighbors thinking out aloud about calling Immigration on his illegal ass. So he stopped cooking stockfish and switched to eating sandwiches instead. Who wan die?egusi soup2

I am at work. I am hungry. I don’t want a sandwich. I remember; my lover is at home today! Today is her day off! There is a god! Suddenly a force jerks me up, hands me my car keys and my cellphone and shoves me out the door of my office. I am going home to eat! I wave my Blackberry at my colleagues, “I am going home for lunch! I’ll be right back! Call me on my cellphone if you need me! The brunette peers at me from the top of her horn-rimmed glasses like an all-knowing owl and her eyes tell me what she is thinking:

 “What is it with black men and sex? Can’t even wait to get home in the evening! Sheesh! Lawd have mercy! No wonder they never landed on the moon!”

I don’t care! I am going home to eat real food. Real food! Good sex! Who cares? Same difference!

My lover meets me at the door. She doesn’t seem too excited to see me!

  • Wetin you dey do for house? Why you nor call say you dey come house, abi dem don sack you again?
  • I dey hungry!
  • Dem nor get sandwich for una office?
  • I say I dey hungry!
  • Wetin u go chop!
  • Anything! Anything wen nor be sandwich!

I am hunched over heaping helpings of my lover’s cooking: fresh fish peppersoup, jollof rice, garnished with delectable strips of goat meat, tripe, ox tail, stockfish and snails the size of an elephant’s ears. Life is good. For one hour I am living an analog life in delightful defiance of the chaos of a digital world that was forced on us by thinkers like Chinua Achebe, people with over-sized brains. The delicacies of Africa soothe my stomach and dull my senses and I am now thinking rational albeit mundane thoughts. And I am thinking… What is all this about Chinua Achebe and the Internet? Did Philip Emeagwali really claim to be father of the Internet? Hmmmm! Did we pay our mortgage this month? What about last month?  My lover’s eyes hover over me, caring but anxious. She warns me about sauce dripping on to my white shirt. She worries, if I stain my shirt, I would have to change it and what would the amebos at work think – you went home to get “some” at lunch time! Who cares? My stomach just had sex! We are happy! Tell the amebos to go munch on a sandwich!

Epilogue – For Mamaput!

I wake up
deep in the bliss for the ignorant.
I pat my great stomach,
try to still the little lions
roaring away their message.

Lunch time!
Relax lions, I say
Your cage, my belle,
nor be sound proof!

Or do you insist on disgracing me
before these disinfected lords?
Well if you insist,
meet mama put, nomad,
hotel on ten toes,
magician-owner of a zillion hat tricks
that thrill the stomach’s heart.

Help me down, will you? she asks.
I love the smell of rice trapped in scented leaves.
And the bovine and Aquarian secrets
trapped in their own stews
are my delight!

Mama put
I hope all your particulars are correct,
I growl in mock cop style,
the style that warns molue driver
that particulars will never be correct
save that naira note
is completely lost
amidst the said particulars.
she replies in mock danfo driver fashion
resignation and hopelessness
all over her face.
I go try!

OK Mama put, put roun’about!
(that is the cow’s intestines for you)
put towel!
(tripe for you)

Put ponmo!
(that is the hide for you, very delicious!)
Mama put
your kidneys are too costly!
OK put one. One I say!
Abi na you go pay? What of your liver dem?
I hope dem nor rotten today?
Put one!

Cow leg? Cow’s legs, ke! Not today!
Tomorrow maybe. These legs are becoming too costly!
And besides they could be carcinogenic.
You know these cows certainly go places with those legs!

Mama put, how’s The Head of State today?
(that is the fish’s head for you, really delicious I tell you!)
Our Head of State dey, he’s fine, she replies coyly
OK just one!
Now, how much be my bill?
Three thousand Naira! Mamaput! You wan buy house
wit my money! Crook! Dreamer! Elemu!
Here’s your one thousand ojare!
If you don’t like my money give am to polis!

Notes:

The sandwich is a food item typically consisting of two slices of bread between which are laid one or more layers of meat, vegetable, cheese, or other fillings, together with optional or traditionally provided condiments, sauces, and other accompaniments. The sandwich was named after John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, an 18th-century English aristocrat, although it is unlikely to have been invented by him. It is said that Lord Sandwich was fond of this form of food because it allowed him to continue gambling while eating. The name of the earldom comes from that of the English village of Sandwich in Kent —from the Old English Sandwic, meaning “sand place”.

Source: Wikipedia.org, the free encyclopedia

 

[Guest Blog Post] Mike Ekunno: Foreign Gods, Inc. – Modern story of old conflicts

TITLE: Foreign Gods Inc.
AUTHOR: Okey Ndibe
PUBLISHER: Soho Press Inc.
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2014
PAGES: 332.

Foreign Gods Inc., Okey Ndibe’s second novel had its Nigerian release of sorts in December 2014, when its author had readings in Nigeria. The period coincided with a spike in the book’s ratings as it made many Best Books of 2014 lists. Now is therefore as germane a time as any other time to take a look at what the novel offers and l did that in the Christmas holiday ambience of Eastern Nigeria where much of the story is set.

foreign godsThe novel is about lke Uzondu’s scheme to steal the figurine of Ngene, his village, Utonki’s once powerful war deity and sell to a New York gallery from which the book derives its title. A degree-holder cab driver who had been serially scorned by American employers on account of his “accent”, Ike has fallen on hard times and the exotic heist appears just about perfect for a bail out. What would have acted as a moral fetter to the theft had been removed by the deity’s redundancy since “the pacification of Africa” by the colonialists. Ike arrives home ostensibly to visit with his widowed and long-neglected mother. He steps into the triangular entanglements woven by the clashes of the African traditional religion of his uncle, Osuakwu, the new Pentecostal faith of his mother and sister and the old orthodox faith he left behind. His proseletising nuclear family has made a switch to the venal brand of Pentecostalism which brainwashes lke’s plain mother into enmity with his idol-worshipping uncle and grandmother. The returnee lke brimming with American iconoclasm will have none of the old wife’s tale of witchcraft and is bent on fraternising with his uncle and granny. He visits Osuakwu at the shrine and partakes in the ceaseless flow of drinking and banter all the while eyeing his quarry. The night before his departure, he strikes and steals the sculpture of the deity but an unexpected hurdle awaits back in the US.

Foreign Gods is acknowledged as a heist story. But the heist only provides the narrative canvas against which Ndibe weaves a rich tapestry with spurs to immigrant identity crises, Nigerian corruption, Christian ideological differences with African traditional religion and the mercenary arm of Nigerian Pentecostalism. Like most heist stories, the reader wonders at what point the scheme will come unstuck. This forms the bait under-girding the narrative suspense and sustaining the reader’s interest. Reading Foreign Gods, you wonder whether Ike can pull off the heist successfully or there’d be a snafu. The latter has half a dozen means that could bring it about. Funding the trip is one. The deity fighting off the venal adventure is another. And then there could be other hurdles ranging from the Department of Customs’ sentinel for antiquities to the gallery developing cold feet. With other deities going for six figures at the New York gallery, the expected windfall is sufficient aphrodisiac for lke to brave these real and imagined obstacles. The author is able to bait the reader successfully till the end of the story. This is more than can be said for many Nigerian novelists who write as if they have recused their art from global standards of good story telling. Being suspenseful is not the work’s only plus. It tells a straightforward tale with a dominant protagonist who we follow without the distraction of too many sub plots, flashbacks and flash forwards. The main flashback to Rev. Stanton’s pioneer missionary work in Utonki is masterfully handled and made integral to the narrative mainstream. This contributes to the book’s uncomplicated enjoyment.

Stylistically, Foreign Gods is a reader’s delight once allowance is made for its grandiose diction. The author just manages to skirt the boundaries of bombast with his regular recourse to second degree synonyms. Given Ndibe’s pedigree in creative non-fiction, this is to be expected. It should have fallen to his editors to step down some of the diction and syntax to fiction’s mellow precincts. On pg. 271 we read: “Yet, his uncle was not only much older, he was also a man of meager musculature.” On pg. 295: “A sally of stench hit Ike’s nostrils the moment he opened the door to his apartment. It left a ghoulish impression, reminded him of feculent silt.” But it is not all bombast. Ndibe’s prose sings through the novel. On pg. 15:“Ahead, a long line of cars shat a smashed omelet of red brake lights.” And on pg. 146: “Why had he allowed his mother to drag him out to this shabby, ramshackle establishment and to peddle him to a lineup of women driven to insane distraction by dreams of American matrimony and dollars?”

For an African writer, the book is sparse on metaphors but in the dialogue at its Nigerian setting, we see a lot of the inventiveness associated with reporting non-traditional English speakers. A previous recriminatory critique of the novel by Isaac Attah Ogezi had matched a lot of Ndibe’s translated Igbo dialogues to Achebe’s masterful transliterations. This will be addressed at the end of this review. For now, it suffices to observe that the concern of the author, an acclaimed wordsmith in his own right, with grammatical propriety or lack thereof in his characters shows forth in the portrayals of the grammatical inadequacies of Pastor Uka and Chief Iba, the local government chairman in Utonki. This is a subtle sign of authorial intrusion as Ndibe tars those characters he wishes to villainise first with bad English. Foreign Gods’ nay Ndibe’s villains invariably speak bad English. If not, Chief Iba’s grammatical deficiencies would beggar credulity for a man who passed through secondary school as Ike’s classmate. This is aside the unlikelihood of two Igbo pals chatting in English Language in their village homes. Also, whatever may be said for Pentecostal preachers, bad grammar is surely one of their least deficiencies. These Ndibe’s detours to social commentary will be fully examined under message. While yet on style, Foreign Gods’ obvious Americanese is not necessarily wrong as it shows consistency in this throughout the book. However when viewed through a strictly Naija-centric prism, this becomes an issue since the default mode in our educational system and publishing house styles is the UK English. But nobody can blame Ndibe for America’s muscle in a uni-polar world which obtrudes every one of Uncle Sam’s ways including spellings into our daily lives. However young and uncritical Nigerian readers are bound to get their spellings mixed up with this insidious American linguistic flotilla. If the book gets away with its obvious Americanese, it cannot escape its Nigerianese. Standing fan/mirror are erroneously used instead of stand fan/mirror (see pp. 44, 95, 260.). Also zinc-roofed is used instead of corrugated iron sheet roofing (See pp.90, 275.).

okeygoodMessage-wise, Foreign Gods is, maybe, the fictional extension of its author’s well-known pet peeves. Ndibe is perhaps, Nigeria’s most polemical op-ed writer. His tirades against an underwhelming Nigerian state are well known. It would be inconceivable for such a person to pen fiction in which his real life concerns were not reflected. There’s yet no universal consensus around fiction’s role, even duty, to purvey a message but even art for art’s sake is a message on its own. It is how the message is mediated in a work of art that separates the amateur from the virtuoso. Ndibe does not spare the corrupt Nigerian system in Foreign Gods. Ike’s home coming to pilfer Ngene provides the perfect setting for the reader to experience Nigeria through the protagonist. And Ndibe did not disappoint. Corruption is what welcomes every visitor to Nigeria right from the airport and Ndibe emblazons this in both Ike’s arrival and departure. The customs and immigrations desks brazenly ask for bribes and display mannerlessness. However, the salient aspect of bribery serving as penalty for criminal infraction may have been unwittingly portrayed in Ike’s importation of commercial quantity gift items and seeking to export a piece of antiquity without license. Both are offenses under the law but instead of having the law take its course, its human agents in Nigeria privatise the criminal justice system. The fact that Ike was committing an offence but nonetheless feeling sanctimonious towards bribe-taking officials, is perhaps, one of the ironies of Nigeria’s corruption conundrum. The privatisation of punishment through bribe collection may therefore not be altogether misplaced in so far as it acts as marginal disincentive to crime. But the economic importance of bribery can wait for another forum. However, the same thinly-veiled social commentary on demerits without a thought spared for merits is discernible in the characterisation of Pastor Uka, the Pentecostal pastor, without any redeeming feature. Without going outside to purloin positive roles of Pentecostal ministries, is it not within the possibility threshold of the novel’s plot to imagine that Pastor Uka could have played some good roles in giving Ike’s mother some emotional stilts to make meaning of her miserable existence? In any case, not being imbeciles, she and the other proselytes to the new sect were fully compos mentisin respect of value judgements about their old Roman Catholicism and mercenary Pentecostalism. Another school of thought may hold that Ike has little moral grounds to despise a religious community that had provided a support system (for whatever it is worth) around his hapless mother while he made out with American gold-digging vixens. Again this channels the pot-calling-kettle-black conundrum of Ike’s airport experiences with the Customs.

No review of Foreign Gods can afford to overlook Isaac Attah Ogezi’s critique. In his deceptively-titled: “On the Fringes of Existence: the Immigrant Question in Ndibe’s Foreign Gods Inc.”,Ogezi went to great lengths to show similarities in phraseology and use of adages between passages in Foreign Gods and Chinua Achebe’s works. Ndibe in his riposte dismissed Ogezi’s critique as “jejune” saying that most of the expressions belong to the public domain in the lgbo comity of adages and expressions. After reading the novel, neither accuser nor accused would be totally wrong. While nobody can accuse Ndibe of plagiarism, what may be at issue here is a case of literary conduction with Achebe. This is the literary equivalent of the phenomenon in Physics whereby a piece of iron develops magnetism after being stroked in the magnetic field of a magnet. Ndibe enjoyed mental and physical affinity with the late literary icon and it is not inconceivable that the mentor spat into the protégé’s pen’s mouth, to paraphrase another Igbo expression. Plagiarism that is not of exact words can be tricky as thoughts cannot be plagiarised. Also proverbs, adages and sayings come in standard forms but when translating to English, differences should be noticed between an earlier work and a later one. Achebe’s classic trilogy has almost entered public domain status and many African writers unconsciously write like him. But nobody should give the impression that all there are to the smorgasbord of Igbo colloquialisms don’t go beyond:“am l speaking with water in my mouth” and “slapping thunder into one’s eyes”.

Mike Ekunno is a freelance book editor and creative writer. Mike writes fiction for fun and creative non fiction for rage. Only search engines have called him a poet which elicits a smirk from him. His writings have berthed in The Transnational, The Hamilton Stone Review, The African Roar Anthology 2013, Warscapes, bioStories, BRICKrhetoric, Dark Matter Journal, Cigale Literary Magazine, Thrice Fiction Magazine, Middle Gray Magazine, Miracle e-zine, Sentinel Literary Quarterly, Ascent Aspirations Magazine, The Muse, Bullet Pen and Storymoja, the last two coming with wins in continent-wide contests. He enjoys Old Testament stories when not reading creatively or writing

Naijanet, Wole Soyinka, The Gang of Four, Goebbels and the Reprobate!

The Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, like many revered thinkers is rightly worried about the declining reading culture in the 21st century and is concerned that the Internet is contributing to this dysfunction.  Soyinka is worried that relying primarily on the Internet would spell doom for books.  He raises legitimate issues that deserve to be explored in great depth. However, Soyinka is famously reticent about the Internet and the communities it has spawned. The records show that these communities have not always been kind to him. He talks about his experience with individuals and groups, some of which spilled into online forums like Naijanet in his memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn (see my review here).

Naijanet? Well, Nigerians have formed online communities for a long time. In the early nineties, if you had any connection with an institution of higher learning or a multinational corporation, you had access to an email account. They were initially difficult to use but gradually email readers came along, as well as the precursors of the web. Naijanet, a mailing list or “list-serve”, founded in in the early 90’s was the premier online watering hole for Nigerians at the time. Out of Naijanet came other list-serves created to meet a real or perceived need absent in Naijanet.

Naijanet was a vibrant market among academicians and professionals in the Diaspora, and a hotbed of political activism – for and against Sani Abacha’s regime. Many activists were recruited on Naijanet by either side. It became a means of communication and of rallying the troops during the prodemocracy struggle in the 90’s as Nigerians sought to topple the dictator Sani Abacha. Those were heady days. When we needed to attend a rally, we used email. When we needed to raise money, we used email. When someone died we wrote some very heartfelt and (yes, pretty bad poetry) to manage our grief. My second daughter was born on July 4, 1995. We did an e-naming ceremony for her on Naijanet and we christened her Ominira (Yoruba for freedom). We raised quite a bit of money for the cause and for things like awareness campaigns to eradicate spinal meningitis. It is a big shame that these things have not been documented anywhere, however some of these activities are in the archives at Googlegroups.

soyinkaAs far as I know, Soyinka was never a member of Naijanet himself. He clearly monitored our activities as they pertained to the prodemocracy movement. A tidbit involving Soyinka and Naijanet: In 1994, there was a young doctoral student at the University of Connecticut, Storrs (UConn). His name was Ganiyu Jaiyeola. He had a rabid contempt for MKO Abiola and was wary of Soyinka’s prodemocracy credentials. That year, UConn decided to give an award to MKO Abiola. Ganiyu wrote to his university denouncing MKO and demanded that UConn withdraw the honor. When that news got to Naijanet, there was an unspeakable uproar. Most people wanted Ganiyu’s head (he was a Naijanetter). UConn was deluged by angry phone calls from netters. Many members of Naijanet signed a petition objecting to Ganiyu’s letter and requesting that MKO be honored by UConn.

Here is the petition to Uconn. The petition, circulated online and signed by exactly 50 people from many countries abroad, no mean feat in those days, was perhaps the first naija e-petition ever. In 1994. Many of us loathed Ganiyu but from the benefit of hindsight, he was not a bad guy; he simply believed that those of us who were against  the annulment of democracy (on June 12, 1993) were thieves, phonies, carpet baggers, interlopers, etc. (insert your favorite abusive term). Many of us did not particularly care for MKO; this starry-eyed idealist simply felt at the time that for me, June 12 was the end of the shifting of the goal posts by the military. The battle grew ferocious; both sides trying to do each other in terms of the degree of abuse hurled at opponents.

Enter Soyinka. Sometime in 1995, Ganiyu decided to compile a thick unflattering dossier on Soyinka and he proceeded to distribute this dossier to the US State Department and the civil rights activist Randall Robinson who was dead-set on ending Abacha’s reign of terror. Ganiyu was a temperamental and energetic fellow and fiercely independent; whatever he set his sights on, he went after. When Soyinka got wind of Ganiyu’s activities, he became incensed and wrote a long letter excoriating Ganiyu. People close to Soyinka managed to convince him not to  mention Ganiyu by name in his missive. Ganiyu Jaiyeola’s name was replaced with the term “Reprobate.” Ganiyu loved the attention and declared that indeed he was the one that the Laureate was referring to. From that day on, the term “Reprobate” stuck on Ganiyu.

The letter, written in May 1995, begins like this and shows the beginning of Soyinka’s enduring ambivalence about the Internet:

I am an intruder, not being a NAIJANET subscriber. I don’t even know how these networks operate and, from this first, albeit indirect, encounter with this discussion and information exchange, I think it is something over extended people like myself should avoid, if only to conserve precious time and necessary equilibrium for a positive contribution to real issues. My intervention (this once only, I hope) is quite fortuitous.

A thick dossier accompanying a letter to Mr. Randall Robinson, Director of TRANSAFRICA, has just provided my first contact with NAIJANET, to which reference was made in the letter, and of which I have heard some remarks in the past. It is apparently the product of a student which is what I find singularly shocking. From the mercenaries and propaganda machinery of General Sani Abacha, one would consider this as routine, but what has a serious minded student got to do with such venal proceeding ? Opinions, even where debatable, and analysis, even where faulty, are the legitimate province of the student, but what place has a deliberate concoction of falsehood got in a student’s mind ?

I read this tract with dismay, albeit, ironically, with some illumination. I had been encountering, in recent times, some sturdily held distortions of the truth of events in Nigeria in astute minds which would normally discountenance the predictable lies of government functionaries. Coming from supposed students or independent professionals, who are trained to respect facts, however, I begin to understand why such blatant lies actually obtain a hold in their thinking. NAIJANET obviously has some perverse entities in its midst and, considering the crisis of our times, I feel that I must use this instance to affirm their self exposure to members of NAIJANET and their correspondents.

You may read the rest of Soyinka’s letter here.

Enter Jude Uzonwanne, a 22- or so year old. Somehow Jude had gotten close to Soyinka. He is mentioned as one of the Gang of Four in Soyinka’s book, You Must Set Forth at Dawn. Jude suffered immensely from his youth and he was not exactly the most principled of fellows. Things were getting decidedly dangerous online and on the ground and another netter Mukhtar Dan’Iyan, aka @MrAyeDee on Twitter  (mentioned in the book, please read this blog post in which in which I excerpted the pertinent passage) decided to stage a sting. He created a fake email address purporting to be trolling for recruits on behalf of the dictator General Sani Abacha. Jude fell for this bait and sent in a long resume of his and an equally long rambling essay on how General Abacha might use certain tools of propaganda to keep the masses down. His application started like this:

I would like to become a member of your organization. After carefully evaluating the current difficulties facing the Abacha Administration, I have decided that it… is in Nigeria’s National Security interest to cooperate with the current administration. After careful thought, I believe I should bring to bear, what my professors describe as my “prodigious intellect.” If accepted, I would bring to the organization my considerable talents; as an Honors Economics and History candidate, a World Bank Project research assistant, and a member of my university’s Board of Managers, I think I am well placed to understand the philosophical strains that propel behavior in the West. I think I can help the FGN reconstruct her rather battered image. It will be a tough task, but if certain tactical steps are taken, I believe we can achieve the same level of respectability that General Pinochet of Chile achieved between 1979 – 88. Also, if we are more respectful to the incisive powers of economic rationalization of human behavior, I think General Abacha’s Government can be in power as long as it wishes. But there are certain steps that need to be taken in the next few weeks. I hope you would carefully weigh my words; I look forward to joining the team of the Best and the Brightest.

From that day on, Jude was miserable, exposed as a Goebbels. Jude’s “application” to Abacha was circulated among a tight-knit group of Naijanetters. At some point, Jude wrote a long piece that was published in Nigeria that basically accused the pro-democracy movement and Soyinka specifically of violence (bombs, etc.).To cut a long story short, Kongi erupted in rage once more. Kongi faxed me at home a letter (dated December 24, 1996 on Emory University letterhead) excoriating Jude with the subject title “Jude “Goebbels” Uzonwanne.” He asked me to type it verbatim on to Naijanet:

Dear Dr. Onabanjo,

Re: Jude ‘Goebbels” Uzonwanne

Thank you very much for sending me the latest splurge from our young Goebbels. I agree with you that his pronouncements have now exceeded a mere “nuisance factor” and should be addressed in some form or the other. It is tempting to dismiss him as a poor man’s Walter Mitty, given the elaborate fantasy world he inhabits. I have good reasons to conclude that we are dealing here with a mimic Goebbels, one who has been given a distinctive mission and is resolved to execute it without the slightest scruple. The poor boy is a failed agent provocateur.

I have therefore passed the documents on to the F.B.I. with which, as you know, I am obliged to keep in touch over intelligence reports on the threats to my life. Uzonwanne’s statements are likely to provide crucial pieces in the diabolical jigsaw being constructed from Aso Rock to tie me to the bombings at home, and thus justify plans to try me ‘in absentia” and pass a formal death sentence. We are kept informed about these moves, I assure you. In the meantime, Uzonwanne should be encouraged to spew, in any medium he chooses, all the “dark secrets” that he claims to have about my activities. I am insisting to the FBI that they investigate every single one of them, then deal appropriately with whoever has been spreading dangerous falsehood, or whose activities transgress the laws of this nation.

In the meantime, let me assure you and others who have expressed concern that I have not yet reached dotage. To pick out just one among this plethora of concoctions – if I wished to set up an army, I would not pick as my “Chief of Staff” a twenty-two year old college boy who has never even attended a cadet course, is woefully short-sighted, and weaves fantasies around himself such as being in control of seven million dollars, a sum allegedly donated by rival oil companies that wished to end Shell’s domination in Nigeria and carve up its empire among themselves. There is of course a lot more, but I think I should let the FBI take over from there.

Happy Christmas to you and your family
Wole Soyinka
Copy: UDFN membership

I was not close to Soyinka, where he was a revered god, I was merely a foot soldier, however, I decided without telling him so that I was not going to post it on Naijanet, certainly not right away. It was brimming with rage against a young man and I didn’t see someone of Soyinka’s stature tangling with a kid. I figured he would sleep over it and call me back to not post it. Shortly after, the letter appeared on Naijanet. Kongi had gotten another netter to post it since I was dawdling! One thing you can say for Soyinka, he is connected.

As for that petition to the University of Connecticut, I am taken by the idealism of our youth at the time, the prose fairly sings of our passion, dreams and naiveté:

We believe it is appropriate to view Chief Abiola as a universal symbol of the Nigerian people’s yearning to join the league of those nations that have established a culture of respect and reverence for individual freedom, dignity and the collective views of the people. The Nigerian people have spoken loudly and clearly; this struggle is not about one individual. It is about the immediate and long-term survival of a nation that is greater than any one individual. Your action is an endorsement of the legitimate cry of our people for freedom.

In this light, we applaud your university’s decision to confer an honorary doctorate degree on Chief M.K.O. Abiola. Your gracious and courageous decision is an affirmation of your belief in the just struggle for democracy by the Nigerian people. As we write, the dictatorship continues to shut down all voices of reason and progress within Nigeria’s walls. As we write a once vibrant nation is being throttled economically by the intransigence of a few that have elevated their personal agenda above the dreams and aspirations of an overwhelming majority. Your action is a rallying bugle call to the international community. It says to all of us: this disgraceful display of despotism and intolerance must stop.

Today, fifteen years after democracy was installed in Nigeria, very few would disagree with Ganiyu’s admonition at the time. Not much has changed. Ganiyu was right. We were fooled by wolves.

Of poetry, dead white men, and all that Jazz

A few years ago, the writer Bruce Wexler rose, apparently from a drunken slumber and declared poetry dead. [Poetry is Dead. Does Anybody Really Care? Newsweek, May 5, 2003]. The reaction to Wexler’s heresy was swift and furious. His dignity was assaulted by a million fatwas issued by the self-identified worshippers of poetry, proving Wexler’s point – that poetry is the only art form where the population of those who write it overwhelms the population of those who actually consume it. I disagree with Wexler. Poetry is not dead. And I think a more careful reading of Wexler would strongly suggest that he would agree with me. I do agree with Wexler on one point. Anyone can write a bad poem. That is the beauty of its art. But first we have to agree on what constitutes a bad poem.

At one end of the spectrum, you have the purists who would dismiss any poem that does not meet established standards of literary expression, and then at the other end, you have those who say, to hell with rules. There ought to be a happy medium. So, who is a poet in today’s world? I propose that the poets who live on in our hearts and minds are those who have, using the tricks of the ancients, adapted their medium to effectively communicate the word.  This last point is extremely important. Poets are indeed priests. As buglers of joy and of doom, they have to fashion out crisp messages to the people in the language that the people understand. In Africa, today’s poets stand the risk of closing the barn door after the flight of doom, because they are too busy waxing their messages into the rigor mortis of what Chinweizu would call obscurantism.

Our poets and thinkers must seek to use their gifts to make a difference in our societies. Our poetry should offer perspectives that are rooted deep in the fragrance of the land of our ancestors. We go back to the earth when we are stressed; we look back to the past for succor, when our present condition does not carry us back to the warmth of our mother’s hearth. But there is a danger in imagining that this is reality. For the average consumer does not understand these details. The average reader does not understand why there must be a formula; why there must be a set way to write poetry. Who makes these decisions? One sees a lot of insightful critiques that echo the works of Western writers but one is constrained to ask” Why would Western values be necessarily relevant to the way we tell our stories, the way we sing our songs? Has anyone ever attempted to create our own rules of engagement using the robust body of work that is out there? And how do we know that Western writers like TS Eliot were thinking of us as they wove complex thoughts into elaborate structures that were obviously bound to their own ancestral lands?

We are back to divining the difference between poetry and unadulterated drivel. I propose that the consumer is the ultimate arbiter of what is good poetry and what is painful to the eyes. But I miss the haunting lyricism and imagery of poets like the late great Okogbule Wonodi. Hear him sing to me:

But we have poured more wine
than the gods can drink
more than the soil can drink
and have become outcasts
dispersing the fishes
for which the baskets are laid
and the fisherman did not like us.

[Okogbule Wonodi, Icheke: IV]

Was Wonodi a bad poet? I would never know. Who cares? I hope that there are many more “bad poets” where he came from. Freed from the stifling confines of classrooms, I have taught myself to only pay for that which my heart seeks. I read the new poets and I am comforted by the kind of chants that used to make me jump on a coffee table and dance to the courage of my ancestor’s spirits. We come from a land of simple people who hide deep meanings inside simple words. One has to listen carefully to our people to get the insult or the accolade. I look for those kinds of poems to enjoy. The critic must not breathe on every piece that calls itself “poetry.” Some things are best left alone. If a poem turns out to be what the acerbic reviewer Randall Jarrell once referred to as giving “the impression of having been written on a typewriter by a typewriter,” I will simply move on quietly to a more worthy pursuit. Life is too short to be miserable. Poetry is not dead; it just needs re-packaging.

A. Igoni Barrett, love, power, stories, living books, and all that jazz

“There are other human experiences and emotions to write about beside anger. Poems are not only for gunning, for other people, no matter how pernicious they may be. Anger is a tiny bit of human existence and should never be over-orchestrated. I am very suspicious of ‘Protest Poetry’. Poetry can be redemptive without being a banal protest; without exuding forced righteousness. Shrillness cheapens poems. A nation that demands that the entirety of its poetry should only address socio-political ills must be delusional, hysterical, and uninhabitable. A poet should not only be wracked with the meanness of history.”

– Uche Nduka in an interview with Uche Peter Umez

Igoni Barrett’s Love is Power, or Something Like That is a good, albeit frustrating read, those who love good writing will enjoy the power, intellect and industry that Barrett brings to this collection of nine tales. The Kindle copy is published by Graywolf Press, and the hard copy by Farafina Publishers. You should read the stories, if you’ve not already read them elsewhere online; Barrett displays great range in the writing. He is a powerful writer, and it shows in the stories, well it mostly does, for even with his immense talents and skills, this is a frustrating book. If the stories look familiar to some readers, it is because the book is really an archive of works previously published online. This is becoming a pattern with new writing – it portends the future of the book. The lot of the artist in the 21st century is to endure the book as a museum. Indeed it is the case that a frugal and enterprising reader could probably cobble these stories together free off of the Internet by simply trolling the Internet. I loved that the stories were well edited, some would say over-edited, perhaps to broaden the buying market to the West where the money is. Still I found a few editing issues. I wouldn’t give the publishers much credit for the editing quality since they were previously published by online journals that pride themselves on high publishing standards.

It is interesting, reading through the numerous blurbs in the book by many writers (Teju Cole, Binyavanga Wainaina, Doreen Baingana, Helon Habila, Michela Wrong, etc.) they speak mostly of Barrett as a writer of great talent and skills, rather than to the contents of the book. This is appropriate; they are on to something. As I often argue, it is unfair to judge today’s African writers solely on the output of their books. Chinua Achebe’s generation had only the book as the canvas for their literary output. Today’s generation is suffering an embarrassment of riches and a cruel paradox: They are doing great work in the new frontier – the Internet, that publisher of choice for young African writers – struggling with the reality and notion – that to be taken seriously as a writer one must have published a book – any book. For writers in Africa faced with a publishing industry that is at best mediocre, this is a tragedy. They are being judged by circumstances beyond their control. Love is Power or Something Like That is a good collection of stories but it does not even begin to light a candle to Barrett’s brilliance, innovation and leadership in telling the stories of Africa on the Internet. That is a shame, for when the history of online writing is told, at least with respect to African writing, Barrett’s name deserves to be up there with all the other digital warriors too numerous to mention that have ensured that Africa is undergoing a renaissance in literature.

So, let’s talk about the book. I have said it is an uneven book in terms of the quality of the stories, stories that stay with me because they are unrelenting in their sadness and despair. The stories bathe the reader with detailed vivid, disturbing imagination. Desolation, despair and mind-numbing suffering are everywhere. You get used to reading stuff like this:

The bathroom was small, low-ceilinged, and stank of mildew. A colony of chitinous creatures thrived in the wet earth underneath the metal bathtub. She glanced around out of habit to see if any cockroaches had ignored the daylight signal to return to their hiding places, but in the dim lighting, her eyesight failed her.

Barrett, A. Igoni (2013-05-07). Love Is Power, or Something Like That: Stories (Kindle Locations 73-75). Graywolf Press. Kindle Edition.

What strikes the reader is how Barrett expertly documents the intellectual and spiritual emptiness of life in contemporary Nigeria. Nigeria comes across as one vast farce, filled with suffering, incompetence and mediocre thinking. When the reader comes across signs of deep introspection in the characters one gasps with relief. The writer is challenged to entertain the reader with more than vacuous pablum. Nigeria hasn’t changed much; it is the same old stuff, the usual anxieties that seem to preoccupy African writers: immigration or the movement to other climes, the many vices of relationships (betrayal, infidelity), state sanctioned brigandage in the Nigerian Police Force. The new Christianity and prosperity churches, corruption, alcoholism, patriarchy, rape, you name it, all of Black Africa’s dysfunctions are collected like drunken deadbeats and made to stand at attention. It is discomfiting. In Barrett’s world, people live like lower animals. That is where his muse inhabits. There are all these asymptotes everywhere; Barrett is always questioning one injustice or the other, smirking at one dysfunction or the other. In unsparing detail. Many of these stories are beyond dark and disturbing. The darkness rushes and rises into a raging crescendo. And you are stunned by the casualness of evil. The Nigeria here is another planet. Dark. These are sad stories. Sometimes though, the love still shines through the savagery. Somehow you are reminded that these are human beings. There is humor, of the wry variety, not enough of it, alas. Barnett takes himself very seriously. Which reminds me, graphic illustrations would have broken the monotony of text.

About the stories, for my money, the piece, The Worst Thing That Happened is probably the most sophisticated short story I have read in recent times. This story alone is worth the price of the book. And yes, it debuted in Guernica (here). It contains some of Barrett’s most poignant prose. This is a deeply rich and brilliant conversation about immigration, relationships, the extended family, and fraying ties in a global world. This is brilliant, muscular writing strutting about with quiet dignity. The reader will enjoy cool lines like this one:

A FanYogo carton lay on the road, and strawberry yogurt had leaked out and pooled on her paved frontage, a lurid pink surface dive-bombed by flies. (Kindle Locations 103-104)

In a clever twist, Barrett ties it to another story in the book, Perpetua and GodSpeed, another lovely story marked by disciplined, tightly woven sentences that pounce into a beautiful trot. Here there is a tender reflection on fatherhood and one grows to admire Barrett’s eclectic eye.

Dream Chaser comes across as a dated story about 90’s style Internet scams. I am not sure I would call this a short story, whatever it is, I enjoyed it a bit. It needed more work and sounded somewhat contrived.

The Shape of a Full Circle is is a dizzying goulash of dysfunctions thrown together like empty bottles of alcohol enduring a drunk’s leer. In this story, a son’s love for the mother is unbroken by the hurtful dysfunction the ravages of his mother’s inner darkness. Every dysfunction is here, checked meticulously – alcoholism, an absent father, child abuse, theft, rampaging thugs, a society in decline. It is grossly overdone. And here, the prose comes alive and dies, comes alive and dies, as a beautiful writer is restrained by over-eager editors pulled apart by competing visions – a memorandum versus straight luscious writing. By the way, rats are everywhere in Barrett’s stories. Barett can paint the savagery, brutality, despair and helplessness from the incompetence that sometimes passes for life. These are disturbing tales of alcoholism and child neglect and abuse. The stories occasionally redeem themselves with lines like this:

Late into the night, while she nibbled the food and sucked the bottle, Daoju Anabraba apologized to her son, over and over again , for the life they were living, for her failure as a mother, for killing his grandfather. Dimié Abrakasa, a veteran of these episodes, kept his silence. Her speech grew slurred and slid farther into her throat; her eyelids sank, struggled, fell. She cried in sleep, the bottle clutched to her chest. She farted, loud and continuous. When her sobs became snores, Dimié Abrakasa rose from his seat at the foot of the bed. He freed the bottle from her grasp and placed it by the wall, where her hand, in the morning, would reach for it. Then he covered her up and blew out the light. (Kindle Locations 856-861)

This story houses some pretty prose poetry. It is as if Barrett is in a trance. Hear him:

The world turned gray, the temperature plummeted, and gusts of wind sprang up. The wind grew stronger and flung dust into the air. A lightning flash split the gloom and a rumble of cascading boulders burst from the skies. Another flash, sulphuric in its intensity— the thunderclap was like a shredding of the heavens. Birds crawled across the sky with panicked cries. There was a lull, everything froze in that instant; and then, with a sound like burning grass, rain fell. The raindrops had not made landfall when a bolt of blue-white lightning, like a forked tongue, streaked the sky, and one of its prongs struck a fleeing swallow. The bird stalled in midflight, then began to tumble earthward as the rain hit the ground. Through sheets of crashing water, pedestrians sprinted for cover. Puddles formed on the sidewalks, then flowed together and rushed for the drains, which brimmed over and poured water onto the road. The road became a river. Car engines drank water, coughed out steam, and died. Both sides of the road— and the sidewalks, too— got jammed. The horn blares of motorists became one long, unbroken blast. (Kindle Locations 536-539)

Beautiful. You wish he would produce prose like this from beginning to end. Hunting for delicacies like this was a perverse hunt, alas. And here he is channeling Ben Okri’s malarial, febrile brilliance. He writes: “The road became a river.” And you remember Ben Okri’s famous opening lines in The Famished Road:

“In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.”

In Love is Power, or Something Like That, a troubled policeman tries hard to hold on to his sanity and his family. It is violent and bloody. A man is flogged mercilessly – with a cow’s leg snatched from a butcher’s stall. Still through the nightmarish story, pretty lines peek out of the undergrowth to gawk at the traumatized reader.

He spoke English like one who thought in it. (Kindle Locations 1152-1153)

From the bushes night sounds came: scrabbling noises in the undergrowth, predatory screeches and distressed squeals, the sheesh of breeze in the treetops. (Kindle Locations 1120-1121)

He felt how the warmth of the liquor would spread through his throat, his chest; but his imagination couldn’t replicate the solid weight of good alcohol hitting the belly. He’d made a pledge: no more, not when he was in uniform. Not after the time he broke his wife’s arm in two places and had to accept her judgment when she blamed the reek of his breath. She had laid down her ultimatum from the safety of Mama Adaobi’s doorway, and he, kneeling before her in his underwear, hungover and full of remorse, had given his word. (Kindle Locations 1111-1115)

My Smelling Mouth Problem is a riff on halitosis which turns into social commentary. It was a creative experiment gleefully ambushed by the red ink of editors.

Trophy is a lovely story that plumbs the mystery of the bonds of friendship. Still the sadness seeps through; Nigerians are aliens with “skin the color of rotted wood.” It is a story that rides several dysfunctions – sleepy dead end towns with teachers having sex with their teen wards, teen sex and promiscuity. Wretched lives in various degrees of disarray are examined ad nauseam until the reader screams, “STOP!”

The Little Girl with Budding Breasts and a Bubblegum Laugh is a tale of love and forbidden sex. Two young cousins fall in love. A little girl suffers the teen blues. I must say it is at once disturbing and affecting. A disturbing love story. There are nice lines:

The air smelled like rain. (Kindle Location 1583).

Okay, he said, and dug his elbow into the bed, braced his jaw against his fisted hand, stared at her with widened eyes and pouted lips, a playful face that fell away as he continued— since you’re forcing me. I like your eyes. I like the way they light up when you’re happy. I like your legs. I like the way you walk, especially when you’re hurrying, the way you throw your feet, like a child who’s about to fall. I like your nose, and your mouth, and your breath. I like the way your breath smells. Like melted ice cream. Wow, she said in a hushed, wondering voice; and then she adjusted her legs. His hand slid between her thighs. (Kindle Locations 1757-1762)

In A Nairobi Story of Comings and Goings racism confronts prejudice and one is left stunned and confused by Barrett’s brilliant but disconcerting literary sleight of hand. The snarkiness is delightful actually, a welcome release from the over-editing of most of the stories. If you want to confirm that Igoni can write, start here:

The engine of Nairobi is fired by cash-crop farming, oiled by tourism, and steered by NGO money. Everywhere you turn in the city you find NGO people, camouflaged by straw hats and safari boots and the skin color of the tourist, white. In the supermarkets (Indian-run), the swanky restaurants (white Kenyan– run), the bus parks, souvenir bazaars, immigration offices (black Kenyan– run), luxurious hotels and safari lodges (British-run), AIDS patients’ wards and spoken-word poetry slams (American-funded), and, in small sightseeing groups, in Kibera, the largest zoo in Africa. (Kindle Locations 2495-2499).

barrett picBarrett is relentless in his message, and one reflects on the fate of women and children in Nigeria and Africa. Men are the aggressors on these pages – and in real life. Women have no chance, their saviors are too busy writing books and setting up NGOs. These are violent, abusive male authority figures accountable to no one. The unfortunate subtext: The real humans are women, children and white folks. The men of Nigeria are savage beasts, sub-humans. It is what it is. Or not. Barrett is the writer as effete judge looking into a troubled society with focused supercilious concentration, many good lines wasted on stereotype and jaded cynicism. Many times the stories gasp for air and energy. Sometimes, the passion rises, and then falls flat, bored lion too lazy to pursue prey. Sometimes Barrett makes a great deal of paying attention to detail, but for what purpose? Barrett’s facility with pidgin English is sadly under-used; where he does, it is compromised by over-editing presumably for a broader audience. The paying readership is in the West. I don’t blame Barrett, but this hurts.

Let me share some random thoughts and use Barrett’s book to annoy my readers with my soapbox rants. We must define the narrative and the terms of engagement with the world more boldly. These books expose us as timid and beholden to a conservative establishment of ancient gatekeepers. When Wole Soyinka won the Nobel Prize in 1986, VS Naipaul in his typical bluster asked: “Has he written anything?” Naipaul was being silly and myopic, Soyinka deserved the prize, not just based on the quality and quantity of his works as evidenced by his books, but based on the sum total of his life as an intellectual and an activist. Today, almost three decades later, it is even more important that African writers be judged on the sum total of their works, not just by their books. In the 21st century, the book as a medium of expression serves brilliant young writers. Barrett is one of the victims. They think as if they are on social media and they are forced to write on paper to get stature. In the process, they are losing readers by the millions. Writers, African writers especially have an opportunity to re-capture the love of good reading and storytelling by going to meet readers where they now congregate, and speaking to them in the language and cadence they understand, cherish and relish – in the call-and-response 3-D world they live in – that community of communities we call the Internet.

We live in a world full of innovative practices in literature, many pioneered by young Africans. The question becomes: Why do brilliant young writers and thinkers feel incomplete until they have stapled their thoughts into books few will read?  In addition to writing books, African writers must actively search for and nurture innovative initiatives, like the Bride Price app, three dimensional e-books, journals and conversations that deploy hot links, illustrations, and the call and response interactions of the reader and the writer. Nothing for me is sadder and more frustrating than visiting writers’ conferences and other meeting places where digital pioneers and leaders spend their time talking about and furtively hawking poorly produced books to a handful of attendees. At these meeting places, discussions about literature online are limited and usually come across as an afterthought. It is clear to me also that prizes like the NLNG Prize are an expensive exercise in mimicry. We don’t need prizes as much as we need supports to build innovative architectures for 21st century African literature.

This is my beef with books: In the 21st century, our creativity is still centered around the book. That paradigm shifted a long time ago. We should be having literary NOT book fairs and festivals. The young should elbow out gerontocracy from scarce resources. In terms of African literature as it exists online, the world is sitting on a goldmine. The answer is not to ignore the youth behind these new forms of storytelling, but to support them. They are the new storytellers. I will say this until I am blue in the face: social media is the publisher of choice for young African writers. Online, the writer does not have to worry about being edited to bland death by over-eager Western editors. The Internet does not ask them to italicize egusi, it laughs at their jokes and doesn’t call them “ethnic.”  In the villages of social media, writers write of sorrows and despair and heartbreak, they also write of musicians who sing pretty songs, about recharge cards, bank alerts and ATMs. When you add their stories to what obtains in books like Love is Power or Something Like That, the reader gets a well rounded  trajectory of African narrative. There are all these opportunities; alas a timid generation of writers bows to laziness, orthodoxy, patriarchy and western literary imperialism.

To be fair, there are several constraints. The Internet is wild untamed territory; poaching and disorder are at an all-time high and writers and publishers are struggling to be heard and make money at the same time. It doesn’t help that there is a dearth of innovation – traditional publishing houses have invested billions of dollars in 20th century publishing architecture. It is tough for them to turn things around on a dime. In a perverse sense, Africa on the other hand has few such constraints, the architecture is not there; however many new publishers hamstring themselves daily by investing in ancient methods. I say to them, look around you, the Internet is the publisher of choice for young African writers. Build an architecture from scratch – and they will flock to you as they flock to Linda Ikeji’s blog and as they flocked to the Bride Price app. The bride price app is perhaps the most brilliant short story ever written by an African in the past decade. The data is there to prove it; there were 12million hits, 7million unique users, and 18million unique social conversations. And one suspects that the author has made money off the app’s global reach. Ask Editi Effiong. He is African. He is not waiting for the West to help him out.

Finally, for me, the most haunting and evocative line in Barrett’s book is in the story A Nairobi Story of Comings and Goings: “I got my things and left.” And then the reader remembers why it spoke to him. Dambudzo Marechera. Helon Habila considers “I got my things and left, the first line in Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger, the coolest opening line in African literature I agree. Barrett loves famous opening lines.

Pius Adesanmi – Guest BlogPost: For Whom is Africa Rising?

By Professor Pius Adesanmi

Winner, the Penguin Prize for African Writing

Author of You’re Not a Country, Africa!

Keynote lecture delivered at the 8th MSU Africanist Graduate Research Conference, Lansing, Michigan, October 17, 2014

(We just lost Professor Ali Mazrui. May we please observe a minute’s silence in his honour?)

The best of times and the worst of times. No, I have not come to Michigan State University to conduct an excursion into quotable quotes from Charles Dickens. I am just taking the liberty – presumptuously, some of you might say – to put into words what it must feel like to wear that enigmatic title, “Africanist scholar”, in these most paradoxical of times for and on the continent. One would ordinarily have assumed that being privileged to be called a producer of knowledge about a part of the world which is said to possess the distinction of being at once the cradle and future of humanity would come with the fringe benefit of permanent elation.

There is one additional reason why permanent elation ought to be the defining essence of my own interpellation as a producer of Africanist knowledge. In the complicated business of nationalism and national identities in Africa, we learnt a few years ago – from one of those studies frequently purporting to have discovered new truths about the African condition – that my own corner of the continent, Nigeria, is home to the happiest people on earth. All one hundred and seventy million of us provide one jolly canvass of carnival, revelry, and jouissance. Now, we are talking about the largest group of Africans in one national place – indeed, the world’s largest assembly of black people in a single nation-space – being uniformly happy in this trickle down neoliberal world of ours. If Nigeria’s happiness trickles down, chances are the remaining 1.1 billion less fortunate Africans will at least get reasonable drops of the happiness tonic.

A little over a billion happy Africans should be good enough reason for the intellectual whose job it is to make disciplinary meaning of their ways and their world to be permanently elated. The way I see it, happy subjects make happy scholarship and happy scholarship makes the world go round! Wishes, sadly, are not horses. So we know that elation of a permanent kind is a risky proposition in the business of engaging Africa, especially in terms of her chequered trajectory in the struggle for agency. Permanent torn-ness between the diametrically opposed sentiments of elation and depression, as evoked in the Dickensian conundrum, is a safer emotional and psychological refuge for the student of Africa.

padesanmi_large-carleton-uOkay, let’s get depressed before we get elated! As you already know, our renowned Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o did not win the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature after yet another nomination round. Beyond the intellectual terrain, indeed, 2014 has been a very bad year for African sports. Virtually all our teams performed woefully in Brazil, producing a cavalcade of images leading dangerously back to the familiar routes of African stereotyping. Benoit Assou-Ekotto’s headbutting of teammate, Benjamin Moukandjo; the emergency plane load of dollars from the troubled economy of Ghana to placate players in full rebellion in Brazil; the repeated hints of threat and rebellion in the Nigerian camp, are all texts underwritten by some unsayable ur-texts, constantly hinted at or whispered on social or traditional media: Africa’s corruption and institutional demission. Note that the misbehaviour of Luis Suarez remained the misbehaviour of bad boy Luiz Suarez and did not have transcendental or generic identity consequences for the American continent.

Let’s have some more depression. As I prepared to board the plane in Ottawa, I received an email from notable African scholar, Professor Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, Vice President for Academic Affairs at Quinnipiac University. The crossover to Administration was never going to slow down the constant flow of books and essays from Professor Zeleza’s goatskin bag of wisdom. As it happens, some of us in his inner circle of friends do receive personal new essay alerts from him. The essay I received alerted Professor Zeleza’s “Dear Friends” to the publication in Africasacountry.com of his latest essay entitled: “Why I am Afraid of the African Disease of Ebola”.

It is true that the continent moved from the great depression of Brazil in July to the deadly depression of Ebola in August. But I am sure that you can already take a stab at the drift of Zeleza’s essay from the title. It’s a satirical tour de force on the politics of yet another gigantic “single story” (apologies to Adichie) about Africa. Of course I have been preoccupied with the emotional roller coaster that is Ebola. After all, the outbreak in Guinea and Liberia occurred just as I prepared to leave Accra after a one-year stint as a Carnegie-Diaspora Visiting Professor of African Studies at the University of Ghana, Legon. I’ve been part of a Nigerian social media community of mourning as precious lives were lost to Ebola. Beyond loss and trauma, Ebola is creating new economies of meaning, of contact, of cross-border figurations on the continent and of transnational calibrations of African identities across the Atlantic. I have been part of it all like everybody else.

What caught my attention in Zeleza’s essay, therefore, is that after almost four decades of “writing back” through such milestones as Chinua Achebe’s “An Image of Africa”, Chinweizu’s The West and the Rest of Us, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind, Claude Ake’s Social Science as Imperialism, V.Y. Mudimbe’s The Invention of Africa; after Fanon, after Cabral, after Rodney, the usual prosecution witnesses have dragged yet another icon of African Studies to the intellectual court to play the part of a defense lawyer and argue our case: that Africa is not Ebola and Ebola is not Africa. For I must say it unequivocally that Paul Tiyambe Zeleza speaks for me in that essay.

After every routine needless killing of a black male teenager by police in this country, I am sure you are familiar with the spectacle on cable television of black mothers lamenting the ritual of having to have “that talk” all over again with their black teenage sons over dinner: how to appear non-threatening when pulled over by cops. Not again, such mothers gasp in exasperation. And you notice the weariness of the soul seared into those voices. A hint of that sentiment creeps in on me whenever circumstances force any of us to pick up his keyboard and reaffirm what Africa is not. Africa is not Ebola, Zeleza laments. And I experience a weariness of the soul that the ritual of enunciative disavowal of stereotype is once again foisted on us. That talk that we are not Ebola; that talk that we are not HIV/AIDS; that talk that we are not famine, hunger, war, and want. Over and over we must do it again and again. Sisyphus and his boulder have far better luck than Africa and the knowledges we generate to engage her in the theatre of representation.

Still on depression, the 2014 Ibrahim Index of African Governance has been published as you all probably already know. The continent’s performance is assessed under such rubrics as safety and rule of law, participation and human rights, sustainable economic opportunity, and human development. Whatever noticeable gains there are in the individual fortunes of particular countries is immediately dampened by the overall average result for the entire continent: 51.5%. That’s a “D-” in the North American grading system, one rung of the ladder above an outright F: how else can one express the uninspiring performance!

I am sure you will all agree with me that no portrait of depressing points about Africa would be valid in which our friends in Bretton Woods didn’t make an appearance. The last newsflash I read before I boarded the plane for the trip here announced that Ghana had started the final round of talks with the IMF on a bailout loan. The news came packaged in registers and diction which evoke the trauma of the 1980s when SAPs, conditionalities, market forces, market-driven shocks, economic downturn, devaluation, inflation, and austerity measures emptied the present of my generation across Africa and mortgaged our future. Three decades after the IMF laid the foundation of the realities which made our bosom friends in The Economist to declare Africa a hopeless continent, Ghana, one of the few countries so often placed in a glass display case as continental success stories, is back at Bretton Woods, beaten, battered, and broke.

My generation came of age in the 1980s, writing tests and exams on foolscap sheets. Jacques de Larosiere and his successor at the IMF, Michel Camdessus, sealed our fate with policies rammed down the throat of one military dictator after another across the continent. Today, the youth who make Africa tick are on Facebook and Twitter grumbling about the size of iPhone 6 even as Christine Lagarde declares enthusiastically that an appropriate “policy mix” will be worked out to ensure a “good bailout” for Ghana. I am of the 70s – 80s. A generation came of age in the 90s. Another came of age in the 2000s. Three generations of Africans, only one uniting factor: Bretton Woods’s policy “mixes”. With Christine Lagarde talking about Ghana in 2014 like Getafix the Druid in the Asterix comic series, a speaker not as optimistic as my humble self would say that we have come full circle in Africa.

Being an optimistic speaker means that I must hasten to conclude this part of our exercise on depression and pretend that the atavism of crisis and conflict is not part of the tableau of depression. I am therefore not going to say that Congo is still as Conradianly dark as ever; I am not going to mention Boko Haram and South Sudan. Throwing crises and conflict into the mix will only delay us from asking the inevitable question: is there anything about the condition of Africa and the disciplines through which we generate modes of hermeneutic inquiry into the said condition that allows us to map anything other than one gory trajectory from colonial trauma to postcolonial abjection – with ten steps backward making nonsense of every step forward in a linear course?

I am assuming we all know what the politically correct answer to this question is: Yes, there is much to celebrate in Africa and about Africa. It is not all doom and gloom. Luckily for us, logic and political correctness are in happy agreement here. It is logically untenable to stabilize doom and gloom as the permanent condition of any human society. Even in the most perilous of times which led to the tragic loss of their two most important dignitaries, one to death by suicide and the other to insanity, Umuofia and Umuaro had moments of triumph not arrested by the circumambient doom and gloom as articulated by the great novelist, Chinua Achebe.

However, beyond this happy marriage of logic and political correctness lies nuance. If we agree that elation and celebration have as much droit de cite in the African story as depression, gloom, and doom, we must ask the question: how exactly did elation come into this picture? What is its trajectory? What are its contents? How do we account for the politics of back and forth between depression and elation and what does it portend for disciplinary engagements of Africa? Consider these scenarios. Jean-Francois Bayart closed the 1980s on a note of gloom by announcing in 1989 that the state in Africa was doomed to a metaphysics of corruption. In Jean-Francois Bayart’s The State in Africa:the Politics of the Belly, the African state and her political practices were effectively placed under the conceptual control of Opapala, the Yoruba deity of hunger and gourmandizing in whose domain lies the stomach.

Ten years later, in 1999, Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz appeared to take a different tack in Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument. On the surface, it looked like we were finally getting a break from the depressing Afro-pessimism of the politics of the belly. We were approaching the uplifting territory of elation. But, wait a minute, Africa Works – differently? Isn’t rationalizing informal networks of human and political agency – with the attendant argument to exclude ethics and value judgements – another way of saying that the usual ways and practices of democracy and the social contract would never work because Africa is somehow not culturally and ontologically attuned to those structures and practices of modernity? Even with Africa Works, have we really moved beyond the paradigm of depression in 1999?

No, you haven’t, replied The Economist one year later, famously ushering the continent into a new millennium with the now famous or infamous caption: “the Hopeless Continent”. Things moved very quickly from here. You will observe that between 1994 and the early years of the 2000s, something was brewing beneath all this veneer of depression and pessimism. Something home-grown. A discourse of vision and hope anchored in cultural, economic, and political renewal, bearing the traceries of Negritude, cultural nationalism, and pan-Africanism. Welcome to the discourse of African Renaissance and its associated agendas. Thabo Mbeki and his associates screamed African Renaissance throughout the 1990s. They convened a conference in 1998, published a book, founded an African Renaissance Institute and went about organizing instead of agonizing. They gained little or no traction outside of South Africa. In the North, everybody was interested in depression and pessimism on account of Africa. Any talk of renaissance referred to that period from the 14th – 17th century in Europe and not whatever some upstarts thought it meant in 21st century Africa.

Then, just as Mbeki and all those on the African Renaissance train finally began to gain a solid hearing in academia and beyond, those who had crowded out their voices with depression and pessimism suddenly announced that they had had a road to Damascus moment. We were advised to move on to the other extreme of celebration and elation. They said that something much bigger than a renaissance was happening in Africa. They had no room for the semantic nuancing through which Chabal and Daloz were able to deodorize disorder and the informal as legitimate praxes of agency in Africa. We were no longer in for any back-door announcements of hope. Go tell it on the mountain that Africa is rising, has risen. The Economist tried to outdo Time Magazine. Africa Rising! Aspiring Africa! The Hopeful Continent! One glossy cover after the other screamed: Africa Rising!

I believe that an audience such as this should be sufficiently familiar with the content and career of this narrative of elation which brushed aside age-long narratives of depression like Achebe’s proverbial wildfire in the harmattan. Everything that was negative and depressing about the continent suddenly became positive and uplifting. Diction and registers changed: hopelessness became hopefulness, despondency became opportunity. Numbers and statistics rained torrentially from every imaginable source, bearing mouth-watering good news of “growth”, “sustainable development”, “governance”, “democracy”, “human rights”, “rural and infrastructural development”, “gender gap”, “poverty”, “education”, etc.

I am sure you can expand this list infinitely. After all, you know by rote what the talking points and the keywords are in those PowerPoint slides whenever men in black suits from the international capital and finance community, the international development community, the global NGO and activist community, world governance bodies and their continental appendages in Africa, as well as the institutional and disciplinary world of the social sciences, descend on any seminar room to talk about Africa Rising. To these keywords and faddish phrases we must add the fact that Africa Rising also comprises an ideological investment in the future. What used to be called a problematic youth bulge when we were in the era of depression and pessimism is now said to represent the continent’s greatest advantage. She has the greatest number of youths on earth and who says youth says innovation. Africa Rising is, therefore, African Innovation on the rise.

What could possibly be wrong with this picture, some of you may wonder. After all, there is enough going on in the continent to bear out the new narratives of elation. There was the Arab Spring; South Africa is in BRICS; Nigeria is MINT, democracy is spreading. This may be true but a lot is wrong with the politics and philosophy of elation. There is the question of the suspicious timing of the rise of the discourse of Africa Rising. One African scholar who has raised this question is the celebrated Nigerian political scientist, Professor Bayo Olukoshi. I was on a panel with him early this year in Pretoria and he wondered aloud why the narrative of Africa Rising emerged only when the narrative of African Renaissance had finally begun to gain global attention. “Why and how did Africa Rising outshine African Renaissance?”, Olukoshi asked the audience and enjoined them to think about it. President Thabo Mbeki was in the room…

It may be true that the suspicious timing of the rise of Africa Rising did have something to do with the growing fortunes of African Renaissance but I have since found other issues to worry about. One of these issues is the provenance of the discourse of Africa Rising. That this narrative appears to have been born here in the West is not a problem for me. After all, Negritude was born in Paris and Black Paris of the interwar years is a legitimate theoretical framework for me. The problem, for me, is precisely where in the West the loudest noise about Africa Rising is always coming from. Google is a good Ifa Oracle to consult in these matters. I am worried that a casual google search of this term almost always brings up the May 2014 Africa Rising conference of the IMF as the first and most important hit. You click on that link and you are welcomed by the inevitable face of Christine Lagarde welcoming you to the conceptual territory of Africa Rising in a podcast and speech. I have stated earlier that we know all the keywords by rote so it must be easy for you to imagine the content of Mrs. Lagarde’s speech without even reading it.

Other google hits will take you inevitably to The Economist and Time Magazine and all kinds of neoliberal Think Tank work on Africa Rising. If you are patient, you will finally encounter some African input midway scrolling down to the bottom of your screen. You’ll encounter the Africa Rising Foundation set up by Ndaba and Kweku Mandela and you’ll encounter, ironically, a podcast by a Deputy Governor of Nigeria’s Central Bank, Kingsley Moghalu, claiming that Africa hasn’t risen yet. Now, I don’t know about you but whenever a new narrative about Africa seems to be domiciled mainly in the market-driven mansion of neoliberalism, I tend to develop severe allergies. My migraines tend to worsen whenever I encounter the IMF, the World Bank, The Economist, and Africa in the same sentence.

I am saying that it is a problem for me that every time I google Africa Rising, Christine Lagarde is always the first to appear on the scene to welcome me and conduct a guided tour of the concept. You google African Renaissance, Cheikh Anta Diop, Thabo Mbeki’s speech, and the African Renaissance monument in Senegal are likely to be your first hits. Then you google Africa Rising and the IMF and The Economist are your first hits. This brings back Bayo Olukoshi’s query and worry: why and how did the narrative of Africa Rising emerge to overshadow and supplant the narrative of African Renaissance?

This question could be framed differently: for whom is the Africa in African Renaissance being reborn? For whom is the Africa in Africa Rising rising? I do not want to address the first question here. At any rate, you probably can guess how I would answer the African Renaissance part of the question. My answer to the second part of this question may also seem obvious. You’d be right to conclude that I believe that Africa is not really rising for the African – at least not yet. You’d be right to conclude that I believe that Africa is rising mainly and predominantly for those screaming Africa Rising in Bretton Woods and their accomplices in the commanding heights of the continent’s politics and economics. This explains why the narrative of Africa Rising is always powered by an insidious thematic of rich pickings. Africa Rising would have no meaning beyond market orthodoxy and investment friendliness. Africa is rich pickings! Go ye hither and exploit all the opportunities before wily China laps up everything!

These obvious answers mask a deeper concern. Africa Rising invites us to take a closer look at the question of African agency. As one looks at the glass display cases of triumphalist and exultant neoliberalism, many African countries are on display: Ghana, Botswana, South Africa, Kenya, Namibia, etc. After every election meeting the minimal requirements of democracy, new countries are installed in new glass display cases and brandished to the world as the latest success stories from Africa. Yet, as you window-shop and look at these African countries glistening in display cases, your mind returns again and again to the question of agency. What was the African’s role in the construction of these glass show cases and what say did he have in the politics of inhabiting that glass display case?

Let me illustrate this point with an anecdote. I was discussing Ghana at the beginning of this talk. I was lamenting the fact that the country is now in the final phase of negotiations with the IMF for a bailout loan because of “market-driven” shocks. I was lamenting the fact that Madame Christine Lagarde was talking enthusiastically about a new “policy mix” for Ghana by the IMF. We all know that this is all a honey-coated way of saying that Ghana has failed and is now back in Washington, cap in hand, begging for the loans that will predictably ruin the future of the next three generations of Ghanaians. The African Union has been talking about the Africa 2063 Agenda. I was involved with the Diaspora Consultations on this agenda in New York last year. It seems to me that the question of what Africa ought to look like in 2063 is already being settled in the case of Ghana. The year 2063 will meet Ghana repaying loans and renegotiating the terms and conditionalities of the policy mix being conjured today by Getafix Lagarde.

Yet, this is the only country in West Africa that was placed in a glass display case by Africa Rising for more than a decade. Much to the envy and annoyance of Ghana’s eternal rival, Nigeria, the usual suspects in the choir of Africa Rising screamed from the rooftops that Ghana was the beacon of hope for the continent. All the usual ingredients of discourse flooded the global public sphere in relation to Ghana: political stability, growth, democracy, jobs, infrastructural expansion, etc. So, how did we get to being unable to pay salaries after ferrying three million dollars cash to football players in Brazil? How did we get to the perdition that are IMF loans and bailouts?

I spent a year in Ghana. I only just returned in the summer. On arrival in Ghana, I couldn’t believe the level of development that I saw. Stable electricity and stable water from the taps: these two alone are enough to make a Nigerian award the Nobel Prize in Infrastructure to any country because they have not been part of our national experience since the early 1980s. Add to that the gleaming and glistening infrastructure that I saw all over the place and you would forgive me for taking enthusiastically to social media to declare that it was criminally unfair to place Ghana in the same third world bracket as Nigeria and other less fortunate African countries where electricity and tap water are never regular. Yet, Ghana was not yet at the second world level of South Africa. I decided to hang her in a no man’s land between the second and third worlds.

However, something made me perpetually uneasy about the infrastructure and modernity that I saw all around me in Ghana. I was only able to identify the source of my unease five months into my stay. It was the jeeps! There were way too many jeeps on the roads of Accra for my liking. No, I am not talking about private jeeps belonging to individuals. I am talking about what I call postcolonial jeepology, a phenomenon in which jeeps bring the symbolism of foreign aid and dependency to the doorsteps of the postcolony. You should be able to visualize those UN Jeeps by now. I mean those white Toyota Prado jeeps that are so ubiquitous in Africa. They bear the insignia of every imaginable specialized agency of the United Nations: FAO, UNICEF, UNCHS, WHO, etc. The glut of white jeeps is not the singular making of the UN. The European Union, International Development Agencies, International Development Partners, all kinds of Foundations from Bill and Melinda Gates to Clinton, Christian missions and charity organizations – everybody is pumping jeeps and experts into Africa.

I was at the University of Ghana. The campus is crawling with the jeeps of postcolonial aid dependency. I visited ministries in town and other institutions of state – jeeps and jeeps everywhere. WHO-assisted this, IDRC-assisted that; European Union-assisted this; DANIDA-assisted that; German Government-assisted this; French Government-assisted that. Now, my own rule of thumb is that any African country crawling under the weight of the white jeeps of postcolonial dependency is in trouble. It means that the modernity you see all around you is contrived, fragile, and artificially propped by ways and means that do not belong to you. It means that somebody somewhere is desperate for a narrative, for a showpiece, and is pouring resources and symbols into a particular space to prop it up as that showpiece and produce a desired narrative.

These postcolonial white jeeps of dependency power a narrative of representation hoisted for the visual satisfaction of the giver. This is why President Obama went to Ghana and the mirror beamed an African success story at him and he sermonized to Africa from that location. This is Africa Rising, president Obama screamed. This is Ghana in which Washington is well pleased. We want y’all in the rest of the continent to be like her. Today, Obama’s showpiece is at the IMF begging for loans. The IMF spent the 80s and the 90s producing those children with countable ribs and mucus-drenched nostrils with policies designed to guarantee starvation across the continent so long as the market was growing. Evidence of failure only yielded more prescriptions of the same policies and lectures that Africa was not applying them properly. Things got so bad that Nobel Prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz had to draw the line for the West. Somebody somewhere desperately needed a narrative of success. Ghana was just the sort of candidate needed and ready for the assignment.

What this means is that there is little or no African agency in the modernity of the white Toyota Prado jeeps of postcolonial aid dependency. What would happen if these jeeps were suddenly withdrawn, I kept wondering in Accra. I got a taste of what could potentially happen in my last two months in the country. Power cuts made a rude intrusion into my life; water supply followed suit and became erratic; salaries started to be delayed; everybody groaned on campus and in town; the Cedi plunged into a free fall. By the time I was leaving Accra in August, echoes of Ebola were rumbling in Guinea and Liberia and we prayed for that cup to pass over Ghana. When your Africa Rising narrative is unravelling, when you are only just discovering for whom your Africa was really rising all this time you thought she was rising for you, you do not want Ebola to be the coup de grace. Thankfully, Ebola spared Ghana.

What do these scenarios portend for you as graduate students and scholars of Africa? For starters, it means that the disciplinary space between elation and depression has not been fully probed in terms of our efforts to understand the dynamics of that continent. It means that we are yet to account for the elusiveness of agency and we do not even fully understand why it remains elusive and perpetually beyond grasp in Africa. If we do not understand why we lack agency, we will never find our way to it.

For instance, you’d think that almost four decades of writing back in and through the disciplines of the Social Sciences and Humanities; of telling and retelling our story as Africans and Africanists as we see in Paul Zeleza’s remarkable book, Manufacturing African Studies and Crises; of detailing and accounting for the significance of Africa to the disciplines as was done in the book, Africa and the Disciplines; you’d think that all these disciplinary gains and insights would have rendered us masters of our destiny in the field of representation. You’d think that we would have become more secure and stable owners of Africa’s story by now, owning your story and the means of its narrativization being a precondition for agency. Yet, somehow, we never owned the Joseph Kony story, never owned #BringBackOurGirls, and do presently not own the framing of the narrative of Ebola. If a continent cannot even own the means to perspectivize her failures and her tragedies, how can she possibly own the path to her successes and triumphs?

My own field, African literature, falls prey to this play of agency in interesting ways. Where is agency located and enabled in terms of literature as a canonized institution? The recent social media spat between my friends, Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina and Nigerian thinker and literary ‘papa terrible’, Ikhide Ikheloa (he is too old to be called an enfant terrible), is a good case in point. Binyavanga has been a relentless critic of the Caine Prize in recent times. If you want to be unkind, you’ll say that our man Binya is kicking at the ladder he rode to literary stardom. He believes it is overrated and has acquired too much power in the canonization and validation of African literatures. He whines and whines and whines. It gets on Ikhide’s nerves. Ikhide is angry that the Nigeria Prize for Literature, a USD 100,000-Prize awarded annually is an annual ritual of literary powerlessness and oblivion.

A prize worth ₤15,000 pounds is awarded to an African short story and it comes with an international media buzz announcing instant canonization. One hundred thousand dollars is awarded to a writer in Nigeria and he’d be lucky to be interviewed grudgingly by two or three local newspapers. Ikhide is mad as hell about this development. So he dismisses Binyavanga’s endless whining about the Caine Prize. Stop complaining about the white man, he screams, go and develop and empower your own prizes and narratives in Africa! If you have no clue how to empower your own cultural and institutional modes of literary valuation in Africa, stop whining about the white man, Ikhide screams.

It should be obvious to those of you in literature that the interface between the Caine Prize and the Nigerian Prize for Literature offers grounds for interrogating agency, power, and modes of privileging in your field. If Africa is rising for the African, how does one account for the fact a literary Prize worth a hundred thousand dollars in Africa guarantees oblivion for an African writer and another prize worth less than half of that amount awarded in Europe guarantees instant superstardom, including paradoxically in Africa? How does one engage the seeming unwillingness to apply ourselves in Nigeria and in Africa to the task of empowering the Nigerian Prize for Literature?

One last area of disciplinary consequence I want to mention is the question of finding appropriate idioms for the persisting disjuncture and disconnect between reality and the etiquette of disciplinary narrativizing in the age of political correctness and anti-essentialism. This past year that I spent in Ghana came with the added advantage of extensive travels in the continent. Those who were loath to paying my way for lectures such as this because of the cost of flying me from Ottawa could suddenly afford to fly me from Accra. I crisscrossed the continent for lectures but I was also a keen observer of the life and pulse of Africa. I saw gains. I saw pains. I saw evidence of Africa Rising but not with or for the African. About the only thing I saw rising is the hard-earned income of the poverty-stricken African rising into the pocket of his pastor as prosperity Pentecostalism rages across the continent to fill the vacuum abandoned by the state and her institutions.

In too many cases, Africa is simply rising without or beyond the African. Africa cannot really be said to be rising if the state still mainly demissions from the social contract and her gleaming institutions rise to satisfy the empirical and statistical parametres of outsiders at the expense of the peoples of Africa. Do the disciplines have a language for these confounding dynamics beyond the patronizing depression of Afro-pessimism? Where the idiom is lacking, do we focus on the evidence of progress which abounds and veer into un-nuanced Afro-optimism?

Yesterday, Kofi Annan grumbled about the response of the international community to Ebola. Says Annan on BBC:

“If the crisis had hit some other region it probably would have been handled very differently. In fact when you look at the evolution of the crisis, the international community really woke up when the disease got to America and Europe.”

This is one of Africa’s most famous and illustrious sons telling us that Africa has not risen. Europe and America ought to have moved in faster with white Toyota Prado jeeps to tackle Ebola. The day that Africa would be able to take care of business such as this without waiting to condemn Euro-America for not playing the traditional role of the saviour quickly enough, Africa would truly have risen for the African.

I wish you successful deliberations in this conference.

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