Ikhide

Father, Fighter, Lover

Category: Nigeria

Christmas, longing, loss, home and Babylon 

America. New Jersey. Christmas hymns. Sad markers to an interesting past of ever-changing seasons and constant longing. And my thoughts turn to home. Nigeria.

Nigeria. Some of my siblings are back home in Ewu, our ancestral home, determined to enjoy Christmas with our mother, Izuma of the Stout Bush. My brother texts me on WhatsApp; he has spent the past five hours trying to get his money out of ATMs. Five hours seem to be a lot just to get a fistful of dollars from a machine. But then, my brother has always been an unreliable witness, burdened with a vividly wild imagination and an oversized sense of drama. I discount his alleged pains and make all the right noises. My sister independently reports the same problem, she had traversed several clans from Ewu to Ekpoma and triumphantly reports success; she has extracted enough money from moody ATMs to buy the Christmas goat. We all cheer in the family group chat when she texts us a picture of a well-fed goat.

There will be a Christmas feast in our ancestral compound, unlike what we will have here in Babylon. There is food in the country, it is just that this season, ATMs are starved of sustenance. Nigeria is like that; there is always a shortage or two. But then, the stories of deprivation spice our meals and our stories and when we dance the movements are the poetry of triumph over adversity. Our stories always end well, even when they don’t end well. Always.

Nigeria. It just seems all our lives have been defined by want, or at best clarity of limited choices. We are making progress, I guess. We have come a long way from the most primal of shortages. Of water, light, and life that has meaning. They are still with us, these shortages, but now we have ATMs refusing to give us back what we put in them.

Na today? My dad used to wake us kids up at the first breath of dawn to go fetch water from the streams under the hills of Igarra. It was back-breaking work which we did as we sleep-walked. Every day. The pipes that came with the colonial masters had long since stopped delivering water to the public taps. My father said the colonial masters left with their competence and left us nothing but our bullshit. Well, he didn’t say bullshit, but things get lost in the translation. We had water taps, yes, but now they are only good as dry markers, mute GPS sentries to places in the heart.

As a little boy, I liked going to the streams of Igarra to see the little fish and to marvel at the wonder that was the hills. Even in those days I was addicted to dreaming. The Nigeria of my youth was epileptic, giving out promises in bursts and relapsing into incompetence. A vicious cycle of nonsense.

America has too much; here we suffer from the poverty of prosperity. This is not as it should be. Ask Africa. There is a reason for longing. There is a reason for deprivation. If you have never experienced loss, you’ll never be happy, if you’ve never been hungry you’ll never know the joy of satisfying a hunger.

Nigeria is like America; her rivers are fed by the poor. You know that river in Africa that you saw on the National Geographic channel, the one filled with famished crocodiles that antelopes had to cross, or die from famine? What a feast for the crocodiles. I am one of the few antelopes that got away. I should make a tee-shirt: I survived Africa. And now I am trying to survive America.

We are still here. Christmas in New Jersey. The music is beautiful, the people are even more beautiful. They are dancing and the moves, graceful, tell stories of war, loves and losses but each step is of quiet defiance. We are here; we are not going anywhere.

We are trying to survive America. I am almost there. I am approaching the winter of my life’s journey and the house is emptying itself of the laughter and tears of children. Our son, Fearless Fang is the only one left at home. He is my constant companion when he is not swift enough to escape the house before my eyes alight on him. He carries my goatskin bag everywhere I go. Goatskin bag? I don’t know what one looks like but it makes this story sufficiently exotic enough to earn a place in an “international” literary journal. Western editors like bullshit like that.

I will miss my son. He helps me complete my haircuts. I cannot see the back of my head. He is my eyes. At my back. He’s got my back. With his eyes. How will I cut my hair when he’s gone to college in the fall? I’ll cross that river of crocodiles when the time comes. For now, I’ll just enjoy what I can. Life goes on. Always

Nigeria on my mind: Who will bell this cat?

Nigeria is on my mind. We are living in interesting times. Many years from now, historians will agree that one of the best things to ever happen to Nigeria was the election of Muhammadu Buhari as president. It is hard to find a more corrupt and hypocritical government than Buhari’s in the history of Nigeria; indeed there is a collective national embarrassment at the thought that a malignant blight rules Nigeria. 

This is not what Nigerians hoped for and asked for. They got duped by the APC and her PhD vuvuzelas. They in turn got duped by Buhari and now they are fighting mad. Interesting.

Let it be said that in Buhari Nigerians have learned a bitter lesson. Some would say that is wishful thinking given the lusty eagerness with which Nigerians are now cheering on the sweet words of the nouveau anti-Buharists, the loud-mouthed broken GPS vuvuzelas that landed our national lorry in the valley of despair and hopelessness.

So those that told us Buhari would be the best thing to happen to Nigeria since jollof rice are now up in arms and will not be consoled. Some are even on the ground in Nigeria begging to be mauled and arrested. Wonderful. These are the same people who worked overtime to blackmail, berate and shut up those of us who refused to drink the burukutu served up by the APC.

I salute these new social justice warriors for carrying my mantle of real change in Nigeria, especially my friends who dubbed me a broken record, for they are now the broken record, singing the same song I have been belting out every day for the past several years. There is a lesson there: If you stand up and speak the truth of your pain long enough, someone will come along to carry your burden. It still shakes me to my foundations that these new wailers, curators of Nigeria’s past bloody history truly believed that given our past, their judgment to hand over Nigeria to Buhari and his acolytes was appropriate.

To be fair, there have been some true warriors for justice, equity and transparency in Nigeria, many of them young folks. The couple of concessions Buhari’s inept and clueless government has made has been due to the hard work of a few studying what little data is out there and loudly sharing their objective critiques. However, true accountability remains a real problem. We have nothing but opinions, few people are being held accountable.

No nation can survive without accountability and robust structures of governance. Our broken, dying, moribund institutions are merely symptoms of the breakdown in structures and accountability. Who will bell the cat? I daresay, not these new wailers. We have heard their songs before. And the beat goes on.

We may end up ignoring history again and avoiding this lesson but know this: Buhari’s ascension to the throne of shame, his election has demystified him, all politicians, and all intellectuals (including writers) and exposed virtually all of us as self-serving rent-seekers. We are living in interesting times and one prays that our great country is greater than the machinations of the men that have held her hostage since Independence. Again, there is the hope that Nigerians have learned their lessons from this epic mistake that is the Buhari presidency; that they have carefully documented why, how and when we got to this mess. And more importantly who led us into this national quagmire.

Hope is fleeting though, perhaps a mirage. I cannot get over this tragicomedy: Those that led us into this mess, those that carefully drove our national truck into this mess, our PhD talking heads are now the ones gleefully pointing out all the potholes that they drove us into – to loud applause from the abused. Why are victims cheering their abductors? This dysfunction is what the PhDs call the Stockholm syndrome, a perverse love affair with one’s jailers and abusers.

Nigerians have been abused for too long, and I say to them: You must gain back your self-esteem. Forgive those who drove you into this hell but stay away from them. They will hurt you again. Not on purpose perhaps, but simply because they are clueless. Outside of their pretty and seductive words, they have never supervised even a dog in their lifetime, so they have no idea what it would take to run a complex country like Nigeria. You need new heroes. In fact, believe it or not, many of you cheering them on may be smarter and more experienced than their glib words may suggest. You may be the hero you seek.

Nigerians have gotten bad advice from many talking heads, the vast majority of whom live in the Diaspora and seem to have no other qualification for national service other than that they live abroad. Nigeria has suffered. It is not their fault but Nigerians seem to be suffering from a national inferiority complex. All it takes for anyone to be taken seriously these days is to write about Nigeria’s problems from abroad, abroad as in Europe and North America. Indeed it is easy to prove that virtually all the hare-brained ideas that Buhari’s hapless regime attempted to implement came from alleged thinkers who live abroad. People with PhDs abroad who would not qualify for a 3-minute slot in a community forum in their places of abode are experts on governance in Nigeria. They demand and obtain access to the highest places of the land and proceed to try to govern armed with nothing but shallow platitudes. It is easy. I have gotten access to strange and powerful places in Nigeria because someone simply said, “This is Ikhide, he is from America!” These talking heads have every right to their personal opinions but the time for bullshit is past tense.

We know now that slick pie charts and PowerPoint slides are inappropriate tools of governance. Talk is cheap. We are lazy, let’s just be honest, we are. Our laziness will kill off our country. Consider this a call to action, we must kill off our communal laziness in order to save Nigeria. The time is now for structural reform. It is hard work, but we have no choice. It is time to end this culture that has turned a once-great country into a space for sloth and graft.

At some point it will become obvious that we cannot continue to live like this. This is a national crisis. Nigeria as it is currently constituted is a failed project, a broken lorry that needs a new engine and a brand new set of wheels. The center is too powerful. It is time to negotiate the terms of Nigeria’s existence. It is counterintuitive but this needs to be said: Be wary of those who trot out the “One Nigeria” mantra and accuse you of “tribalism” once you begin to question the leaky, shaky, sketchy assumptions upon which Nigeria shivers. They are more than likely the real agents of nepotism using cute cloying words to protect the status quo. They feed fat from the status quo and any attempt to look at new ways of doing business threatens them and their agenda. All politics is local, Nigeria is a country of hundreds of nations; it stands to reason therefore that all power should devolve to the local. The federal government as is presently constituted is an ancient relic from ancient colonial times, it is in the wrong business and it needs to go.

Look around you. The people asking you to be patriots are hypocrites. They do not believe in your schools, your hospitals, your roads, your safety, security and welfare. That is why their families are abroad enjoying these things while they rule over you with the mere force of their empty words. Perhaps we need to admit that we are incapable of governing ourselves. My generation and older have failed the nation, no ifs, no buts about it, we have created lovely spaces for ourselves from which we pontificate and excite the disenfranchised. Worse, we are raising a generation of young leaders that threaten to be worse than us – they are narcissistic, self-serving and thoroughly dishonest – and poorly educated to boot. This army of locusts you will find on social media grabbing adoring followers like honey does flies. I despair that this cycle is vicious. I honestly do. But I am not there. At some point, those that are on the ground will detruthcide, enough is enough and rise up and do what they must do to secure their present and their future from rent-seekers. It is the only way out. Who will bell the cat?

Good night.

And yes, speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.

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!

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.

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.

Tobore Ovuorie’s story: Fact or fiction?

On January 23, 2014, Premium Times of Nigeria shocked the world with a horrific story under the screaming banner: INVESTIGATION: Inside Nigeria’s Ruthless Human Trafficking Mafia. It is a horrible story and I am saddened but not surprised that the Nigerian authorities are indifferent to any attempts to investigate the serious claims in the story. In a sane country, all sorts of investigations would commence, the nation would be in a turmoil. A young reporter, Tobore Ovuorie, outraged and inspired by a friend’s experience as a prostitute in Europe, having been shipped there by some wicked madam in Nigeria decides to go undercover to study and expose the crime syndicate(s) hawking this sordid tale.

Tobore Ovuorie (whose twitter handle is @DaughterOfMit) is enthusiastic, if anything else, as evinced by her vociferous testimonies on her timeline. If her narrative turns out to be true, Ovuorie and her sponsors (Premium Times and The Zam Chronicle deserve the Pulitzer. And her sponsors deserve to be censored for reckless endangerment of a reporter. As far as I can tell, Ovuorie is walking the streets of Nigeria unprotected after making serious claims against powerful interests. It is a mystery to me why she so brazenly attached her name to the story. If indeed there is a mafia, she is being quixotic and reckless to boot. She could be badly hurt or killed. As for the external sponsor of the adventure, The Zam Chronicle based in Amsterdam, it seems highly unusual for a Western outfit to sign on to such a risky venture without putting many things in place to minimize actuarial risk, the financial consequences may be too much to bear. What if she had been murdered? Her family could have sued the sponsors.

It is a shocking story on many levels. The scale of human trafficking of young girls to Europe for prostitution is big “multibillion dollar” business. There is an added horrific dimension; young people are being killed for their organs. There are beheadings, I mean, Ovuorie witnessed murders on at least two occasions. In one particularly horrific episode, early on in the journey, two girls are casually beheaded before her eyes. When this story broke, it went viral on social media, many of us rightfully traumatized and enraged by what this young reporter had gone through. The poet Emman Shehu put the story up on his wall. Please go read it and pay particular attention to the comments by his Facebook friends (here). Many are concerned, but there are a few skeptics and they back up their skepticism with reasonable questions that need to be responded to. One Hasan Gimba seems to sum up the cynics concerns reproduced verbatim thus:

“I concur with Bedu and those who see this story as the fiction it ought to be. In the first place, a cub reporter knows better than to embark on such “investigative voyage” with an identity, in this case, phone with informations. 2. Without it (phone, which, in the fashion of Nick Carter, conveniently refused to “charge”) she was at a loss as to how to contact Reece (implying she could not access her phonebook) but was able to give her number to a driver who eventually took her to the one she had “practiced” with but “recognised” her from her facebook picture. If she had her number offhead, she wouldn’t have regaled us with the fear of how to contact who. 3. A “soldier” running after you, yet the “crowd” failed to help him? 4. And for God’s sake, despite unleashed corruption in our country, view our security forces with some fairness. Nigerian soldiers guarding a human abbatoir in the middle of the forest? Nigerian soldiers and police escorting pick-pocket trainees to the training field? And this kind of chumminess and banter with the customs, is too hilarius to be true. Human trafficking sure takes place but not in this fabulous nollywood style! Haba! This is a script for Mercy Johnson, whose body contours immensely qualify her to be a “special force”.”

I must say at the onset I was one of those openly upset by Ovuorie’s story. I had to do a closer reading of the story thanks to the goading of a Facebook friend of mine, Lesley Gene Agams who seemed skeptical and asked my thoughts openly after I had posted the report along with a long wail about how bad Nigeria is. Here is the exchange:

Lesley Gene Agams: Ikhide you are a literary critic, what do you make of this type of ‘investigative journalism’? I would really like to know.

Ikhide R. Ikheloa: I am not a literary critic, I am a noisy reader, thank you. I have to say, to be frank, I stayed up all night, all the sentences in my head, trying to figure out the question: How can this be real, even in Nigeria? Why have the authorities not stormed the places she seemed to know geographically? We will never know for many reasons, we don’t bother investigating stuff. I have done some investigations myself (Abani, Emeagwali) but on my own time. You know what, journalists are lazy, most of the “investigations” were cut and paste jobs of my work. So we will never know.

I will say that human trafficking is real and brutal, I come from Edo State and it is a major source of revenue. What is happening to girls from my ancestral land (Italy, etc.) is beyond the speaking of it. Even if only half of it is true, it should horrify us and galvanize us to action. Chika Unigwe has done excellent literary work on the subject of human trafficking and prostitution in Europe.

Even if it is fiction, it is rooted in harsh, harsh, brutal reality. You have no idea how bad things are in Nigeria. I know someone who could tell you about extra judicial executions by the Nigerian police. Human life is nothing to us.

Please do not come for my head. I am not about to declare the story a fabrication, only Ovuorie knows. I just don’t know who and what to believe anymore. I have so many questions that I would love Premium Times and the government of Nigeria to clear up in everyone’s interest. Please take a closer look at the story. These are some of my questions:

1. Why is the Nigerian Police silent on this story? Ovuorie seems to know many geographic details of the places where she was taken to and where she witnessed horrific crimes. She knows names of important personalities, there is even a name of a policeman provided. Has Premium Times contacted the Nigerian authorities? What is the status, if any, of the investigation? She mentions specific geographic locations, for example: “The party is held at a gorgeous residence along the Agunyi Ironsi Way in Maitama, Abuja.” And the Police is silent? Where is the outrage? “The policeman doesn’t even bother to cover his name badge: Babatunde Ajala, it reads.”

2. When she witnessed the beheading of two abducted girls, she had her phone (or seemed to). Who did she text? Who did she call? Forensic experts can learn a lot from these transcripts.

3. At what point did she and her sponsors realize that this was possibly an unwise venture and she needed to be rescued? Where there any discussions about this?

4. I am having trouble believing that she did not text any of the pictures that were in her cellphone to someone else. That just seems unlikely. Does anyone have pictures or anything?

5. How sophisticated can this syndicate be if they allow the girls keep their cellphones and presumably let them continue to chat with the outside world? There are so many tracking devices on a cellphone, you wonder if and why the game plan of the reporter did not include these free tools. I was recently in Abeokuta, where GPS works; I imagine depending on the phone there were  GPS mapping tools available to Ovuorie.

6. Ovuorie seemed close to the two girls who were beheaded, does she have their phone numbers? Can they be traced back to their families? Why are people silent about all this?

7. The report talks of a “multibillion dollar syndicate” but the “syndicate” doesn’t appear very sophisticated, a reporter walks the streets asking for the leader and is promptly hooked up with one, gains the trust of the syndicate and along with the other “abducted girls” has access to her cellphone and even a charger. Interesting, but then we are talking about Nigeria. Nothing seems to stretch credulity:

“As we are about to leave, I lose my phone to the army officer. Searching all of us, he has taken Isoken’s phone already and she has pointed at me to divert attention from herself, saying I had a phone too. He takes mine at gunpoint. I can only thank the heavens that it is dead. I had been upset because it didn’t charge the previous night, but the fact that it won’t switch on is my second lucky break: it has a lot of pictures and conversations I have recorded in the camp. The disadvantage of losing my phone is that I can’t contact our colleague Reece, who is to help me once I get to Cotonou.”

I desperately want to believe this story but there are so many problems with the story, Lesley is right, if this was a work of fiction I would savage it with my unsolicited personal opinions. For one thing, the end is too neat, too tidy, it screams “contrived.” But again, we are talking about Nigeria. I tire sha. Somebody do something, say something, what happened here? There are many reasons to confront this story, its veracity being the least, but still a crucial reason to deal with it. The credibility of a nation is pretty much gone, but once our journalists lose their credibility, it is all over.

We need answers, lots of answers. What just happened here? I have said my own.

Okey Ndibe’s Foreign Gods, Inc.: Of moral absolutism and fallen gods

foreign godsIf I had words, I would tell you stories that would make the wind weep.

         – Foreign Gods, Inc. Okey Ndibe

There is a particularly farcical, definitely quixotic misadventure that Professor Wole Soyinka narrates in his memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn. In  the late seventies, convinced that the Ori Olokun, a bronze artifact needed to be rescued from Brazil and returned home to Nigeria, Soyinka set about the “rescue” with hilarious results. He goes to Brazil and manages to bring home what turns out to be a fake, clay replica of the real deal. The real Ori Olokun was cooling its heels, under lock and key, in an air-conditioned museum in London. The farce is entertainingly re-narrated by Matt Steinglass in this brutal but entertaining review of Soyinka’s memoir.

Foreign Gods, Inc., Okey Ndibe’s new thriller of a fiction relives the farce in reverse. This time, Ike Uzondu, the protagonist, a highly educated Nigerian immigrant living a life he detests as a near-bankrupt, somewhat alcoholic cab driver in New York decides to go to his ancestral home in Nigeria, steal the totem of the god Ngene, “that ancient god of war named after a moody mud-colored river” and return to America in triumph where presumably Mark Gruels an art dealer would willingly pay a huge sum of money for it.  Things do not end well, but you will have to read the book, you will enjoy this well-paced thriller. It is good writing and anyone that has followed Ndibe will not be disappointed. In Foreign Gods, Inc. Ndibe proves to be a master story-teller. Good for him. On the Internet, and everywhere the written word resides, Ndibe rules the waves of Nigerian social commentary. A superb writer with a keen social conscience, his scathing essays drive Nigeria’s thieving ruling class up the walls of their stolen mansions. Whenever he visits Nigeria, it is unusual that he is not accosted by the goons of  the ruling class du jour. Few know however that Ndibe is also a fiction writer who has one novel, Arrows of Rain under his belt. You should read Foreign Gods, Inc.; it is an important, engaging, and fun addition to literature.

There are many reasons to like Foreign Gods, Inc. From the first page, Ndibe employs many literary tricks to hold the reader’s fickle attention to the end. A great first chapter sprints confidently into the second and so on to create a well-paced book that managed to keep my attention away from the neediness of social media. Ndibe has a fine mind, and a social conscience; from Babylon to Africa, Ndibe’s voice rises to a roar of rage at his ancestors’ condition. Ndibe is Achebe’s Obierika, endlessly thinking about these things, he interrogates both the material and the spiritual, what some might call superstition. And he does it with the grace of someone imbued with enough self-confidence to defend his ancestors’ dignity and eroding way of life. Foreign Gods, Inc. functions as social commentary, and examines, in a counter-intuitive way, the role of the African intellectual in the mess that is today’s Africa. Think about it, Soyinka wanted to return the Ori Olokun from its air-conditioned vault to a life of certain destitution where museums can be filthy, empty rooms attended to by termites; Ike wanted to return home to steal an artifact and sell to the white man. To hell with moral absolutism. Man must wack. The farce lives.

For Ndibe’s Foreign Gods, Inc., the subtext is greed, we are selling our gods, no, we have sold our gods. His rage is coolly turned on Nigeria. We see a Nigeria ravaged by rank consumerism and organized religion, especially the new Christianity of “prosperity” churches. Her people, poor and rich, are thus united by a crushing poverty – of spirit and ideas (see “healing mystery lake video”). Ndibe weeps over a dying world and seems helpless as alien gods and thieving pastors rifle through the remains of a yard sale from hell. The new religion teaches us to think only in black and white, light and darkness. Ndibe chronicles the devastation. The pastor is not a man of God but a man of fraud. 419 pastors have infected Nigeria. His analysis of the devastation wreaked on Nigeria by the new Christianity is worth the price of the book. He also riffs on the Babylon that is the protagonist’s America. Culture shocks peek out of the civil, unctuous airs of Manhattan. The high rises bow to greed. This is also a story about identity and belonging, a novel about our America, their America. “And then there was Derek Jeter pitching some credit card. Ike had dozed off. He startled awake as a sports reporter screeched about the Yankees’ tie-breaking home run in the second game of a split doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park.” (Kindle Locations 263-264). Ndibe knows his America.

Foreign Gods, Inc. is about a duel between Africa (Ike Uzondu) and the West (Mark Gruels). The Vampire strike the Empire. Or not. Numerous confrontations in the book heightened a luscious, ever present tension. All through the myriad drama, the book manages not to be drowned by the prattle of too many characters. Also, Ndibe captures, perhaps unwittingly the trademark superciliousness of the self-absorbed African writer bereft of a moral filter. He addresses many conventional issues that preoccupy African writers; the indignity of destitution, corruption, misogyny, women and children as chattel, the ravages of drug trafficking, patriarchy, capitalism, consumerism, the banality of our dreams, etc. Still, for the most part, funny, well-crafted lines jostle with important history. He chronicles with a war-weary eye the corruption in the land. My favorite lines advertise the gentrification going on in Nigeria’s rural areas: “The house behind seemed to stand on heels and peer into his mother’s backyard. Zinc-roofed concrete houses stood where mud houses used to be. Several buildings sported satellite dishes or television antennas.” (Kindle Locations 1238-1239). Nice.

Yes, Ndibe pens beautiful prose; he writes memorable lines like this: “The last scene he remembered was the clarity of the dawn sky in Amsterdam, a wide blue dome with no cloud puffs in sight. As the plane ascended, he looked out the window at the immensity of the sky. Then, casting his eyes down, he saw the vast mat of the landscape, the streets of Amsterdam marked off by geometric patterns amid marshes and expanses of green. Seen from the heights, the rugged beauty of the unfurled scene seemed unbearable, and he shut his eyes.” (Kindle Locations 1005-1008) Nice.

The book is a touching tale told with uncommon dignity, coolly narrated with a matter-of-fact but engaging cadence. Ndibe writes about an era in America when folks still walked into a travel agency and bought an air ticket, a time of emails and whatnot. Ndibe knows America with all its grittiness. The dialogue is great, you want to eavesdrop on a deadly serious account of a journey that is gripping in parts. Even though, the trademark superciliousness of the African writer towards West colors the book, however this time it is turned inwards also. We are making progress.

okeygoodIt would be interesting to study Ndibe’s Foreign Gods Inc. side by side with Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah and reconcile their perspectives on race, America and relationships. The books do complement each other in the interesting conversations on African-American and African relationships. The marriage of convenience (for the coveted green card) between Ike and Bernita, the African American was the War of the Roses with lots of sex and drinking in the numerous intermissions. Like Americanah, Foreign Gods, Inc. is about class; touching is the class difference between Ike and Bernita, the marriage a perverse symbiotic relationship, each in the marriage for different reasons. Like Americanah, Foreign Gods, Inc. also examines the tensions between Nigerians in the Diaspora and Nigerians at home. To Ndibe’s credit, he does spare the reader another conversation on the politics of hair.

Ike’s world is grim and filled with the grit of despair, of “creditors… disconcerting mail: late-payment reminders, disconnection warnings, cancellation threats, repossession notices, eviction slips… an ever-present frowsy smell… a commingling of spilled liquor, urine, cigarette smoke, perfumes, and the rich, leafy scent of marijuana.” (Kindle Locations 577-585).  You can smell America.  You can also smell the eaves of Ndibe’s earth, “…memories of the nights during childhood when he could not sleep unless cuddled up against her body, which reeked of smoky wood, warm like sun-baked clay.” (Kindle Locations 662-663). Anxieties, identities, issues clashing in powerful paragraphs. Ike is living a life of seedy desperation, on the edge of a capitalist nightmare, sourcing for funds as hustlers would say in Nigeria, feeding twin monsters, American style capitalism, and that Nigerian scourge called the extended family system. Like Obi in No Longer at Ease, the end will be inglorious.

adichieAmericanah

Foreign Gods, Inc. is not a perfect book, of course, says the cliché. The editing is not the best. Ndibe is a master of words, however, in a few places, the editing clamps restraints on him, it is as if he is communicating in a different voice, you can barely recognize him. Thanks to the editing, with Nigerian words much is lost in translation. We need indigenous Nigerian editors in these Western publishing houses, they don’t quite get us. It can be irritating; Nigerian terms are italicized and eroticized, it is a wonder there is no glossary explaining Kalu Mazi.

Foreign Gods Inc. is burdened by a structural flaw; there is a confused timeline of events. In one instance, in Ike’s village, a group is watching a 1991 game NBA championship game between the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers. It seems unlikely that even in the remotest of Nigerian villages, this would be happening in 2006. One can only surmise that the manuscript was first conceived in the nineties, with the plots and characters and ambience evolving to meet a fast changing world (emails, cell phones etc.).  In another example, the pastor rides around in a Peugeot 504. In the late 2000’s it seems unlikely for a prosperity pastor to own that model, he would have had to search far and wide to locate one. Attempts to make the story more contemporary are thus subverted and ambushed by traces of (ancient) history. The world is moving too fast for our writers, it is not their fault. Books are struggling with the interactive and addictive nature of social media. And losing. A book is so 20th century: You cannot swipe, LOL, LIKE, CLICK, talk to a book. A book knows it all. A book lectures. Like a 20th century headmaster. In the 21st century, the book is a dying sage on the stage. Long live the Internet.

Finally, Ndibe will have to contend with many readers who will undoubtedly ask legitimate questions about the heavy presence of Chinua Achebe’s ghost between the sheets of Foreign Gods, Inc. Ndibe’s unpretentious prose highlights effectively, in my view, the utter banality of life for many immigrants in the West. But then there are transitions in the prose that offer strong whiffs of Achebe’s many works of fiction:

“Look at this,” his uncle had said, pulling up his undershirt to expose a gash in his belly. Osuakwu paused, running his fingers along the singed, darkened scar. “First, the white man forced me to go to Burma to fight in a war that had nothing to do with me. It was a quarrel between different white brothers. And then the white man gave me this as payment.” (Kindle Locations 1000-1003)

achebeChapter 10 has strong echoes of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. Scholars may have a field day interpreting this. Again, the language reminds one eerily of Achebe. Characters like Unoka, Uchendu, Okonkwo, Obierika, etc. seem to make loud cameo appearances in the book’s characters. There is even an interpreter that is ridiculed by “a proud loquacious oaf.” Chapter 14 suffers immensely from Achebe’s spirit, it is as if one is reading passages knighted by a composite influence of Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, Arrow of God, and A Man of the People;  here, Ndibe is Achebe with a cell phone. Like Achebe’s books, here, there is a surplus of parables and tales. It is as if you are reading Achebe, so many parallels. Osuakwu is Ike’s uncle. Uchendu was Okonkwo’s uncle. The beauty of spirituality of the Igbo is captured, but one hears Arrow of God. In the conversation between Ike and Big Ed, the Jamaican immigrant, one is reminded of Uchendu’s admonition of Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart

What do I think? Foreign Gods, Inc. is a great outing that will be remembered and defined by its relationship with virtually all of Chinua Achebe’s works of fiction, and not always in a good way. Devotees of Achebe will see his spirit everywhere. Ndibe made a strategic decision, it seems, some would say, a strategic mistake to be heavily influenced by Achebe’s works. Achebe is everywhere, delete the cellphones and the emails and you almost find yourself chanting, “Kotma of the ashy buttocks.” And so, Foreign Gods, Inc. will be important for at least one reason that Ndibe probably never envisioned, its relationship with Achebe’s works. Scholars will spend countless hours debating at what point an influence gets acknowledged. There is no science to this; it is a matter of personal judgment. It should have been a simple fix, Ndibe should have openly acknowledged Achebe’s influence in the book and given him some credit – upfront. Achebe does get a nod in the “acknowledgments” section but only in a vague, “he was my mentor, and I love him so, sense.” An upfront acknowledgment would have been sufficient for me. Still it did not rob me of the fun of reading about “buttocks” in Foreign Gods Inc. and chuckling about the court messengers in Things Fall Apart being ridiculed by the prisoners:

 “Kotma of the ash buttocks,

He is fit to be a slave.

The white man has no sense,

He is fit to be a slave.”

Achebe, Chinua (2010-10-06). Things Fall Apart: (Kindle Locations 1903-1904).

I have said my own.

Guest Blog Post by Adeshina Afolayan: Is ASUU a union of role models?

Dr. Adeshina Afolayan teaches philosophy at the University of Ibadan and a card-carrying member of Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU).

‘Dele, it is time to go wash the plates,’ the mother said to her son.

‘My teacher said I must always do my assignment first thing when I get home,’ Dele replied, already opening his books.

‘But I need those plates to make your food now,’ the mother shouted, already exasperated. This isn’t the first time Dele would be contradicting her with what his teacher said.

‘Mummy, my teacher said if I want to be a great person, I must always do my school assignment before any other thing.’ His head was buried in his book, and his pencil was already furiously scribbling.

I’m certain only few parents will not recognise this scene. It plays out in many homes where the teachers used to wield an enormous influence over the students. Yes: used to. It would seem, quite tragically, that this incidence is now restricted to the kindergartens and nursery schools, if at all. Teachers have been demystified. The implication of this demystification is that we are no longer the custodians of higher education values that parents can conveniently relinquish the care of their children to. We have abdicated our role as the second agent of socialisation; we have become unscrupulous. We can no longer be trusted!

I can already feel the hostilities bristling. And this time, I may have more than university lecturers to contend with. Of course, I know there are good teachers who are role models for their respective students. But I speak to an overwhelming preponderance in the question that my title raises. That ought to be the norm in an institution meant to cultivate the future. And how is ‘preponderance’ measured? In the reflection of what our students are able to do, how far they are able to go in life, what values they embrace, what they are able to do with their education. Now, when you look at the state studentship has fallen into in Nigeria, what do you come out with? We have a mirror reflection of what the teachers have also become. I suspect Fela just came into your mind. It’s impossible not to remember him and his prognosis of what lecturers have become. The Ivory Towers are no longer edifying; so many values have broken down. We now have only a fraction of our students to celebrate; the majority have been lost to valuelessness. Generalisations? Crucify me if you can.

I am not afraid the fingers point at me too. I am raising a self-reflexive issue that lumps me within the framework of educational rot I am pointing at. Epimenides, the Cretan philosopher, gave historical and philosophical credence to the paradox of self-reflexivity. Epimenides is reputed to have made the allegation that ‘All Cretans are liars.’ If what he says is true, then it must be a lie because he is also a Cretan! I will leave the reader to decide whether I am also guilty of the self-reflexive paradox. I am an ASUU member, and I am no saint. I am involved. My lecture attendance is less than a hundred percent, sometimes my scripts don’t get graded on time, I’ve never been subjected to the assessment of my students, some of the students claim that I am too stern and distant, one of them even accused me of sexual harassment before (and you don’t need to bother about my statement of innocence; I leave that too to your judgment).

Yet, in spite of my involvement in the higher educational issues that impugn ASUU’s credentials, I suspect that I am not Epimenides and these issues transcend me. I will phrase my concern in this piece as a question: Is ASUU a body of teachers or educators? Are we role models who practice what we teach or we are just rote facilitators? I see ASUU not only as a trade union but as a professional body with the same weight of professional responsibility as the Nigerian Medical Association, the Nigerian Institute of Safety Professionals, Pharmacist Council of Nigeria, Council for the Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria and the Nigerian Institute of Building. This analogy is deliberately. It seems to me that these professional bodies cannot afford to be restricted to the minima of check off dues and traditional unionism. Their responsibility demands more: They are life professionals. ASUU should not be less. We mould lives. We prepare future leaders. We stand in the breach of national reckoning. We speak to countless future and generations. That’s what makes teaching a spiritual endeavour; we are not less priestly than the Pope. We owe it to those whose future depends on us to monitor and circumscribe our professional products as best as we can. Don’t tell me we are trying; we haven’t tried enough. Check the evidence!

Unionism has happened to ASUU so much so that it seems to have torpedoed our professional vigilance. This is the paradox for me—ASUU is a professional body which seems to have somehow lost its professional credentials. It is a professional body which somehow has succumbed to series of unprofessional activities that in no way flatter ASUU’s lip-service to being the guardian of higher educational values in Nigeria. Consider two issues. First: teachers now poach on the students they are supposed to be educating. Second: As a professional body, ASUU has now become a body of teachers who hide under the protective might of their union to perpetrate and perpetuate gross misconduct. These two issues coalesce to ensure that character and learning—the deep motto of the University of Ibadan—has become a surface slogan in almost all universities in Nigeria. And ASUU is responsible. Forget about the Federal Government for now, abeg! Why? Apart from the student body, we are the next significant constituent of the university. When we stand in the class to teach, what do the students perceive? I am not raising a philosophical question; yet it is difficult not to distil a philosophical implication from how a student relates with his/her lecturers in four or five years. We seem to have inverted Thomas Szasz’s maxim: We now wield maximal power and minimal authority. Doesn’t this justify our students perceiving us as a pathetic bunch of intellectuals? Aren’t they justified to ask whether we can actually educate them or impart character? Shouldn’t they repeat Fela’s song to us?

ASUU is a powerful body, but in a negative sort of way. Yet we are intellectuals and that ought to count for a whole lot of creative responses to what our roles ought to be in the society. We stand at a juncture when we should confront our demystification. We ought to come under interrogation of ourselves by ourselves. I suspect it would be too much to task ASUU with the responsibility of refurbishing its members’ characters; but we can monitor them beyond the circumscription of unionism. This will constitute the first step in balancing the proportion between the good and the bad. ASUU has a serious task to build a preponderance of role models if we want the society to take us serious. Let me shock you—in conclusion: If we continue complacent, then we are looking at the end of the university as we have come to know it consequent on our failure as life-minders.

Asa asked a fundamentally question in ‘Fire on the Mountain’: Who’s responsible for what we teach our children? Is it the Internet or the stars on television? Does ASUU have a role to play? Can we initiate a paradigm shift in the future? Can parents trust us with the future of their children? I don’t think so, at least not when there is still a raging and unchecked fire on the mountain! I will return again.

Molara Wood’s Indigo: Enchanting Seasons

He wore one of his special embroidered dashiki tops that must have been high fashion when I was a girl. Now it spoke only of longevity.

                                  – Wood, Molara (2013-07-11). Indigo (Kindle Locations 374-375).

There are many reasons why you should read Indigo, Molara Wood’s delightful and enchanting debut collection of short stories. First, Wood is a great story teller with a distinctly inimitable voice and it shows in this book. Second, Indigo is quite simply good writing, one that should be required reading in creative writing classes. As a writer, for Wood, the gift of beautiful writing is not enough, she models hard work. Wood is uncompromising when it comes to the written word; everything must be in place or the sentence won’t see the light of day.  Third, Wood ensures that in her stories, you will be entertained in the grand tradition of the oral storytellers of Africa, Wood proves masterfully that the short story lives and lives well. Nigeria is a land of storytellers; judging from this collection, Wood is a worthy ambassador of Nigeria. It helps that virtually all the stories in Indigo have been vetted externally and subjected to rigorous editorial reviews. Several are award-winning and previously published in reputable journals and books.

Seventeen stories make up Indigo. Using these engaging stories as robust, throaty vehicles of entertainment and enlightenment, Wood addresses a legion of topics expertly and in an orderly manner. The reader is not overwhelmed. These are not unctuous social commentaries pretending to be short stories. The stories are mostly narratives of triumph over adversity in the face of unconventional wars. Wood deftly avoids poverty porn and frees the reader to reflect, unsolicited, on the issues of contemporary Africa. What I really love about Indigo is this: Several stories are simply stories, like comfort food, you sit at Wood’s feet and just listen to a good story. This Wood does with her brainy, wry wit and signature tart prose; sentences are little daggers she throws at pressure points to get the desired reaction. The missiles, tightly wound, with Molara-esque attitude, fly off the pages and assault the senses in a gently seething riot of colors. As a luscious side benefit, I swooned over the stunning cover art, ‘Pensiveness by the legendary Muraina Oyelami embedded in Eazy Gbodiyan’s and Victor Ehikhamenor’s brilliant Indigo cloth themed cover designs.

Indigo CoverThe book takes off, guns blazing, starting with Indigo, the title story, a touching tale about childlessness, societal expectations and culture clashes. And so the feast of words, carefully spun together begins. There is an abundance of impish lines to keep the reader engaged in this feisty book:

‘Shhh!’ Bola’s aunt, in whose arms the baby nestled, placed a finger to lips that seemed to occupy half her face. Her baggy boubou attire did nothing to hide the tyre-like circumference of her midriff. A mole perched on top of her left earlobe like an audacious fly. (Kindle Locations 56-59).

Throughout the book, Wood mostly appropriates the English language as her own. There are so many stories to fall in love with here. Read Gani’s Fall, a sly conversation about patriarchy and polygamy – and a delightful fable about an impish alliance among wives in a polygamous home, and laugh your ribs out. The language soars on the wings of a vivid imagination; a lovelorn woman complains of longing for the husband and you sigh as she moans about his absence from her bed, “he hardly ever darkened my doorway.”

Here are my favorite lines:

The widow next door to him in the village does his laundry for him. Some whisper that she does more. (Kindle Locations 375-376).

And:

The family cat, ever sluggish, rediscovered speed and tore away. (Kindle Locations 320-321).

You must read Night Market. In this gorgeous story, all of Nigeria’s dysfunctions spill out into the streets with an African American spouse as a deeply disturbed witness to the mayhem – and, oh yes, there’s a little bit of magic realism thrown in:

‘Ah,’ piped up Chinyere, ‘people go to di night market to buy and sell. The road shrink, true. But the road between heaven and earth open wide at the night market . Animals turn into human beings to buy and sell, ghosts come to buy and sell. Dead children sef, even come to buy…’ (Kindle Locations 733-735)

Kelemo’s Woman reminds the reader of Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah. It is a play on gender relations slyly presented as a short story around a military coup. Some of the dialogue seem eerily prophetic given Nigeria’s current challenges:

This country is being run to the ground, and soldiers will only speed up the burial. You, me, and others like us, are going to have to fight – and sacrifice – to turn around the course of this nation! (Kindle Locations 992-993).

Night market

In A Small Miracle, Wood displays her gift for good dialogue and for arranging words on the palette like the diviner’s cowries. Beautiful Game is quite simply a beautiful story. England and soccer come alive in the hands of immigrants. In In Name Only, a story about a sham marriage to legalize residency in England is expertly used to showcase life as an immigrant in moody Babylon. In Leaving Oxford Street and The Last Bus Stop, the Nouveaux rich, social climbers and dreamers wallow in fashion statements, dreams of wealth, and the forced mediocrity of relocation. I was moved by In the Time of Job, a pretty story about immigration and an unlikely friendship among two people from opposite sides of the ocean.

The Scarcity of Common Goods is probably my most favorite story. I love how Wood weaves class issues, infidelity and societal expectations into a most unusual tale. But then Smoking Bamboo has to be the best love story I have read in a long time. Here, Wood’s imagination soars gently and rests firmly on the reader’s own imagination. It is a truly authentic and wondrous story swimming mostly in awesome prose-poetry. Still Wood manages to talk to us about the ravages of war and drug and alcohol addiction on communities.  It is also about migration – the endless restless quest for peace, prosperity and happiness. The character Amugbo reminds the reader of Unoka in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. You don’t want this story to end, this pretty but sad tale of a wind-swept, war-ravaged land filled with women and children only. And one drugged man. Smoking Bamboo alone is worth the price of the book. Hear Wood:

When Angelina stepped in her delicate manner on the moist earth her toenails crimson, I thought babies would fall from the sky. And I saw the fierceness with which Amugbo’s bloodshot eyes lit upon her. I had seen it coming days before when in my mind’s eye I saw a great bird whose wings swept the air up and down, beating sprays out of clouds that hung heavy in the late morning sky. The wings went still over our ravine , cosseted by an endless canopy of trees. Avian eyes observed water vapours rising in airy steams from the gorge to be sucked into ravenous clouds. (Kindle Locations 2127-2131).

And the song “Angelina, Angelina, o ti lọọ wa ju!” took me back many decades when High life music ruled Nigeria’s dance floors. Oh Nigeria!

There is one sense in which Indigo is an important book; Its treatment of gender relations, patriarchy, and polygamy.  I found myself thinking of similar themes in the books and essays of writers like Lola Shoneyin, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chika Unigwe, Taiye Selasie, NoViolet Bulawayo, etc. It would make for an interesting and valuable scholarship to study the works of all these thinkers in in relation to patriarchy, gender tensions and related anxieties. I previously shared my views on Adichie’s approach (here). I would say, compared to Adichie, Wood’s approach is more subtle, more sophisticated and definitely more respectful. Unlike Adichie’s Americanah, Indigo deploys less of caricatures to describe patriarchy and make her points about gender issues.

The book is not without its flaws (yes, I know, no book is perfect): Sometimes the purpose of the English language is to remind us of how much we have lost in the translation of our lives into that of the other. Wood is mostly successful in appropriating the English language as if it is Nigerian but some translations of indigenous proverbs are awkwardly done, like: “The child does not recognise the enchanted herb; and so calls it a vegetable.” The reader yearns for a crisper version. Or blessed silence. Stories like Fear Hill and Trial by Water read like promising works in progress. Written in Stone is perhaps, the most ambitious – and the most flawed.  It is a bold attempt at historical fiction that is compromised by a certain looseness with historical facts and a disconnectedness that makes it read like two halves of two unrelated stories. It has the protagonist coming upon written communication in the caves of walls in 1879. In English. Historians would no doubt find that improbable in Nigeria, if not inaccurate. I would have loved a collaboration between Wood and a gifted illustrator like Victor Ehikhamenor to make the stories more alive and give them an additional dimension, it is just as well, the stories engaged me nonetheless.

The 21st century is reshaping the role of the book with spectacular muscle. Devotees of Wood will instantly recognize most of these stories; over the years she has been prolific on the Internet and social media, giving of her gifts pretty much freely. I easily found half of the stories on the Internet. I see profound opportunities on the Internet for thinkers like Wood whose gifts are hobbled by the lack of a robust publishing industry in Black Africa. However, worldwide, relying solely on the book to access the reading audience is becoming a problem. The book is fast becoming primarily an archive of sorts.

Molara Wood PHOTO by TY Bello (2)As a near-aside, Wood has a legion of followers in the literary world but many readers will not recognize her.  Well, she is arguably one of the most influential of what would probably be referred to as the fourth generation of writers – an enigmatic and elusive group of writers in their late thirties to early fifties range who have quietly redefined contemporary African literature as we know it today by moving it with brawn and brain into the digital world. Much is known about the older generation and the very young generation, but very little is known of this quiet but powerful group, on whose laps it fell to, in effect, digitize African literature. There are too many names to mention, but they are finally stepping out of the shadows and writing books. It’s a good thing.

Wood’s passion for African literature is legendary; courageous and visionary, in the early 2000s, she dropped everything in London and moved back to Nigeria to help found NEXT newspapers, one of the most exciting acts of journalism to ever come out of Africa. At NEXT, she nurtured many of us as our editor and kept us in line with her keen eye, passion for the word, and a punishing work ethic. When the NEXT experiment folded, she remained in Nigeria where she continues to be a mover and a shaker in literary circles.  For thinkers like Wood and her generation of writers, the book as a medium of communication is a wretched vehicle for their gifts, the Internet is their book, literally. You would have to go to the Internet to get a sense of Wood’s contribution to the literary arts. There, she and many literary leaders daily supervise the new literary genre that features the real-time collision and collusion of reader and writer. One day, it will be possible to make money of this emerging genre. And it would be because of the visionary work of Wood’s generation. Google her. But first you must read Indigo. Oh, and I learnt a new word. Rill. Google it. After you are through googling Molara Wood.

10 points on the ASUU wahala: It is all about the data and communications

Nigeria is on my mind. Specifically, I am thinking of the crippling strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) that is almost six months now. It is common knowledge that the situation in the campuses is grim (see a grisly report by ThisDay here, sobering pictures from a “NEEDS assessment” here, and these particularly upsetting photos on Linda Ikeji’s blog, of university facilities in utter disrepair). I have weighed in on numerous times, since 2009 (read my last rant here). The situation is dire and both ASUU and the federal government are fiddling. Meanwhile Nigerian students are at home. Well, not all of them. Private universities are still in session.

ASUU was created for good reason and at a time when Nigeria had very few universities, all of them government funded. Today, there are more than ten times that many universities, several of them privately owned (ironically by the thieves that ran the public universities aground). ASUU as a central force is a behemoth that must go. There is a compelling reason why ASUU must be disbanded at the national level and strengthened at each institution. A cookie-cutter approach to advocacy using strikes that shut down all public universities while the private universities stay open introduces an inequity. It is this: The children of the poor are disproportionately impacted by these shut-downs since they are the ones most likely to attend the public, decaying tertiary institutions. The children of the rich are either in private schools or abroad in good schools.  Indeed it is the case that the children of many professors do not attend public universities. They are either in private institutions or abroad. It is the truth. Your guess is as good as mine as to how they can afford to raise their kids in private schools or abroad. They can’t. They do. This is all so sad. And Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the man who gave me a free and appropriate primary education turns in his grave. The legacy of Nigerian leaders will be to prove through corruption and incompetence, that a free and appropriate public education is a myth.  It is a shame that no one on either side seems to give a tinker’s cuss about this. Our leaders have lost the plot. Elsewhere real leaders are dreaming of and implementing the classroom of the future, It is called Skype. It is free, Ask our children. They would know. They live there freely. On Skype.

I must concede, as many people keep reminding me, that I am not there in Nigeria and much of what I have been saying is informed by my stay in the West where as an educational administrator, I have everything at my disposal to ensure that every child in my local community has access to a free and appropriate public education, in a wholesome and nurturing classroom. I will also concede that in that respect, coming from a different culture, I would be at sea in Nigeria, and with my imported ideas, I would fail. For good reason. There are clearly serious challenges in Nigeria’s educational sector that are exacerbated by poor attitudes among labor, management and government. Many of us who have spoken out loudly against the deleterious antics and tactics of ASUU (largely Diasporans) have strained to offer common-sense suggestions, but have been met with comical retorts. This is a crying shame.

Regardless of where you are, there are certain things that must happen, to maintain an appropriate standard of education. With the current ASUU wahala, all sides appear unwilling or unable to learn anything new and refreshing. No one is willing to accept responsibility, and in my view, ASUU is the worst culprit. Let me simply observe that these dysfunctions did not start yesterday, they were already manifesting themselves robustly in my time at the University of Benin, Benin City, in the late seventies. It is hugely hypocritical for anyone now to suddenly wake up, look around and smell decay. And by the way, ASUU, Ikhide has been telling you to clean up something as simple as your website since 2009, yet not a typo has been touched. What gives Ikhide or anyone the confidence that anything will change when you get some more money? The culture of abuse and mediocrity is pervasive. There needs to be a Needs Assessment done in that area. Seriously.

It is really all about data and with respect to financial data; there is not a whole lot to see from anywhere that would inform good decision making and objective analysis. What little has been only proves that funding for the university infrastructure is beyond woeful; it is appalling and disgraceful by any standard. Focusing strictly on the decayed infrastructure, inspired by the (lack of) data and transparency that we have witnessed on the ASUU government tug of war, here are my closing thoughts:

1. There should be an annual Needs Assessment done on each university institution. There is a structural and systemic way to do this. It is called a yearly capital budget and a capital improvement plan which is an annually updated Multi-year strategic plan that, using demographic and revenue projections anticipates an institution’s capital needs. This document is typically a volume of data and visioning and implementation prose that is designed with multiple audiences in mind.

2. There should also be a facilities maintenance budget in the annual operating budget that funds maintenance workers, supplies, contractual obligations and maintenance equipment (if it is not budgeted out of the capital budget).

3. Again, a university is a university anywhere in the world and it must be kept up to acceptable standards. No one is going to cut you slack because you are in Africa, what does that even mean? There should be guidelines: How much should it cost to build a classroom? That is easily attained. In my community here in the US, one classroom costs $500,000. It is expensive I know, but there are code specifications that must be adhered to, technology upgrades that are mandated by law, etc. and of course, labor is prohibitive in the US. I say to ASUU and management: You must know your numbers; how many students are projected to come in next year, the next 10 years? Are the facilities capable of absorbing them? If you don’t know these things, you are driving blind. Data. Demographics. Start simple. How many students do we have today? Add a multiplier for each year. In the long run, hire experts in demography.

4.Example, in our local school district here in the United States, we are faced with capacity issues. In the next several years, thousands of kids are coming in, most of them elementary school kids. The school system has done a Needs Assessment and has figured it will cost about $600 million to get the classrooms. They might either tax the citizens or borrow the money by floating bonds or a combination. Floating bonds might cost $50-60 million annually for 20 years. There is a communications plan that includes a document that breaks everything down and there was a press conference trumpeting this initiative. The local government will fund some, but the school district needs help from the state. Collaboration is crucial. The unions were of course standing with management and politicians at the conference. You need information and mass communication experts. All this beret wearing, comrade calling, hands pumping the air nonsense belongs in the Cold War era. Get an attitude update, while you are at it.

5. Facilities management is expensive. A new building that is not maintained will give you the kinds of horrid pictures of Nigeria’s institutions that have shocked the world. There is no going around this. You will need an army of maintenance workers for every institution, with teams parked in every facility.  A roof leak should not last a day; you are asking for trouble.

6. Competition will force a culture change. There is ample dysfunction on all sides. Clearly ASUU has its challenges, government is clueless, corrupt and inattentive, and management is comically imperial and inattentive. If they all had to compete for attention and resources, if they had to face daily parents, politicians and others armed with reams of data asking hard questions they would all sit up.

7. I cannot overemphasize this: The top-down approach, the overly central bureaucracy is killing Nigeria, ASUU, education, health, and pretty much everything that sustains nations. ASUU and university governance and management must be decentralized. I would restructure the National Universities Commission (NUC) to be truly independent and robust  (read this good editorial on NUC and ASUU’s expose on the TETFUND) and make it truly an office that ensures adequate standards, accountability and oversight.

8. Nigeria urgently needs a Marshall plan to restore tertiary institutions (actually all institutions) to acceptable standards. There are huge capacity issues, and near-insurmountable infrastructure (renovation and modernization) issues. We are talking about a huge infusion of cash and a lot of work being done in a fairly short period of time. That would require expertise and an existing structure and infrastructure that can absorb the build-up. I would not release a penny to the tertiary institutions without a road map to the future that includes structural changes that will make our universities real universities, one that protects staff and students. Doing anything less would be irresponsible. And while we are at it, where is the vision? Have we looked at other innovative approaches to building institutions? Should we build smaller, more manageable institutions? What is wrong with a small community university that is well-run, meets all established standards and is wholesome and welcoming to students, faculty and staff? Why don’t we build institutions that amplify our strengths (that rugged individualism) and minimize our weaknesses?

9. This is about mass communication. Remember, Achebe keeps reminding us, until the lion tells his own story, the hunt will always be glorified by the hunter. In the 21st century, you can do it yourself. And it is cheap. I say to ASUU, get a blog, get a Facebook account, get a Twitter account and post what you need to post to as many people as you want. ASUU is blessed with many people I know who are some of the world’s best recognized experts at Internet technology and social media. One of them is Dr. Obododinma Oha. I don’t know of any scholar that is as good as that man when it comes to using technology and social media for sharing his art and communicating with the world. He is at the University of Ibadan.  And before you start saying, no light, no water, armed robbers, e gba mi, etc., this blog was created for me by Kola Tubosun, over the phone and on chat; he dreamed of it, designed it and created it for me. For free. I don’t know how these things work. Ask him. He is in Nigeria in the Lagos-Ibadan axis. We have a lot of resources, we have incredibly gifted people, there is this thing that happens to us once it is not our personal initiative. ASUU is losing the PR war because its strategy belongs in the 60’s which is simply this – wear an ill-fitting French suit, call yourself a comrade, make some horrid noises, etc. They are not going to win with such ancient methods. They need to partner with young folks, they need to get rid of patriarchy, gerontocracy and misogyny, and invest in a real PR machine.  That website is their enemy, trust me. It is not helping.

10. We know why we should invest in schools and a quality education for the children of our communities. It is about community, it is also about the health and national security of a nation, as has been said ad nauseam. I must admit I am pessimistic. Can it be done? Yes. In Nigeria? Yes. Look to the prosperity churches in Nigeria. They have everything I have just talked about. Do you know why? They know the meaning of competition. They have functioning and impressive websites. Do you know why? They know the meaning of competition. If they don’t compete, they die. Like our universities. Again, imagine how perversely efficient Nigerian prosperity churches are. There is a motivation. Competition to “save souls” because each “saved soul” is dollars. Ka ching! Ka ching! Imagine if the federal government owned the churches. The congregants would be at home half the time! I have said my own.

        Notes: The full report on the Needs Assessment on Nigeria’s universities may be accessed here.  The 2009 ASUU- Government agreement may be accessed here. The January 12, 2012 memorandum may be accessed here. Professor Bolaji Aluko’s website is useful for monitoring information and data on the ASUU wahala (here).