There was a Country: Baying at the ghost of Biafra

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

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

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

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

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

This is what Achebe said about Chief Awolowo:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Will Twitter kill off African literature?

For you. Thank you.

Reading Chibundu Onuzo’s The Spider King’s Daughter is a sedate but thrilling experience. The senses travel everywhere with this gentle storyteller as she quietly but accurately records the history of contemporary Nigerian dysfunction. At some point, you realize you have been tricked, this is a love story. Romance! This is not your traditional genre of romance literature, where you are told from the first sentence of the book: This is going to be about heart-break and you will love it. Onuzo’s lovely book straddles the no-man’s land between chicklit and serious literature. No, The Spider King’s Daughter is not “serious literature”, as self-appointed purists of African literature would say in the unctuous and supercilious manner that only they can conjure up. This is a compliment to Onuzo. For the weary reader, “serious literature” as it is applied to African writing is fast becoming a pejorative for reams of shameless self-absorption drowned in overwrought, insincere, and yes, awful prose. This reader is not impressed.

This is not a review of The Spider King’s Daughter but you should read the book if you are like me and you are getting downright frustrated with pretend-novels that are actually personal opinions about certain social conditions that are hoisted on orthodox structures of fiction. Sometimes a reader wants to have fun. That is why I enjoy reading Pius Adesanmi. A fine thinker and supremely self-assured, Adesanmi does not contrive pretend-novels to deceive the reader into listening to his personal opinions about how Africa should be run (he has plenty of those). He writes, you read – and you applaud. Adesanmi makes the compelling case that you do not have to write a novel to be called an African writer. Just write and we will read. And call you a writer.

The most popular African books that are being read voraciously today are Twitter and Facebook. A vast vibrant readership of African youths, perhaps equivalent to the population of a good size African country is on social media, transfixed by the drama, heartbreak, poetry, prose that is Twitter and Facebook. They read the equivalent of whole chapters of a book daily. Where many thinkers despair about what they see as addiction, others see an opportunity and are re-engineering their writing to fit the new dispensation that is our digital world.

It is more challenging today to be a writer because it is a bit harder now to get a reader away from a salacious blog on a smartphone to go read a good book about endless suffering in Africa. E-readers are making it easier for the distracted reader to step away from a tweet-fight and read something edifying and deep and thought-provoking – as long as the overwhelmed reader does not happen into yet another twitter thread that is edifying and deep and thought-provoking. It is not the smartphone that is killing the traditional African story. Readers, weary of sores and wars seek balance, not necessarily in the story-telling, but in the offerings.

Of course art imitates life. I suspect that most writers are genetically wired to be cynical, to look at the world from a deficit perspective. Black Africa amplifies that trait in the writer. It is easy to be downcast about our circumstances and future and I have nothing but admiration for the African writer for shining a much needed light on our open sores. Much of the progress African countries have made in governance and civil rights are due to the advocacy of the African writer. Indeed, unlike Western writers, the African writer has felt this burden to be the conscience of the community, speaking out, many times at great risk, against crushing injustices.

Many moons ago, I set off a furor when I went on a rant lambasting the short-list of the Caine Prize for celebrating poverty-porn as literature. A few thinkers mistook my concerns as implying that I was seeking only “happy stories,” whatever that means. Nothing could be further from the truth. It bears repeating: The reader fed on a steady diet of misery seeks relief. I have nothing against sad stories; it would be dishonest and silly for us to write only stories that diminish the depth and implications of the condition that Black Africa finds herself. My point has always been that this is not the sum of our experience. These stories with their narrowness of range, do not completely define us. These stories are not us. Because they are not complete.

The other day, my teenage daughter spied The Spider King’s Daughter under my arm and she asked me what I thought of the book. I sang the book’s praises and asked her if she would like me to get her a copy. Her eyes hesitated, as she was fishing for words to say, “hell no!” sweetly. Then I remembered. I once made her read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. She liked the book, but she was traumatized by the death of Ikemefuna. She wrote a short anguished essay about it. Then later, she read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. She liked the book but she was traumatized by the emotional and physical abuse in its pages and she wrote a short anguished essay about it. My daughter has always been sensitive; I am sure it was not the books’ fault.

From my perspective, it is not enough to sneer at the poor reading habits of consumers glued to their smartphones, reading only what they desire. Writers must meet consumers where they are and use structural methods to return voracious readers like my war-weary daughter to the reading fold. The world might see another War and Peace someday, but I can assure the writer, we will not read it. For good or for bad, the world has moved on from that era of literature. The good news is that a generation of entrepreneurial African writers is rising from the ashes of orthodoxy and engaging readers in the digital world – with lovely works, dripping with sexy prose-poetry.  They are liberating themselves from the tyranny of mediocre publishing houses and taking matters into their own hands. And they are making progress. Is social media killing off African literature? I don’t think so. We are witnessing a rebirth. It is all good. And yes, my daughter will read The Spider King’s Daughter. And she will enjoy it.

Uche Nduka’s Ijele: Recollections for the tattooed ears of the wind

The poet Uche Nduka works hard at defying labels and definitions. His new work Ijele, published by Overpass Books, Brooklyn, N.Y. only deepens the enigma that is this seer. Who is Nduka? Well, if you group Nigeria’s post-colonial literature by generations, starting with Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka et al as the first generation, Niyi Osundare et al as the second, Nduka would belong in the third generation. From my perspective, this generation is probably the least studied, which is interesting because they have put together a robust body of work over the years.

ijelepictureNduka’s generation of writers is mostly scattered all over the globe; the democratization of writing through the Internet has dispersed their works all over the place and it is hard to pin their works in defined volumes. Who are these writers and thinkers? In addition to Nduka, I am thinking of writers like Olu Oguibe, Afam Akeh, Molara Wood, Lola Shoneyin, Victor Ehikhamenor, Abdul Mahmud (Obemata), Obi Nwakanma (Rex Marinus), Sola Osofisan, Obiwu Iwuanyanwu (Obiwu), Chuma Nwokolo, Nnorom Azuonye, etc. Some of them, like Nduka, Akeh, Osofisan, Oguibe, Obemata and Wood, are elusive, if not reclusive. Almost all of them are defined by a common trait: They are not overly eager to publish. Several years ago, when I first came across them in a listserv (krazitivity), I was struck by how much they obsessed over each word of their work, employing rigorous and sometimes brutal peer review to polish their works. The good news is that many of them are finally coming out of the literary shadows. In addition to Nduka, Akeh has a volume of poetry, Letter Home & Biafran Nights coming out soon, Ehikhamenor just released Excuse Me! (Parrěsia Publishing) and more works by these writers are on the way. You don’t have to wait for published works though; simply google their names and feast on the prodigy of these renaissance artists.

I enjoyed reading Ijele. For one thing, it is different. It is billed as poetry, I am not sure we are to call it that. It certainly makes one reflect on how poetry is defined today. Nduka is not merely boundary bending, he is not bothered by it; he leaves that issue to the reader to resolve. By the way, I love traveling everywhere with a book of poetry because there is no pressure to finish reading it ever. I play this game where I randomly open the book to savor a literary treat. Ijele did not disappoint, it is full of treats. Take the piece Rough Plaster; how can you not be intrigued by these delightfully rebellious lines?

you can be as oversubtle as you want. i’m not interested. why deny the vigor of discordant anagrams. the city-hearted will express errata. disillusionment will grow old between coitus and faux pas. take on magnetism: taste paragenesis. there is no escape from this becoming. you take a step towards a memo for lobsters. i shall mislead all these tourists asking for directions uptown. (p 6)

In Ijele the poetry seems disconnected from space and context, chock full of enigmatic lines, curt, rebellious and uber-cool. The reader is forced to appropriate and own the poems and assign deeply personal contexts to them. And enjoy them. Ijele is impressive, a pretty little book pregnant with lovely divinations. I was struck by the lunatic, mathematical precision of Nduka’s genius. As an example, the piece, Exit Trampoline is a puzzle; its lines read like concept titles for long poems in the head.

i will flash you 3 times and then strip. if the sky complains throw it down from a balcony. The dawn may or may not squeal when it falls. razor again but textile not steel. (p 2)

Ijele is shattered shimmering brilliance, white flapping wings of dying innocence drying on clothes lines, soapy, reeking of malarial feverishness. Nduka is quietly defiant and unapologetic about his life, the sum of his experiences. He declares at the beginning of Ijele, “three continents converse in me, no one can stop their arguments.” (p 3) Indeed, in Nduka’s peripatetic musings the restless angst of exile is acknowledged – and abandoned. In Not Surrendering, everything comes together nicely in a loud vulnerable sigh:

i see you as you braid her hair, orchids of mire, seven-petaled night. beyond needing time to nurse a child. the art of breaking hoops. Soot undersung otherwise. I must understand & not mock my task of flight. I need your attention. Venice can wait. Someone like you walks through faces i can fade into. the hidden lust of a star teasing the sky can’t stay hidden any longer. i did not know what to say when she told me he kicked her umbrella off her hand into traintracks. the sidewalk painters of prince street need your attention. my seabag hangs on a wall. (p 4)

There are things the reader sees in Nduka’s words, he blindsides the reader with the cool torrent of his words: Exile, longing, despair, narcissism, all wrapped in the toga of invincibility, of coolness, defiance, even. Here, defiance is an art, a protest march in one burst of a movement. In the lunacy, chaos is disciplined into focus – sheathed machete writing, writhing in pain, refusing the anesthesia of ogogoro. Cool scared, a careful riot almost at the tipping point of manipulative contrivance. We are scared still because we are boys still:

until the tackle took you. i was charmed by your seminars swear words. stay or be away. damned either way. we lose the world the moment we define it. the clutter of yesterminutes. connecting boundary to source. you rolled into mornings, yestermornings. furnished or not, no room escaped our love, pulse and pause: our entanglement. this clarity of hair-hold. (p 8)

In the stunning lines of Pedigree, the reader imagines the power of words folding the past into the past, threading the present into the past, and willing a future that is now:

your appetite parts the day. breaks the day into two. on one side a house. on the other a wilderness. you cover both sides. what stresses them. not departing birds. there are plenty of bridges still to burn. sometimes shriveled flowers. what stresses them. not harmattan threshold. there is still the tooting bamboo. perhaps nailhead perhaps white paper. like leaving a toll gate. one half is a wisp of silk; the other a conversation with bass clarinet. discourse on her abandon. the wanton, the sultry belle. she is at the north gate. in the hallway. at a foyer. in an emergency. her fireflies are wind-bled. (p 9)

Coitus is a recurring encounter. Semen drips from the pages into damp dank drunken stairwells, odes to broken men, women and dreams. The narcissism, the fuck the world attitude never truly overwhelms because there is the constant re-imaging, re-booting of self. In poems like Tactic or Reprisala and Any Way You Want, the reader’s mind is fixated on this intrepid wanderer: You wonder, where has this poet been? Where have those hands touched, what?

You dared and joined the nudist circus. Later you had nightmares of trekking around town naked, not finding clothes to wear. You remembered Auntie Joy’s store at Ajegunle where she sold 7Up, Maltex, trebor, bread, peppersoup, Gala, kolanut and beer. You recalled me testing how fast my fingers could lift a coin or two from her wooden cashbox without being seen. You knew she occasionally caught me during those pilfering sessions but hardly rebuked me. Instead she always pulled the box nearer her at the discovery of an invasion or impending invasion from me. Most tomes she delighted me with offers of soft drinks and pieces of fried meat. Now these are recollections for the tattooed ears of the wind. (p 44)

In Estate Too, Nduka alludes to our daily war. In this new war, all we have are words, and we are not winning this war – of words. For they have the machines that staple our angry words together into meaninglessness.

must you stage an escape? Must you paint a skinscape? date blunder, not plunder. kick a habit, not a rabbit. intrude on vixens and wizards. shine on roof and briefcase. till the soil of lunatic aromatics. moving like a caterpillar. how do you handle a stressful situation? you eat chocolate and play a piano. are those actions vague and wooly? no. are they palliatives? no. (p 53)

Nduka writes about sad days. And happy days. Everything is mixed up; it is a rich mess, he chants, cowries aloft. He is right, the poet sees. The poet is a seer. Nothing escapes Nduka’s brooding gaze, not even hickeys; I must shroud my lusty neck in turtlenecks. This is not the seventies. This volume of poetry is the sum of the poet’s experience, smashed, broken china in the rain channeling JP Clark hung over from his rage. Periods, full stops, bear sentences like burdens, each almost unrelated to the next. Do not even attempt to connect the periods. For each line is a poem. Brilliant.

With Ijele, one soon ceases to be shocked. You have to read Coming Apart (p 63); these are words trekking onwards with more than a sideways glance at Nigeria, that geographical construct the poet is not coming back to because he never really left in the first place. The poet says these boundaries live rent-free in our heads. There is something schizoid about these lines, feverish, alternating among shades of darkness and light, the clashes blinding the eyes. And nightmares return in reverse order: Aluu, Biafra.

six children burnt in front of their parents. dying for what they knew nothing of. that country? “mere geographical expression.” some historied sepia. my room rejects drapes. chimera is something else. I whiz with it… this won’t do. this won’t do for meridians or for you. once a year and once upon a bear. an allergy that needs to be heard. you do sugarcoat it. a solidarity abandoned. who believed that tripe: “no victor, no vanquished.” miles away from where snapshots are.

Nduka the poet is a weaver-bird that has witnessed things. There are words in these meanings weaving more meanings from the diarrhea of the mouth, stages of needy grief, defiant, aloof, defiant, and needy. Nduka the poet is an imp, a mad, brilliant imp. You break into an impish grin at these lines in Counterfactual:

at the soul’s Sulphur Springs, i took photographs. when i went into a darkroom to develop them, the negatives went into a coma and never woke up. say something. break out. break out from twisting your grunts around a bus stop. i throw way salute-0. Man no die, man no rotten, you may prostrate before those vengeful elders but don’t do it on my mat. not even between clauses and golden pots. (p 67)

Fascinating. Sometimes you imagine this mad man in the market place wandering around muttering to himself picking up unrelated trash by dusk. And the clutter is art. Sometimes you think the poet is talking about you. There is sense in the broken shards of broken men. You are filled with wonder as you find the eulogy in the lunacy of the lines of Slow Trek and your heart breaks into applause:

what is connected disconnects itself. grief raps loudly on a windowsill. you head for the fast track ahead of earnest scavengers. in this season of financial homicides, bills rig your worth. rig your worth. but you keep a date with mourners for no one is free from the madness of death. of course the last gasp remains a prophesy on a slow trek to infinity. it badgers wine, flowers, meal for two. it is the voice that speaks undisturbed. a drop of water is its drop of seed. it teaches what holds, what thaws, what delights. hard lives pluck dignity from ancient experiences. (p 69)

Sometimes the self-absorption grates the poetry into overbearing nonsense. Read Into The Fray and you shake your head at lines like: who gives a shit about how much ice is on your Rolex? (p 71) You want to know and perhaps own the poet’s demons. You have a sense of an interesting, perhaps, dark existence lived in luscious painful narcissism like the rest of us. In Branching (p 72) the bemused reader asks: Why do we waste our lives so? Nduka doesn’t seem to give a rat’s arse what you think. He has written. You figure it out. He has spoken. Listen to the wind-rush of brilliance and lunacy. (p 72)

In Likeness and Impasse (p 73), Nduka is at his most powerful. He keeps the reader at bay, helpless. With the context withheld from view, the reader flounders and begs for context, crack cocaine between the covers, emptiness and nakedness, natural allies in the buff. There are all these phrases twisting in the wind, tart, bad attitude. And funny as hell. The lunacy is almost contrived but not quite. Everything is in place in the way a lunatic’s things are not in place; carefully strewn about with the careful carelessness of a diviner’s cowries. All the emotions are here carefully sifted from the silt, exquisitely calibrated.

Is this poetry? I don’t know. I don’t care, I am a consumer, mine is to enjoy it. This is different, it does not fit anywhere. I don’t obsess so much about the lines of poetry. I simply enjoy them. I enjoyed every morsel of Ijele, even those I disliked. That is the beauty and genius of Nduka’s brooding insouciance. Music is the result. Joy triumphs over the banality of heartache. Listen to the dibia in Through the Gap (p 81)

To countervail rudderlessness with rootedness. I can’t love you unconditionally, you said, I won’t hold that assertion against you. The caucus is of no interest to a poet waiting tables.

Applause. Dambudzo Marechera would approve.

This writing life: Ranting, cutting, grunting and pasting

For you…

“Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.”
– Lawrence Kasdan

The other day my friend was bemoaning a writing slump. The words were stuck somewhere, refusing all entreaties to come out – and play. My friend is a fairly prolific writer; multitasking on a book, a blog that could use some more tending and an active Twitter and Facebook account. If my friend’s tweets and Facebook postings were cobbled together, the result would run into thousands of words that make delicious sense. This is the same for many other folks that I know who are regularly afflicted with anxieties about that affliction called the writer’s block. They should perhaps get off Facebook and Twitter to write what the world considers writing. I hope they do not flee into the dying warmth of books. That would be sad because like my friend, they are a lovely, vibrant presence on social media, coolly cerebral with enough wit and zing to make us grateful readers always wanting more. But like a happy spinster who is not happy until she bows to the dictates of tradition and immerses herself in an unhappy marriage, many of today’s writers are not complete until they have filled the spaces of tradition. They must write that book, maintain that blog that defines and completes them if they are to remain current in that coveted coven of writers.

If you are a writer, it is easy to understand my friend’s anxieties about (not) writing. One must write to be called a writer. Even in the 21st century, in the age of the Internet, one must write in the right places to be called a real writer. Even as the book is dying, the first and best space that establishes a writer’s cred is the book. Conventional wisdom says you are not a real writer until you have written a book. I do book reviews; as long as I fawn over a writer’s works, I am safe, but I always get the “Go and write your own book!” venom spat at me whenever I sheepishly admit that perhaps a book I just read is not to my personal taste. I have never written my own book; I have contributed pieces to a number of books. However, I prefer the digital space, it responds instantly to the immediacy of my thoughts. What I have to say should not have to wait to be cloistered in a book. I write nonstop and all my writings floating freely on the Internet would fill several books. But I am the first to agree that I am not a writer, certainly not in the conventional sense. I am a reader who writes, so there. I have previously said that I will never write a book; scratch that, I am feverishly writing a book of awsome prose. This has nothing to do with the fact that next year’s NLNG prize, a mere $100,000, will be for prose (whatever that means). I intend to enter for the competition. And I expect to win.

I do maintain a blog. This blog. If my blog is feeling neglected, it is because this is the first time in a long time that I have written my own blog post. In my defense, I was occupied elsewhere, I fell in love with a certain campaign for the presidency of the United States and I could not stop obsessing, reading and writing about it. I could not. Actually, I was propelled not so much by love, but by rage, a certain burning anger about the sense of entitlement of the other, that had declared me the other. I wanted to make this so right. President Barack Hussein Obama had to win this for humanity. I found a spot under an e-tree and I kept reading, writing and ranting about my world, the world I would leave our children in. The polls held me spellbound; I trolled the Internet looking for polls that would tell me what I wanted to hear, and I hissed and snorted with derision at those that told me that well, my Obama was toast. In my rage, I became the other, snarling, hissing, and foaming in the mouth like a venomous snake that had fatally bitten itself. In the end Nate Silver was right to the last dot, and America proved why it is perhaps the greatest nation on earth; she broke down under the withering sun-rays of my glare and elected the right person to the White House. That Tuesday night ended my long vigil of cutting, snorting, grunting and pasting war missiles on Twitter, Facebook and listservs. My audience endured this avalanche of venom, glee, data (yes, Nate Silver is the man, when it comes to accurate polling data) that kept me hostage to my own fears and desires. I could not physically write, but some would say I was writing. If I cobbled together all I have “written” in the past several months, it would be an embarrassing pastiche of borrowed rage. It is over (Obama won, yay!!!), and I feel better. So I did not write anything original in that time period, but I was busy doing my best to rescue our presidency from those who do not see us as Americans. Actually, come to think of it. that is not correct; I managed to write reams on Facebook and Twitter about Chinua Achebe’s new book, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra. I should cobble together all my tweets and Facebook posts about it into one essay and see if it makes sense. Now that’s a thought. Nah, I think I’ll simply keep reading.

Reading is easier for me than writing. Yes, writing has been hard for me in the past few months but I have managed to read. Most of what I have read has been about identity and our shared humanity. So, I read Chinua Achebe’s memoir, and Chika Ezeanya’s Before We Set Sail, an awesome historical fiction about Olaudah Equiano. I also read Uche Nduka’s lovely book of poetry, Ijele and Wole Soyinka’s new book, Of Africa. Achebe’s book as we all know caused a furor among Nigerians because of his views on the hell that was Biafra. It is probably the only book that I know that was reviewed by people who are yet to read the book, a big shame. I also took a detour into unfamiliar territory and devoured Lara Daniels’ romance novella, The Officer’s Bride. There was no rhyme or reason for why I chose these books; they just happened to be around, and I grabbed them to calm my nerves in the searing heat of the campaigns. I am back now, I am feeling a lot better and I promise to write more often in the traditional places where people expect my opinions. I took a lot of notes in the e-margins of these books (yes, Kindle is great like that) and I hope to cobble together my opinions on as many of these books as I can mutter. Pray that I get this done before the next presidential campaign.

In other news, a big congratulations to Chika Unigwe for winning the NLNG Prize for literature, a prize that is growing in stature and dollars. I am happy to see that the sponsors of the prize have stuck with a vision, mostly from listening to often biting criticisms. That is how it should be. The prize is still a work in progress and I shall have a lot to say down the road.  Unigwe’s victory was also a commentary on identity and porous walls. The NLNG Prize in granting eligibility to writers in the Diaspora has ensured that no Nigerian writer subject to the debilitating mediocrity of most of Nigerian publishers will ever taste that prize. Mediocrity does not compete well with imported excellence. And again, I am not referring to the Nigerian writer. Speaking of which I know of many great Nigerians on Facebook and on Twitter who should be writers based on their postings. Tell them they are writers and they embrace writer’s block.  I am back here I think, but I can’t promise I’ll stay here forever. I wail wherever dawn meets me. Let’s just make this simple, don’t wait for my blog posts, instead, follow me on twitter and on Facebook. I accept all comers.

I am enjoying reading the works of African writers, I wolf them down any and everywhere I can find them. They are doing for me, what Soyinka and Achebe’s generation did for me in my childhood. They are different writers and thinkers but they were the Internet warriors of my time. Their generation of writers taught and entertained my generation – in the absence of the mystery and magic of technology, computers and the Internet. As a teenager, I loved Soyinka’s the Jero plays, and Ake, that wondrous book ranks up there on my list of memoirs. Soyinka is a genius as a playwright, however much of his poetry does not speak to me. There are many other poets of his generation that do (JP Clark, Awoonor Williams, Okogbule Wonodi for instance); nothing against his genius, just a personal preference. My lover swoons each time she reads Telephone Conversation. Whenever I am headed to the doghouse, if I read it to her, it sometimes earns me a reprieve. I really do not much care for Soyinka’s prose; it is opaque when it should not be. How many PhD theses have been written on that (in) famous line in The Interpreters, Metal on concrete jars my drink lobes?

My favorite Achebe book is Things Fall Apart, followed by No Longer at Ease, A Man of the People, Arrow of God in no particular order. I don’t much care for Anthills of the Savannah. I love his essays,. Many people I respect have convinced me that in a technical sense at least, Arrow of God is Achebe’s best book. My dad, Papalolo, the autodidact swears by A Man of the People. He also loved No Longer at Ease. He admired the new bourgeoisie, the new intellectuals coming back home from England in those big ships and he was amused no end by their antics. I remember him, glass in hand (filled with Star Lager) twirling an imaginary key ring in his hand and going, “Sam Old chap, how’s the car behaving?” That was perhaps paraphrased from No Longer at Ease. My dad always reminds me that if I had not been born, he would have ended up in England like the Soyinkas and Achebes, and returned from England dressed in a winter coat and gloves! He also loved TM Aluko’s works, especially One Man One Wife and One Man One Matchet, don’t ask me why. Those were the days. Whenever I remember Achebe, I remember my dad Papalolo and the power of words, how one man’s words far away could connect me and my dad and bond us over a shared passion. I do love my dad and many of my stories come from him, especially Cowfoot by Candlelight. I have said he was an autodidact, he did not advance past the 8th grade but the quality of the education of his time was such that he could today put many PhDs to shame when it comes to reading and writing. Rant over. And you, my friend, this is a long rambling way of saying, keep writing. I enjoy your writing. And you know that.

Guest Blog: Yemisi Ogbe on Nigeria and a culture of disrespect

A CULTURE OF DISRESPECT – Yemisi Ogbe

“…A governor in Lagos, is a governor in Sokoto, is a governor in Ebonyi and anywhere in Nigeria. He is entitled to the same courtesies and respect. Convoys are here with us for good or ill and reasonable people yield the way for a second to allow convoys and sirened vehicle right of way.” – Steve Osuji, Press Secretary to the Imo State governor.

IN 1935, an ambitious young man went to work for the Bata Shoe Company as an accounting clerk. It was a prestigious job. He had a head for figures, and was in fact quite precocious. He would work for Bata for some years, but he always had far-reaching plans, none of which, of course, included a slow climb in a Czechoslovakian company that was opening branches of shoe retail stores in Nigeria.

For many of his contemporaries, it might have been enough if one day they made Chief Clerk in Bata, or even Regional Manager. But times were changing. Nigerian Nationalism was gaining strength and as it did so, it was creating exciting possibilities for the Nigerian capitalist.

In 1948, he was sent on a training programme to Czechoslovakia. In 1949, Nnamdi Azikiwe gave a landmark speech on anti-colonial independence in Washington D.C. Owning the Bata shoe was a near-religious experience. It was a well-made shoe, not stylish, reliable, exclusive, sold in a store where the smell of leather and organised display, and professional sales-person gave the concrete impression of owning something very special.

The reality was that very few Nigerians could afford Bata shoes or the Bata experience, and this was especially clear to the enterprising young man who recognised his opportunity in the sale of second-hand shoes. It is alleged that it was through one major shipment of second hand shoes that his wealth was made, or shall we say, established.

Allegedly, once this shipment of second hand shoes had been successfully introduced to the Nigerian market, he gained the ability to reinvent his identity; an opportunity that only having the means could afford.

Choosing a public persona that made an impression was key. Like the monarch, the masquerade, the minister of the Roman Catholic or Anglican Church, he had not only to dress the part, but also harness the supernatural, to create the idea of something bigger than just a man, bigger than just a Mr. somebody.

He recreated his past, changed his last name; bought association to royalty; acquired titles and added appendages to his changed name. He married a White woman. He discarded the White woman, organised a rambling household with many superfluous servants and beautiful light skinned women.

He fathered many children. He promoted the image of the autonomous Nigerian; the New Nationalist, albeit a particularly flamboyant one, thumbing his nose at multi-national corporations and other small enterprises that were owned by foreigners, and had dominated the Black African economy for many years, and of course colonialism…a particularly aggressive Nigerian entrepreneur, able to define his own frontiers, rule his own people, choose his own moral boundaries. His timing seemed impeccable.

His wealth, his charisma, and his ambitions were employed at exactly the right time. He became a member of the first Nigerian National party, the NCNC. His contemporaries were Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Mallam Aminu Kano, Herbert Macaulay, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Margaret Ekpo.

Basil Davidson notes that Nigerian Nationalists were not perfect. It is a superfluous observation. The critical thing was the body of ideas about self-governance and the future of a Nigeria that seemed held together by very loose threads.

So, this man was not perfect, but his flaws began to manifest themselves in the most dramatic ways, especially in the way that he dressed himself. His wrappers were 30 feet of cloth.

His hats were adorned with extravagant plumage. He wore black English bowler hats brushed till there was not a lint in sight; priceless corals and gold, and the ultimate finishing touch to the man of means wardrobe; the walking cane.

IT was problematic that he was a confirmed member of a political ruling class that had from the start been accused of elitism, and condescension, of thinking itself intellectually superior to the Nigerian people.

And now, here was this man with a god complex, a new nationalist, new royalty, whatever, with his wrapper tied around the commoner’s neck. What had changed? It was not what Nigerians had hoped for in their projections about the end of colonial rule, the indigenisation of foreign trading and manufacturing, the growth of home grown enterprise, and the emergence of the Nigerian capitalist.

As the promise of Nigerians governing Nigerians frayed, never mind if the expectations may have been overestimated, he began to look out of place, so much so that when 1966 came with all its violent disillusionment and strong tribal separations and the consequent coup d’etat, he was the only Minister murdered during the coup.

Again, it was alleged that he was bound up and put in a giant ant-hill in the evening of one day, and brought out dead the next morning. It was a particularly cruel and long-winded process of dying, and his screams were said to have been heard all night and into the early hours of the morning.

There are no official records of these allegations. The records show simply that he was shot. He died with foreign bank accounts bulging with money, rumours suggesting amounts far and above one hundred thousand pounds sterling in one account in the UK, and to this day, Nigerians express all the paradoxes of that time, and the life and myth of the man.

We say he died with “our” money in “his” bank account, that he was the only minister killed during that coup because he was greedy, and obscene in his flamboyance and in his elitism. Yet we never fully trusted these thoughts to the records. Our formal history of his life are ambiguous, his condescension is concrete only in our oral stories. It is as if we are still trying to decide for him, but we can’t completely fool ourselves.

Did he progress through hard work and shrewdness? Was he a true nationalist? Capitalist? Or was he just an opportunist? If we can agree on those questions, then the issue of the beautiful girl around whose neck his wrapper was tied may become irrelevant or be an indulgence we would readily forgive.

Where did I get my more interesting twists on this man’s history? Well, they were a gift from a septuagenarian living in Somerton, in 1999. He handed me a handful of Onini and with it, the story. We argued, and finally agreed to disagree. And it was right that I should be suspicious of him. He was a White man akin to White men whose land were seized in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

The times of which he spoke were unique; right and wrong had been successfully muddied. He was working for UAC Nigeria in the time of the new nationalists and so his history could not be impartial. If the story were true, the end of his ownership of Nigeria along with his kind had been heralded by the importation of second hand shoes. He was disdainful, a little too adamant about the genuineness of his twists.

The reader must decide for himself what he believes. I remain enduringly fascinated with the 30-foot train attached to the neck of a beautiful girl, and what the beautiful girl imagined her position in the world to be. Yoruba kings of antiquity were deified in the most extraordinary ways. The Yoruba king was required to keep a positional distance from his people in order to reinforce his authority and divinity.

It was the Yoruba kings who were accused of owning human spittoons. Reverend Samuel Johnson in The History of The Yorubas meticulously describes the institution of force necessary to give the Yoruba King’s authority a superlative quality: The human spittoon’s role was simple, yet profound. A king was too eminent to spit in an inanimate container, so the human spittoon was given a designated place in the kings court, daily, awaiting the king’s urge to spit.

Not only was the king not allowed to spit in any other container apart from the human container, he was also not allowed to purse his lips in preparation for spitting. So, the human spittoon would be informed that the king wished to spit, and then, he would be required to assist the king in pursing his lips, and then he would open his mouth to receive the king’s spittle. This role was one of honour.

The relevance of this historical accusation still referred to in present-day Yoruba adage… “O’n yo ayo fami l’ete tuto” might be that the girl tied to the end of a train of a man of great importance is important because he is important. The king’s spittle makes the commoner special.

I once saw the wife of a governor flick a complimentary card that she had been offered by someone, at his head. He picked up the card from the ground and walked away as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. I wondered whether having a card rebound off his head was more acceptable than being ignored.

One of my first thoughts on a culture of disrespect was that all communities of the world own their own versions, and it may be taken for granted that wherever one finds anything elitist, it is built on the self-esteem of someone somewhere considered less important, less intelligent, less deserving of some exclusive toy.

AND so perhaps the Nigerian culture of disrespect is not remarkable. Yet, the stories that mark our peculiar culture are unique and fascinating.

They suggest that the Nigerian is daily, excruciatingly demeaned on all levels in Nigeria, but somehow also, remains forever optimistic that his lot in life will change, things will improve; his psyche is rarely ever completely demeaned. It will be criminal of me not to note that a betterment of lot means that one day, one will also find someone to demean as a necessary accessory of becoming elevated.

The environment itself is peculiar. Everything, including all opportunities for advancement, seem to be touched with some measure of illegality or compromise of the person, or fluidity of values.

It is better not to be too virtuous in Nigeria, some people say. The man who is paid N10,000 by his employer for keeping a garden, who sometimes sells some diesel taken from his employer’s house does so with the highest sense of justification. His employer is a rich man, he can afford the loss of 50 litres of diesel every other week.

And really, he knows that his employer knows that no one can really live on just N10,000 a month. His employer knows he is stealing his diesel, but looks the other way.

The mentality is that everyone steals in Nigeria, so the aim is to hire the most considerate of thieves; the one that steals from you with the greatest “show” of modesty and skill, and always pay a salary that takes theft into consideration. The things that are left unsaid in this relationship are the most important.

Why doesn’t the employer pay the employee well? The question seems almost too relative. So maybe the employer is also paying his employee’s children’s tuition fees and providing a roof over his head, but those things cannot be taken for granted, and for that reason, they give the employer a sense of paternity, and the employee, one of the wayward child.

There is nothing nearing equality in their relationship; also rarely is there a real sense of pride in the employee and in carrying out his work. If the employee’s work were valued highly, then his pay should indicate that value… in an ideal world. Sometimes, the employee’s self esteem is boosted by stealing from his employer. When he comes in the morning, he greets his employer by bowing himself to the floor.

He adds “sir” to the end of every sentence, never looks his employer in the eye, and doesn’t speak unless he is spoken to. Sometimes, he endures berating or verbal abuses from his employer, as if he were a child, but if he can steal from him, then he has somehow outwitted him, and this employer is not so smart after all or so elevated.

Nigerians love the rungs of the ladder. Love the fact that people are compelled to know their place, compelled to earn their place by whatever means to suit the context.

The equality of all Nigerians would be a hard sell on any level in Nigeria. If we were all equal, then something very valuable would be lost. The rungs need to be kept intact so that the top can remain as excruciatingly enjoyable as possible. If anyone can use the same crockery as I use, then my fork becomes completely functional, and I will lose the enjoyment of its curves and its reflection of light, and craftsmanship.

A Nigerian diplomat in the ’80s visited a Nigerian monarch’s house in London. The monarch’s wife had recently died, and a delegation had been sent to commiserate with him. The diplomat’s first observation, or confusion on entering the house arose from the pictures on the wall.

They were mostly of the revered political leader, Obafemi Awolowo and his wife. The diplomat wondered why a person would adorn the totality of his walls with pictures of another man and his wife.

This was odd enough, but then they were showed into a living room in which the monarch was receiving guests, and there at the feet of the monarch, playing with his toes, was a former governor of a South-Western state in Nigeria. It seemed also, to be the most natural thing that these monarch’s toes were being massaged by this man.

The incongruity of the whole picture was lost in the fact that no one seemed uncomfortable in the room. The man playing with the monarch’s toes had not only been a former state governor, he was a professional man. He was at that time, managing director of a Nigerian newspaper.

He sat on the floor in his suit and shoes, and it was the most natural thing in the world. And there were the levels, the deference of the monarch to the man on his walls, and the deference of the man sitting on the floor to the one on the throne. All the progressive Nigerians in that room on that day understood perfectly the political connotations of the setting.

The Nigerian mentality is not so straightforward. If every Nigerian knows his place, and understands when to get on and massage a monarch’s toes, why is it that so many Nigerians scramble for the top? Why are we not more laid back, as we say, like the Ghanaians or Cameroonians? Why don’t we let the elites alone and not try to be one of them.

Why are there so many Nigerian big men? In the 1980s, the British government was compelled to make up its own list of which Nigerians were truly worthy of diplomatic recognition, and this was necessitated by the fact that they were inundated with calls from Nigeria requesting that Honourable So and So be picked up from the airport and looked after for the duration of his visit. Nigerians were said to have the longest list ever of VIPs.

The issue is that in order for the elite in society to truly survive, a large group of people must agree to be otherwise. In Nigeria, there is some serious crowding at the top, and the result is the creation of a nation of posers. In a country where wealth is so ostentatiously paraded, where the poor are doubly demeaned, it perhaps makes sense that everyone wants to be rich in Nigeria, as a guarantee against our scorching kind of disrespect.

Everyone needs must have a title of some sort in Nigeria. One’s name is either prefixed with one’s choice of career such as “Engineer” or “Architect” or by one’s religious beliefs; “Elder” in the church or “JP” for Jerusalem Pilgrim. Married women are compelled to insist on their complimentary cards that they are Mrs. Sombody.

The titles Nigerians adopt border on the ridiculous, and the theatrical; titles like Honourable, Excellency… The peculiarities do not end there. I once worked at a pre-school as an administrator. Parents were encouraged to send in gifts one day in the year to appreciate their teachers.

The parents called a meeting the previous year on doing something special for teachers, like getting them manicures or taking them out to lunch. One parent registered her surprise at the suggestion by saying it was analogous to giving a manicure to her maid!

THE statement was bottomless: What was wrong with her maid getting a manicure? How demeaned is the role of a house maid? In comparison to that, how demeaned is that of a school teacher? How can one of the most important jobs in the world be even demeaned at all?

The job of teaching in Nigeria is undeniably one of the least esteemed. That of a maid or housegirl is not even worthy of discussion. Children are shushed if they even breathe the idea of becoming teachers when they grow up and choose a career path.

The gap between the rich and poor is eroding quickly and gnawing at people’s feet, so our response is always one of desperation. I went to that part of Lagos reverentially termed “Old Ikoyi” and stood in a penthouse apartment, looking down into manicured lawns, tennis courts, shimmering swimming pools and the lagoon. I was told that I was standing in rented premises, and that the rent had just been paid for two years: N34,000,000.

My mouth dropped to the floor, and I thought of our staff at home, who sometimes needed a loan to pay a yearly rent of N120,000. It was a shock to the system. How could one not help defining people by such discrepancies in rented accommodation?

There is the story of two women, friends, who would go for walks in the estate referred to as Lekki Peninsula phase I, along the Lagoon. One woman began to excuse herself from going on those walks. The other woman was puzzled but didn’t dwell on it.

She went on the walks by herself. Another friend later confided in the friend who still went on her walks, that the other lady had lost interest because she was a Northern aristocrat and did not like the way her friend greeted everyone they encountered on their walks; security guards, hawkers, building site workers, just any human being really…one had to show some restraint after all, some class consciousness, for God’s sake.

In Lagos especially, that model nucleus of posers, the elites are a pretty close set, and one is either in or out by virtue of such things as having a name, being a member of a family with old money, having one’s own money, having charisma and money and beautiful things, speaking well, living in the right place, owning prime property, etc. The fundamental requirement is having money and some taste and driving and dressing the part.

The layers of snobbery ensure that having money alone can never be enough, one has to speak the lingo, understand the passing of the trends, learn to both wave, and backup by pretending that one is swatting a fly. In 2007, when the elite in Lagos grew tired of being robbed of their watches, they declared swatch watches of necessity, fashionable.

Elizabeth Udoudo was on her way to church on a Sunday morning. Her sons were in the back of the car. It was 9:30 a.m. and the roads were clear of traffic. The Imo State governor’s convoy came up behind her car as she drove up the Falomo Bridge.

The convoy of cars might have driven behind her car for a few minutes and then deciding that she wasn’t moving fast enough, the driver of the lead car motioned for her to get off the road. In response, she said she changed lanes to make way for the cars. They were descending the bridge and coming up to the turning off Kingsway Road, known as Rumens Road.

The lead car of the convoy made as if to overtake hers, drove beside her, the window came down, and a gun came out motioning for her to either stop or get off the road. By this point, the process was confused and she was sandwiched between the lead car, slightly ahead, and the rest of the convoy. The second car, an SUV was a hair breath away from her, nudging her off the road.

A third car ran into her rear passenger side. She swerved sharply and ran clean into the side of another car in the convoy. Everyone, of necessity came to a stop. She attempted to get out her seat-belt. A man in a face cap, grey pants and a white shirt was the first to step out of one of the cars. He came out with his hand on the gun holder on his side.

He drew out his pistol and came towards Elizabeth’s car. Before he got to her, one of the other men was already by her side, and as she was stepping out of the car, and at the same time attempting to ask why she was being harassed, the man slapped her across the face.

She stood between her door and the driver’s seat. There was a saloon car in the convoy that had about four men in the backseat. About six to seven men in total had disembarked from the cars in the convoy. The man that slapped her, slammed her car door against her as she was attempting to step out from behind it. Her sons watched from the back of the car.

One of the mobile policemen kicked in the passenger door on the other side of the car. Another mobile policeman standing behind the man who slapped her, brought down the butt of his gun on her side mirror. The governor’s car drove parallel to hers.

She described it as owning tinted windows and a Nigerian flag. The back window came down momentarily, and she saw a head-rest with a cloth embroidered with the Nigerian coat of arms. She attempted to direct her protest at someone sitting with his back to that headrest, but the window went up quickly after the man addressed the men standing around.

The man’s words seemed to be an order that the men return to their cars. They got back into their cars and continued their journey.

I asked Elizabeth what it felt like to be slapped across the face; if she was humiliated? What was the anatomy of the slap? How much force was used?

The most concrete answer I received was that she was grateful that it was just “a” slap. It is common for people to be beaten, whipped and physically injured by men protecting dignitaries riding in convoys. She felt she had got off lightly by being slapped just once. She believed that if she were a man, it would have fared much worse for her.

Most people go home and nurse their bruises. Elizabeth sent an account of her experience to the Guardian Newspaper. It was written with the help of a friend, and they both thought it judicious to write the account under the name of a “Lateef Gbadamosi”.

The article was titled “Imo State convoy of death”. Then came the most interesting part of the whole affair: the Imo State Governor’s Press Secretary’s response to the Guardian article.

The Press Secretary reference to the incidence began:

“…We are surprised because the incident under reference which happened on the morning of Sunday February 10, 2008 along Alfred Rewane Road, Ikoyi between the convoy of His Excellency, Governor Ikedi Ohakim of Imo State and an unknown woman is better left unrecounted and out of the public arena because it paints a shameful picture of motherhood; of womanhood.”

He described the affair as a security breach, and then went on to clarify the motives of those men who had slapped Elizabeth, and vandalized her car:

“It was indeed a case of a woman feeling too big and couldn’t give a damn whether it was a governor or a god who was going in a convoy and raising all hoopla”.The thing that seemed to have brought out the worst in the men against a five foot two security breach was the fact that she felt too big to get out of the way of the governor’s convoy. She didn’t know her place.

This letter has become one of the most incredible admissions of guilt in recent years. Elizabeth’s incidence as well as others, brought up the necessity of drawing up a code of conduct for “Nigerian big men’s” convoys.

THE code of conduct might have to be extended to all kinds of arena of Nigerian life. It might have to be a code of conduct on how to treat anything that resembles a human being.

It is interesting that a culture of disrespect might be confused for one of respect. One might hear Nigerians making general comparisons with other cultures on how our children are taught to kneel down and greet elders, or how we defer to those older than us by referring to them with titles, how we consider a person’s name so sacred, that only those close to him, or equal to him can mention his name; how we say “Good morning” instead of “Hello”.

How icons of authority remain sacrosanct in our society; how age is highly esteemed. In England, Gordon Brown is Gordon Brown, is at the most elevated Mr. Gordon Brown.

Here, he would be His Excellency. True comparisons perhaps, side by side, with the culture of determining a person’s value by how much money they own, what they drive, how they speak, what sort of mobile phone they own, side by side with the culture of jumping queues and jumping red-lights and moving out of the way of convoys.

Again, the unexpressed things are the most profound. There are homes in which there are special drinking glasses for when the driver requests for a glass of water. The driver knows the glass is special, the lord of the home knows it, and the children know it.

In Calabar in 2007, Tahalia Barrett, a volunteer Business Development Advisor with the Cross River State government looked into the possibility of creating a Nigerian perspective on transatlantic slavery. The Calabar Slavery Museum was the perfect medium. It already owned a building, wax works depicting in oversimplified terms the journey of the slave from his home in Nigeria to the plantation in North America, and then on to emancipation.

The Calabar Slavery Museum in order to offer something more than all the thousands of slavery museums all over the world must have an original voice. Tahalia as an African-American, noted that the story of transatlantic slavery was one that was told and retold in her culture.

If she was standing on Nigerian soil, she could take it for granted that she would hear something new. The issue of reparations remain one of the hottest offshoots of discussions on transatlantic slavery. At the anti-racism conference in 2001, in Durban, then Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo declared that Nigeria

“…stood firmly behind the demand for an explicit apology. The wider international community has consistently failed to appreciate the reality that is particularly painful for us Africans…Apology must be extended by states which practiced and benefited from slavery, the slave trade or colonialism…For us in Africa, an apology is a deep feeling of remorse, expressed with the commitment that never again will such acts be practised”.

Grand words that were somewhat shabbied by Abdoulaye Wade’s declaration that his ancestors owned slaves. In creating an original script for the Calabar museum, word was put out to discover anyone who had ancestors carried away as slaves, but more importantly, anyone who had ancestors who had protested slavery, or died in protest or just stood up in protest.

The first batch of responses came back, and no one in the latter categories could be found. Instead it was offered that most of the old prestigious families in Calabar had traded in slaves.

It was a profound discovery, and one that was sure to create problems. Could one effectively run a museum from a city where one was alleging that its oldest most elevated members were slave traders or children of slave traders? What would be one’s contribution to the dialogue on reparations and our demands for apologies?

One could argue that, yes Africans owned slaves from antiquity, but that we were always humane to them, but would the argument have integrity, especially in the light of our modern environment?

Again, the issue of the anatomy of the slap. For me it was important that Elizabeth Udoudo define what her feelings were in the clearest of terms. It had been months since the incident and there had been many commentaries on the internet and in newspapers about it; what did she hope to gain from keeping it alive in the press and talking about it? Did she want some form of financial compensation? Did she want her car repaired?

Why had she paid a lawyer to come up with formal terms of reference on the incident? What was the value of the apology if it were forced? I wanted to really understand what her motives were? Somehow I believed, possibly erroneously, that if money were the issue, then there was some loss of integrity.

I pushed Elizabeth, and she was clear that the physical slap meant little, but to term her an unknown woman…In her own words, it meant: “I don’t have any value. I am not important. If we were to put it in the most accurate of terms, I don’t exist. I am irrelevant”.

This was the issue. If she were a nobody, then anything could be done to her without fear of repercussions. She had to show her children that you just didn’t walk up to a woman, slap her in the face, and get away with it.

The apology would be landmark. It would mean that nobody has rights, and in turn no one has the right to whip people out of the way, even if he is the president of Nigeria. I was glad that I had met Elizabeth, unlike how the papers portrayed her, she was not a victim. She was clear that she had not acquiesced to carrying the end of anyone’s wrapper.

NOTE: Yemisi Ogbe, a former columnist at Next Newspapers and one of Nigeria’s finest writers maintains her own blog, a delectable offering appropriately called The Longthroat Memoirs that will make you hungry for authentic Nigerian cuisine – and her lovely prose poetry. She is on Twitter as herself @yemisiogbe. Follow her. Google her; you will be smitten.

Lola Shoneyin: Loving Baba Segi’s Wives

 Reprint: First published in Next Newspapers, December 2010

The writer Lola Shoneyin lives life joyously on her own terms, tastefully wearing her smarts and sensuality in a world bound in rigid emotional ropes of hypocrisy. Her poetry is scrumptious, turning cold rocks into sniveling lovers. She wields words like fierce weapons against the past tense posing for tradition. This thinker of Nigerian extraction is ahead of her time in promulgating innovative ideas and in the way she deploys her myriad energies to the arduous task of jump-starting courageous conversations in a complex society like Nigeria

Cassava Republic has just released Shoneyin’s novel, ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’. I adore this book. From start to finish, it is a triumph of life over adversity, a joyful ode to the sensual mystery and resilience of the human spirit. I love this book. Shoneyin brings together her unique poetic senses and her love of the human story and wraps up a great tale with muscular prose.  Politely defiant, Shoneyin bends every cultural artefact and taboo in her brainy sensual path. This is a soap opera between the covers. I love the author’s bold use of language and imagery. She teases, she taunts, she soothes with her words. This is a rebel gleefully tugging at silly clay boundaries. Every other page hides sentences that desire to stir your consciousness – and your loins. Nothing is taboo for Shoneyin; she is eclectic in a brilliant near-reckless manner. Her words are defiant, and drunk with the sweet musky smell of primal sex. Sexual tension keeps the pages erect and thirsty for lusty sex. And the curses and trash talking rain down freely, Nigerian style.You might as well be riding around in a bolekaja enjoying Nigerian life at its most impish.

In ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’, Bolanle, a university graduate joins Baba Segi’s household as the fourth wife. Using this canvas, the author inspects Nigeria’s motley issues, as if from a dirty window. It is pretty, ugly, and riotous and secrets do not stay hidden for too long. Nigeria is a market and everything is sold in the open. In the process, we are entertained. Shoneyin taps furiously and insistently on social issues, prying their doors open for the reader to confront. Issues like marital abuse, rape, sexuality, infidelity the relentless march and meanness of the new Christianity, the ravages of a soulless consumer society and the resulting mimicry of the other as in women bleaching their skins to look attractive. There is an abundance of misogyny, and patriarchy reigns supreme. Sons are a premium over daughters and well sought after and celebrated by the society. Baba Segi is a loving father, if a bit of a buffoon and a crude lover. He is an unattractive man who has a disgusting habit of losing his bodily fluids when he is stressed. But he is a good provider and the women humour him, to a point. Women and children cope by manipulating men – with mixed and unintended results.

Shoneyin addresses the mystery and complexity of relationships and sexuality from a woman’s perspective. Not many would agree with her sympathetic, almost defiant take on the issue but she does give a powerful voice to those whose crime is to be different from the tyrannical majority. In that respect, compassion gushes from her pen. In the crush of issues like arranged marriages and the expectation that women and children are chattels beholden to men, there is a lesson here: Women dream also of the same pleasures and desires that men take sometimes violently.

The book gains confidence and traction with the turning of each page, however, it was hard following the chapters as the points of view changed. It stretches credulity to imagine Bolanle the fourth wife as a university graduate married to a semi-illiterate polygamist. She does not present herself as learned. The wives’ characters could have been fleshed out a bit more robustly. In a few instances, the dialogue was awkward. My worst line: “Well, you know before you wrap leaves around liquidised beans one must ensure that the ingredients are complete.” (p221) It is the worst translation of a proverb I have ever read.  The book is partly a conversation about paternalism and misogyny but it comes across as hostile to men. Baba Segi is depicted as a hapless buffoon who loses his bodily functions under stress. Men are typically depicted as bumbling idiots with balls for brains and the book gleefully lobs insults: “Men are nothing. They are fools. The penis between their legs is all they are useful for. And even then, if not that women needed their seed for children, it would be better to sit on a finger of green plantain.” Regardless, the book will keep a reader thinking for a long time. Not many would agree with the too-tidy ending, life is too complex for that. But who cares? I love this book.


 

Eghosa Imasuen: On Fine Boys and Yellow Girls

“In mid-1992, CNN reported that sixteen year-old Amy Fisher had just shot Mary Jo Buttafuoco, something about wanting the older woman dead so Joey – the bloody cradle snatcher – Buttafuoco could be free, I remember Amy was my age. Germany was unified, and British MPs had just elected a woman as speaker. The Soviet Union had been over for about two years, and the Russian-speaking part of Ukraine was threatening secession. The police officers who kicked Rodney King’s head in were getting acquitted for the first time. Grunge rockers were breaking their necks to that song, “smells like Teen Spirit” – inspired by the smell of latrines, I think – and African reggae singers were in a panic, rewriting songs, rearranging LPs and pushing back release dates now that Mandela was really free. Fuel prices here increased for the first time past the one naira mark. We had civilian governors and a military president. I was awaiting my matriculation exam results, hoping to make it into the University of Benin to study medicine. I was learning to drive on the busy Warri Streets. I was being a good son.”

                   –       Fine Boys by Eghosa Imasuen

Digital technology is poised to save Africa’s stories from the comatose printing presses of Africa’s “publishers.” Good writers still languish in Africa, staring at lovely stories trapped in the mediocrity of imitation books but all that is changing. E-books are here for African writers who are savvy enough to port their books to the Kindle or the Nook and share with the world.  It is a good thing. I have been buying and downloading books by writers living the living in Nigeria, warts and all. I am happy because now I can read many more of our stories than ever before. The Internet has been a boon to our literature. Why do I like reading books by writers “on the ground” in Nigeria as they say? I pine for the stories of our people unvarnished.

One of those books is Fine Boys by Eghosa Imasuen. I heartily recommend this book. There are many reasons why you should read this coming of age story. It is an important book on many levels. I do not know of any Nigerian novel that has taken the time to record history in the 90’s through university campus life as this novel has done. In this book, we follow the protagonist Ewaen and his siblings as they endure life under constantly feuding middle class parents, grow up amidst the drama that is Nigeria. We accompany Ewaen to the University of Benin and through his eyes we witness several issues that occurred in Nigeria in the 90s. There are so many issues: Campus cults took youth peer pressure to violent and deadly lows, there were brutal military regimes, a thwarted attempt at democracy (June 12th 1993), deteriorating educational and social infrastructure, etc. All through the dysfunction, the reader is taken through a tour of numerous relationships, some touching, some banal, and many quite dysfunctional. Marital abuse in the protagonist’s home is a sobering reminder of the war that young children endure in many homes. I admire how Ewaen, the protagonist’s spirit remained unbroken; he continued to weave joy and adventure out of situations that should have broken him irreparably. The book is a fine reminder that every day children trudge bravely through wars that they did not ask for, many of them in their homes.

Imasuen does a great job of painting the colorful atmosphere of campus life at the University of Benin, my alma mater.  Interestingly enough, In my time, in the late 70’s the decay had already begun, university staff quarters (the Junior Staff Quarters aka JSQ) were turning into sprawling slums selling food, booze, cigarettes and sex. The reader will find Imasuen’s palette a colorful world in which light-skinned women are described as “yellow” and only the initiated would understand what would be a slur in the West because Imasuen dispenses with the convenience of a glossary. Let the reader do the research. I like that even though as a result the book comes across as parochial. But then, we would never say that of a book written by a Westerner, would we? It is time for us to stand up for our self-loathing selves.

Imasuen has come a long way since his debut novel To St. Patrick. Fine Boys is chockfull of remarkable prose like this:

“The light that seeped in through the sheer curtains bathed everything in a blue translucence that made the room look like one of those Igbo market shops where the most awful pair of jeans miraculously became a pair of Versace specials.”

And this one is one of my favorites:

“Mesiri’s room was too tidy to keep anything in – your stuff could get contaminated by the hygiene.”

It is not a perfect book; it does get occasionally sloppy and tedious and I don’t like that the e-book’s pages are not numbered. It is as if Imasuen thought about a lot about the issues of that decade and threw them all slaphappy into the book, Imasuen struggles mightily between personal narrative and fiction. This is a fat novel that should have been pruned a bit. No detail escapes Imasuen, no matter how banal. It is a problem. Imasuen devotes the bulk of the novel to obsessing about campus cults; the Black Axe, Costra Nostra, Maphite, Neo-Black Movement. However, he did not penetrate the inner circle of the cults, the analysis was superficial. The reader wonders: How were these cults different from each other? Why did they mushroom in the 80’s and ‘90’s? What made them attractive to the teeming teens that joined them in droves? Why did hundreds of teens endure violent and reprehensible rites of passage in these cults? Was part of the reason because military regimes had become more draconian, brutal and corrupt and children grew up in these circumstances becoming cold, calculating and Machiavellian like their adults?

The book touches on the turbulent ‘90’s in Nigeria, brutal democracy and the work of the prodemocracy movement, with Western culture and democracy as asymptotes. There are identity issues, Wilhelm the half-caste or biracial is called oyinbo or white man. Lighter colored people are up on the totem pole of the caste system. People go to “summer vacation” abroad.  Gang members or “confra boys” man violent gangs, in the hostels smelly toilets are filled to the brim, classes are held in stadium sized lecture halls, with lecturers hollering without microphones, the cost of living is abominably high (it seems students are forever buying food, booze, cigarettes and lecture notes or “handouts” at extortionist prices).

The analysis focuses on the dysfunction of organized gangs or cults but invariably ignores the fact that teens tend to move in gangs, benign or otherwise. It is hard for the reader to ignore the protagonist’s own gang with its own rules, youths with names like Odegua, Mesiri, Wilhelm, Tuoyo, Oliver Tambo, Fram Oluchi, Preppa, K.O.,and  the girls, Tseye, Amide and Weyinmi (Minor correction: Odegua is never a male name). It makes for an interesting albeit rambling stew of a story. Much of it could be seen as banal prattle. As an aside, properly edited and adapted it would make for a good Nollywood movie about life on campus in the ‘90s.  In Fine Boys, we witness consumerism at its worst. There is no purpose to these lives. This is the beginning of the end, the middle class fleeing a looming war zone, a great story sloppily told. But then if you love ogbono soup, you will not mind this story dribbling down your memory’s chin. One perhaps unintended outcome is that Imasuen paints the university students of the 90’s as not meeting their potential, as perhaps not too bright. Indeed much of their dialogue is banal self-absorbed prattle. Regardless, it is a very colorful life told in colorful language and with great drama. There is even a “thief catching ceremony” organized by “native doctors.”

The book is mostly well edited, an incredible feat in a society that is indifferent to quality control. Imasuen shows off some good prose; enthusiastic passionate honest writing when he is good he deftly employs luscious turns of phrases. He is definitely original. I do not know of many African writers who would have enough self-confidence to design a character like Ewaen’s girlfriend Amide who says she is waiting “for the rice to done…”

This is not a tidy book. Some would say convincingly that this book is not serious literature; it comes across as too autobiographical and parochial, with little attempt to make it less so. It was like Imasuen kept a detailed rambling diary of his activities growing up. The story meanders and some of the characters are not well developed, it is hard to tell them apart. The protagonist is too busy talking. It would have been more helpful perhaps to devote chapters to a few main characters narrating their tales in the first person.

I must applaud Imasuen for documenting an important era in a way no one has done in recent times. In the “Chair dance” I basked in the lush delicacy of a halcyon past, of teenage angst, fighting alienation. In Fine Boys, one comes across familiar themes present in African literature, but new and contemporary themes emerged also: Attempted suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, the new Christianity and he prodemocracy movement that swept much of Black Africa in the 90s. The novel was also in a way a detailed commentary on identity issues, One of the characters, Wilhelm the half-caste (biracial) is called oyinbo. Lighter colored people are up on the totem pole of the caste system. Summer vacation in London marks you out as part of the elite. Then there were the “Confra boys” seeking to belong by manning violent gangs.  Youths in search of the golden fleece endure campuses with smelly toilets filled to the brim, classes in stadium sized lecture halls, lecturers hollering without microphones and an abominable cost of living (it seems students are forever buying food, booze, cigarettes and handouts at extortionist prices). This is consumerism at its worst. For these youths, there were so many rites of passage, there seemed to be no purpose to their lives. From the vantage point of today’s Nigeria, Fine Boys seems to chronicle the beginning of the end, the middle class fleeing a looming war zone, a great story sloppily told. But then if you love ogbono soup, you will not mind this story dribbling down your memory’s chin. As an aside, it would be an interesting scholarly activity to compare Imasuen’s approach to semi-autobiographical fiction in Fine Boys, to the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina in his rollicking memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place.

In the end, Imasuen’s vision is apocalyptic as the characters muse thus:

“Pure water don reach Fifty Kobo? Things are getting costlier,” Oluchi said.

”And making change is getting even more difficult for the sellers,” I added. “Remember in year one when a Five Naira note could get you a cigarette and a Fanta?”

“Yea, round figure,” Fra said. “Now that combination is seven Naira.”

Preppa nooded, “Maybe by the time that medical student comes back to Uniben, a bottle of beer will be one hundred Naira.:

“Impossible,” we shouted. “Never.”

Those were halcyon days.