Ikhide

Father, Fighter, Lover

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Guest Blog Post by Bolaji Olatunde – Dear contemporary African reader: Contemporary African writers owe you an apology for not being white enough

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This is a response, for the most part, to a thought-provoking essay titled Dear Contemporary African Writer, We Read; We Don’t Just Read You, written by Chisom Nlebedum.

In his essay, Nlebedum bemoans the fact that many young African readers know little or nothing about many other contemporary African writers, and adds that this should not “be misconstrued ‘as another “Africans do not read episode’, for this is already a ludicrous cliché.” Africans may read, but fiction has no place on their list of priorities, especially African fiction.

We must first establish that there are different categories of young Africans—Nlebedum seems to refer to the under “under twenty” category, and seems to have a bias for fiction writers in his criticism. I am Nigerian, and I live and work in Nigeria. I class myself way above the “under twenty” category. Apart from being an aspiring writer myself, I have a daytime job which places me in an environment where I have for colleagues at least forty well-educated Africans of about the same demography as mine, some older, some younger. I can tell you without fear of contradiction that reading fiction has no place in their lives. “Are you preparing for yet another professional exam? You never tire to do exam?” colleagues say to me when I’m seen reading a novel before the beginning, or after the end of the business day—among many Nigerians, one is expected to read only when one is preparing for exams. When a few of them stumble on fiction novels on my person at any given time, all I get are unbelieving looks, mixed with the looks of pity one would give a drug addict well down on the path to perdition.

Nlebedum remarks in his essay that he teaches “kids in Lekki, some of whom have devoured all the series of The Diary of The Wimpy Kid, Harry Porter, The Hunger Games, Percy Jackson’s series but who are strangers to the names and works of Chimamanda Adichie, Seffi Attah, Chika Unigwe, Igoni Barret, Helon Habila, Tope Folarin. This may surprise many keen watchers of the African/Nigerian literary scene who consider these names to be the leading lights of contemporary African literature, but it does not surprise me. I was privileged to attend a secondary school with children whose parents dwelt in Lekki-type places; they shared in that widespread Nigerian mindset that all things local are inferior. As a youth in Nigeria in the late 1980s and 1990s, I clearly recall disparaging remarks made by classmates and friends about the African literature we were made to study in school at the time. “The works of Achebe and Soyinka,” one of my pals from a well-heeled home snorted one time. They wanted to read the exotic works of Sidney Sheldon, the thrillers of Fredrick Forsythe, the books by Enid Blyton and James Hadley Chase. The novels about African themes like Things Fall Apart, The Lion and The Jewel and A Grain of Wheat were a bore—we knew all they were talking about; they were too familiar, they were too local. They grudgingly accepted thrillers under the popular Pacesetters imprint, but they were quick to state that they were not as good as the Nick Carter thrillers from America. When I was in the university, I remember criticizing a classmate of mine about his always reading thick western “bestsellers.” His response stays clearly with me to this day: “You want me to go and be reading Things Fall Apart?” We wanted to read stuff written by white folks, the real owners of the English language—some parents gave that mindset the adequate boost by flooding their homes with only such foreign books; my colleagues do the same for their children now. I was spared of this fate, because I had a relatively healthy mix at home. Sometime in 2015, in the company of friends, I was in the sitting room of a Nigerian friend, who resides in Lekki, whose two-year old son found himself instinctively jigging to a television advert for some product or the other, and the theme song was filled with heavy African drum percussion. His embarrassed father turned to us, his visitors, and said jokingly, “I’ve failed as a parent.” Behind this humorous declaration is an undeniable truth—the young African of today has been taught to hate his own heritage and culture, or make it second place to western culture, either consciously, or on a subliminal level.

In the light of this, one is forced to draw the conclusion that the best fate that can befall a contemporary African writer before he or she may find favour with the young African audience, the Lekki-type demography, is to become white, like Furo Wariboko in Igoni Barrett’s Blackass. Only then, will the Lekki-type demography find you worthy of their respect, and their children’s reading time. The overwhelming role of pigmentocracy in our national lives does not just apply to Africa/Nigeria’s economic sphere where expatriates are accorded greater wages and regard than their local counterparts with even better qualifications, it also extends to our cultural makeup. This is why a young Nigerian will read with glee the Harry Porter books, with due encouragement from the Lekki-type parent, who will do all in their power to discourage their child from reading a book about Harry Porter’s African wizard counterpart, written by a contemporary African writer. Everyone knows that a white teenage wizard is much better than an African wizard, the type that the Lekki-type parent takes their children to see the evangelical pastor cast and bind every weekend. Harry Porter is white, like Jesus, and is guaranteed a place in Heaven. The African wizard, that black being, is Satan’s sure companion in Hell in the afterlife.

I do not attempt to discourage the African reader’s interaction with literature from outside the continent. I owe a lot of knowledge to such interaction. For instance, it was in my reading of African American literature I first came to the knowledge of the racist history of the use of the word “boy” to describe black adult males, and of course, its related use in colonial Africa by the European colonialists who regarded the African male, irrespective of age, as one who could never grow out of a child-like state of mind. The post-colonial education Nigerians receive does not eliminate such in-built, unwitting self-hatred. It’s not uncommon to find African intellectuals and civil servants refer to their colleagues and subordinates as “boy” or “my boy,” which is unexpected from folks who should know better. If foreign literature will redress this, we should encourage it, but not to the detriment of our local content.

Nlebedum raises the question: “Who really are the people reading you, dear contemporary African writer?” The question is thrown up by the unavailability of the print editions of the works of these young African writers in bookshops. I would posit that a few devotees, such as myself, and I am sure there are a good number around the continent and in the diaspora, go all out to hunt for these new works. I’m not fond of e-readers, so I do as much as I can to get a hold of the print edition of books. I can sympathise a bit with his dilemma—I recall roaming many bookshops in Abuja before I got a copy of Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun in 2010. However, in due course, I identified a few “watering holes”—bookshops—where I spend a great deal of time selecting works by African writers and you can be sure to always discover a new exciting work—it’s not often a cheap hobby. Some of the books can be rather expensive.

The major reason why many of these books are not available in print is that publishing houses in Nigeria are just as practical as businesses anywhere in the world should be—why risk mass producing products that few will buy? It is a matter of simple economics—no demand, no supply, or little demand, little supply. Many readers won’t buy those books, not because they aren’t good, but because they dwell on themes that are too familiar, and they aren’t written by white people, about exotic places that the buyer may never visit, or intends to migrate to and leave, forever, this place called Africa. The Afropolitan writers and their works find better favour with African publishers and the Lekki-type demography for a good reason—they have left the godforsaken continent and gone on to live, study and work in those exotic white places. But, oh well, you can take the African out of Africa, but the African can never write anything as good as Harry Porter, or The Hunger Games.

These contemporary African writers’ works are available on every kind of e-reader you can mention, but they won’t be bought or read by the the Lekki-type parent, who can supply their children with e-readers of various forms, but will not contaminate their children with local African perspectives; it will not help the children prepare well for their insulated journeys to Harvard and Oxford.

Nlebedum states that a new direction of writing by African writers is necessary, works that show that “Africa has evolved, and is now an Africa where we seek equality between the man and the woman; an Africa where the minority and there rights should be protected; an Africa where electorates have discovered the pettiness of their politicians; an Africa that will stand and stands in judgment against those who take sides with the powerful against the powerless.” I must express surprise that as a teacher of literature, Nlebedum is not aware that African writers, the “old school” and the contemporary ones, have been writing about these themes for decades. Recent examples from contemporary African writers are Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday, Season of Crimson Blossoms by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Oil Cemetery by May Ifeoma Nwoye, Nairobi Heat by Mukoma Wa Ngugi, The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician by Tendai Huchu—the list goes on and on. These books ARE available in Lagos—the question is, how dedicated is a prospective reader to the task of finding them? There are tonnes of African novels which explore these themes. As a teacher himself, Nlebedum is not entirely blameless if his students are unaware of contemporary African writers, just as are many African literary scholars who think the only writers worthy of note are those of the 1960s and the contemporary ones canonized by the West, and they are made to sit in judgment every now and then at the NLNG literary prize. Contemporary African writers, he prescribes, should jettison “tales of witches and wizards, of evil powers in high places” but I am very sure that many of Nlebedum’s students, and maybe himself, would give stamps of approval to the works of Stephen King. After all, white horror, is better, more decent, than black/African horror.

Nlebedum complains “of books hurriedly written and printed by hungry writers who are grossly uninformed and are yet to come to terms with the rules of the English grammar.” The aspiring African writers who produce these books have to wage different battles on several fronts. The first front is the traditional publisher who will only publish writers and their works which have been blessed by the West. Not long ago, a popular Nigerian imprint asked for submissions from writers. Months later, the publisher complained that the submissions were filled with grammatical errors, and they all submissions were rejected. If Amos Tutola’s publisher had been so “grammatically-correct”, the magic of his stories would have been lost, forever. “Grammatical errors in a manuscript? No, can’t publish,” says the African publisher. The African writer must not have knowledge that is beyond his or her ken; the western writer knows it all and must be emulated. One would think that editors were invented for a particular reason, or perhaps editing is just too much work.

Writers have to make ends meet too. Having our manuscripts rejected by the continent’s traditional publishers means we have to seek funds to self-publish—anyone burdened with an unpublished manuscript for any length of time can probably identify with this. Waiting around for a gate keeper whose decisions are driven by the West won’t help to put food on the table. Yes, it is important to ensure quality is produced, but a writer doubling as the editor, the publisher and distributor of his or her work may not be a good idea. I often relate my own experience when, filled with excitement and zest, I took the manuscript of my first novel to the expansive, air-conditioned offices of a major Ibadan-based publisher. I was told, by the chief editor, without opening a page of the manuscript and with a sympathetic smile on his face that I would have to bear the entire cost of publication of the novel. However, if I would be willing to write a textbook on accounting—the source of my daily bread—for use by either secondary schools or universities, they would publish that one gratis, without delay. My excitement waned considerably immediately after that meeting.

I often watch with fascination, and inner pride, my younger relatives, become so enamoured of music produced by homegrown, home-based young Nigerian musicians. They pay attention to the gossip, the fashion trends among these music stars, word about which musician is sleeping with whom. The last time we had this level of explosion in that cultural scene was in the 1980s, when we wanted to know why Mike Okri was still hopping in and out of taxis despite having monster hits, when we bought and read Prime People and Vintage People, and wanted to know Charlie Boy’s latest scandal. Then the 1990s rolled in, and American style hip-hop took over. Folks who had no idea what Tupac and Biggie Smalls were talking about became fans of the genre because our music stars stopped producing major stuff, and when they did, the recordings were of poor quality. I believe African literature will experience the same phase in due course. In the 1980s, things that the Achebes, the Soyinkas, the J.P. Clarks did made the front pages of newspapers—they had rock star personas. The closest to that today is Chimamanda Adichie. The real or perceived present poor state of the country’s educational system may cause one to doubt that we’ll soon have fiction writers of such statures dominating pop culture headlines. You don’t need much education to get into the groove of contemporary Nigerian Afrobeats, but you need it to read through a novel. As a stakeholder though, one must be optimistic that the time of African literature to explode like the pop music scene will arrive soon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

folarin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 I think I cried, but I’m not sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facebook Nation (For Izuma)

I come from a land that has streets with no names. Our people did not name the streets of our village because they saw the coming of smartphones, Google, e-mail and Facebook and whatnot.

Well, the little path that goes from my father’s village to my mother’s village is called the little path. Was. The little path is no more. My father’s father was buried by the path half way to my mother’s people. He is no longer buried there. A government thief built an ugly mansion over his bones. In the land of my ancestors, people don’t venture far from the earth. There are no mortuaries, when they die they practically fall into their graves themselves. We are simple people; it is complicated.

I have ventured far, very far from home. When I left home, no Facebook messages charted my way out of Africa into America’s issues. My parents put me inside this capsule to somewhere and hoped that someday I would be back. I am still here in America. I am not going back soon.

Today, I stare at the remains of winter in America; earth, frosting on chocolate cake. After all these moons, alien images and clichés stick to me, white on rice. Nothing stays the same. Not in America. The changes make me dizzy and I obsess non-stop about the way things used to be.

Here in my part of America, our drugstore no longer has human cashiers. The owners remodeled the store, and replaced humans with machines that talk to you. You walk up to a machine, scan your goods, pay and leave. It is very disconcerting; I keep looking for humans to return, I actually miss them. I know now that I love people and I cannot shake this cold unfeeling nothingness I get from interacting with a machine that proves its indifference with faux warmth.

Don’t get me wrong, I am high on the possibilities and the opportunities riding on the strong backs of these new and emerging technologies, but I do wonder now if there are downsides to all of this. The world is becoming more and more shaped by a few and powerful; the cognitive elite. We struggle daily to deal with and adapt to the awesome force of new technologies and the new billionaire dictators that built them.

Life is war. We were all born into a war that we did not ask for. And people write about our world; sometimes it is mostly gory. Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Achebe, they belonged to a certain era when one had no choice but to concentrate all of one’s creative passions on one medium of expression – the book.

I read a lot of books, mostly about the condition we find ourselves as people of color in a white man’s world. It is a shame that we are talking about books because in my clan we are steeped in the oral tradition. Some of the world’s greatest “books” have been “read” to us in song by our ancestors. My mother, Izuma is one of the world’s greatest living poets; she has not written a lick. She would be great on YouTube. She would at least help to preserve one of our dying languages.

On Facebook, walls are colorful wrappers wound tightly around a billion new municipalities of ME. Facebook is falling leaves, hearts fluttering, forlorn, drying on yesterday’s clothes lines. People are waving hasty goodbyes out the windows of indifferent relationships. It is complicated. Life goes on. There are no nations as we remember them.Facebook. The new frontier has edged into our consciousness. Africa. We fled her angry windows for Facebook Nation.

Juliane Okot Bitek: 100 Days of hell’s anomie

History matters. There are many ways to commemorate, to memorialize communal horror. All over the world, memorials and museums stand sentry to history, to various times when the darkness within seemed to overwhelm humanity and throw up the unmentionable like the holocaust, Biafra, Bosnia, and now Rwanda. Yes, over twenty years ago, in 1994, beginning in April, within a span of 100 horrible, blood-drenched days, the Hutu took machetes and other crude implements of savagery and hatred and hacked down approximately one million Tutsis (and moderate Hutus). Those who are strangely not familiar with this sordid aspect of world history should read this primer by the BBC on the genocide. The thinker Wandia Njoya (@wmnjoya on Twitter) also has an incisive piece that situates the genocide in its proper context and assigns appropriate responsibility to all the players in this horror of horrors.

 History matters. There are many ways to remember the past. In addition to physical artifacts of remembrance, writers, thinkers and artists have memorialized trauma in prose and theatre. Read Elie Wiesel’s Night and be numbed by his stark and searing narrative on the concentration camps of the holocaust. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is an epic ode to the horror that was Biafra and the Nigerian civil war. In Rwanda, as in previous crimes against humanity, the world chose to look away. America under the leadership of President Bill Clinton knew of an impending genocide and chose to do nothing. There is not a shortage of immortal words commemorating man’s inhumanity to man.

100So the other day, this book came in the mail; Juliane Okot Bitek’s 100 Days, a book of poetry about Rwanda, genocide, pain, living, dying, loving, about connections and dislocations in a time of madness. One hundred days to be precise. It sat staring at me, willing me to read of a time when it seemed that the world went mad and looked away as Rwanda boiled in a cauldron of whirling machetes and hate. And the text came: ‘My dad’s health has declined since last night. They say he doesn’t have much longer if you would like to come see him.” And as I do when I am under stress I grabbed the book and took it with me to the hospice to go say goodbye to a part of me. And as I read Bitek’s poems to the living dying in that room, I was overcome by the power of her words and the comforting healing of the poems from someone so far away. The poems spoke to both of us in our grief. What are words if they cannot lift you and carry you past the valley of darkness?

Major kudos to the University of Alberta Press (@UAlbertaPress on Twitter), publishers of 100 Days; it is a gorgeous book, well edited, you should read it. It is poetry and it is not poetry, the fluidity of the verse defies definition, in a good way. The reader is forced to ask the question: What is poetry and does it matter if you don’t call it poetry? It is simply enough for one to say, 100 Days is a compilation that came straight out from deep within Bitek’s rich soul and made this reader’s cells dance in celebration of a life ebbing away into the next pantheon. Bitek’s ability to connect with the beauty and pain of human suffering seems supernatural, this ability to give voice to those who seem to have no voices. Bitek wrote this book with her blood and it shows.

 You should read 100 Days, there are connections, physical, emotional and spiritual in every page of this fascinating collection of connections. Each day is a poem. Each day reveals a new dawn, a new theme, or many themes. Bitek is a gifted seer, she sees tomorrow with a sweet but earthy, guttural voice, voice of the masquerade. And betrayal is a constant theme, the voice reminds the earth.

but it was the earth that betrayed us first
in those one hundred days that would never end

100 Days is a long lament in the tradition of the ancients, long running, punishing the conscience, no question marks, no commas, no periods, a long harrowing lament that grabs you by the head and forces you to listen to the victim, and be drenched in the sweaty rage of the not-so helpless.

 Words leapt into our eyes
& burned this new knowledge that was never new

but it was the earth that betrayed us first
in those one hundred days that would never end

what is it to come from a land that swallows its own people

how can we exist outside of betrayal
by time & land

100 Days is about Rwanda. But then it is not only about Rwanda. It is about everywhere really as Bitek reminds us in her note to the reader:

“How and where do the experiences of survivors of genocide in Rwanda match those of survivors from Bosnia and northern Uganda? All three places were steeped in war and violence at the same time. What is it to be from a place where bloodshed of your kin darkens the soil, makes the river run red and that that’s not newsworthy?”

In these powerful pages one is confronted with a starkness, with a painful loss of innocence, the poems are almost one song, it as if I am listening to the poets of the sixties, the poets of Vietnam, of Biafra, Simon and Garfunkel wailing the sad, beautiful song, The Boxer. This is what Bitek does; she takes the reader to places in the heart that the writer never intended or imagined. That is powerful, how she makes 100 Days a deeply personal journey for each reader.

We walked when our legs could carry us
childhood rhythms carried us along
songs from days of innocence
like holding hands
like soft embraces

 And so, a hundred days becomes a frightening character in a book of horrors, this vehicle that swallowed so many innocents whole in the blood of a mean land.

 What do crickets know about innocence
were they not there
did they not see more than we did
By staying closer to the ground than we ever were

 innocence is power without experience
innocence is a knowing untempered

  Imagine a world in which evil is a numbing cliché. It is our world.

a machete hangs like a mockery of time
like a semblance of that reality
in which another machete
& other machetes hanged
for what seemed like a long time
but eventually they come down
again & again & again & again & again

even time measured in machete strokes
can never be accurate

100 Days grabs you, not letting go, telling you of the truths you won’t look at it in the face. And you feel the heavy emptiness, the disempowering weight of grief as helplessness is measured in the relentless cycle of unending time.

After all this
time flashes
time drags
nothing as nothing  just as it was
a nothingness

JulianeBitek reminds us with the force and clarity of her verses that poems can serve as cameras into the soul of a troubled world. The remembering is painful but necessary, this holocaust museum in the soul. This is horror neatly catalogued like the surviving finger with the ring, missing her nine companions. Words are powerful here, describing the powerlessness of being. And the whole notion of reconciliation as avoidance is birthed. And organized religion is an enabler.

The beauty of 100 Days is that it asks all the right questions about what did not happen in Rwanda. As an aside it is interesting that a mere twenty years after that genocide, the word reconciliation has been bandied about until it is chic for photographers like Pieter Hugo to take  staged portraits of victims and perpetrators in ways that they would not dare of the holocaust. As in South Africa and Rwanda, the powerless reach for the placebo of reconciliation, while with the holocaust, the talk to this day is of justice and punishment. That is how it should be.

100 Days is also a conversation about the power of the Internet and social media to make connections among artists and allow for productive collaboration. As Bitek explains it, these poems started out as a collaboration of sorts with the Kenyan American artist Wangechi Mutu (@Wangechimutu on Twitter) who in April 2014 started posting a series of photographs tagged #kwibuka20#100Days on social media. Indeed, on Bitek’s blog there is an online version of the book in which each day, Mutu’s photographs are juxtaposed side by side with Bitek’s poems for each day. I think the collaboration should have been extended to the book, the pictures would have helped the stories. It is not a huge loss, the poems are powerful portraits by themselves. By the way, the foreword by the Canadian poet Cecily Nicholson (@_c_n_ on Twitter) alone is worth the price of the book, it is a scintillating show of pretty prose-poetry housing profound thoughts about our humanity.

 There is another reason why I celebrate and adore Bitek. She is a powerful poet in her own right, which is no mean feat, because she has had to shake herself off the shadows of her father, Okot p’Bitek one of Africa’s most important poets, most famous for Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol, epic works of fiction in long-running verse. It is interesting, over five decades after the publication of those volumes, the same themes of alienation, dislocation, and belonging continue to haunt Africa as seen in Bitek’s 100 Days. Her poetry only confirms that she comes from a land of people who revere the spoken word and make it say important truths in beautiful ways. In interview after interview, the questions never fail to come out about her father, but Bitek is ever so gracious in not letting it be about her father, while educating the world about a man’s legacy she is infinitely proud of:

“My dad was not an autocrat in the house and he was not sexist. All the housework was shared fairly between our brother and sisters. He taught us how to cook some dishes that I still make occasionally. He showed us, for example, how to cook rice and beef on a single charcoal stove by placing the charcoal stove on top of the rice pot and then cooking the beef on top. He made an excellent dish of fried matooke which he cooked with lots of ghee and pepper. He was a great lover of Acholi food which we all now appreciate. My dad woke up early every day – my mother tells me he was up between four and five every morning to write. I have memories of my dad waking me up to watch the sunrise from the back verandah of our house in Kololo.”

And of course, you would not be a Ugandan poet if you did not pay homage to matooke, that meal of the gods. Matooke? Google it. That’s what Google is for. And oh, Juliane Okot Bitek is on Twitter as @jobitek. Follow her. Thank me later.

Bringing light through the Blackout writing competition

The Nigerian fiction writing scene is no longer quiet; it is enjoying a raucous renaissance and we have the energy and creativity of young Nigerian writers to thank for it. For the past decade, we have just Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helon Habila and Chika Unigwe and a few others to brag about. The good news is that new voices like Chigozie Obioma and Chinelo Okparanta, Elnathan John, A. Igoni Barret, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, and several others have emerged to literally rock the literary house. Still, for a country of over 170 million people, this is not nearly enough. 

 Nigeria needs lots of resources and robust structures to encourage its creative writing industry. What do we have? How many MFAs? How many noteworthy publishing houses. How many noteworthy contests for upcoming writers? Apart from Farafina and Ebedi, what other consistent live-in workshops are there? My point is this: Nigeria needs more structures. We need a more enabling environment for our writing. We need to rid our culture of the poor-writers-who-scramble-for-every-20k-crumbs attitude. We need to give writing the dignity it deserves in this part of the world. We need The Flash7: Blackout. 

 Yes, we need the Flash7: Blackout. What is blackout, you ask? It is an exciting initiative of the writer Hymar David, one of many brilliant young writers that have turned Facebook and Twitter into an infinite literary canvas that is giving traditional writing serious competition. 

The Flash began as a series of Facebook-based writing duels of Flash Fiction between two writers with the reading public as judges: Samuel Okopi and Enobong Odohofreh. Hymar David, however, took the idea and turned it into a certain movement that has spread through Facebook like a virus. Literally. 
 

The Flash7: Blackout, featuring 24 writers in 6 groups, is the second of its kind after the Flash: Eclipse which had 16 writers in 4 groups going one on one for a N30,000 reward. However, with the support of Dufil Groups, the makers of Indomie noodles, and Lenovo, Nigeria’s foremost laptop and smartphone manufacturers, the Flash has grown in one giant leap. 

Blackout is offering a grand prize of N100,000 naira plus a Lenovo laptop to the eventual winner; N50,000 plus a Lenovo smartphone to the runner-up and N15,000 each to the last 2 semi-finalists. It is so far the biggest individually-run writing competition in Nigeria. And stands its own next to The Etisalat Prize and the NLNG prize. I am beyond thrilled.
 

The Flash7: Blackout is well organised. The contestants are picked via a process that involved stories sent in (after a call for submissions) sorted and sent anonymously (without the writers’ names appended) to four judges who filter through and pick the final 24 stories.

 The Facebook reading public is often fond of praise-singing, applauding poorly written efforts and giving writers a false sense of accomplishment. During the Blackout, each matchup will be judged not just by votes but by three judges whose votes carry more weight than the public votes. For instance, 10 public votes are worth 3 points while a single judge’s vote is worth 12 points. Soliciting for votes is prohibited. Contestants are fined 5 points for that. Just write (based on given themes with word limits attached) and let everyone assess your worth, the organizers seem to be saying. 

I cannot say it enough: Kudos to Hymar David and his crew who are taking Facebook writing, and social media writing in general to another awesome level. 

 Credit must also go to Lenovo and Dufil Groups for their involvement in this noble endeavor; helping grow a youthful literary sphere full of groping brilliant hands and minds. It is my hope that The Flash will keep expanding to become a major player in the Nigerian literary landscape. It is a new world and it is a good time to be alive if you are a reader.

As the flash starts on Saturday, 9th January 2016, like the Facebook page: The Flash: Challenge to follow up on this generation of new writers, writing their way out of Nigeria’s glorious literary past into a new dawn of fun and innovative writing. I salute Hymar David and his fellow warriors.

  

Random musings on that presidential chat…

Accents. December 30, 2015 was not a good day for most Nigerians. President Buhari spoke at his inaugural “Presidential Media Chat” and that upset them. Poor Buhari. He can catch no break. If he doesn’t speak, everybody wails, ‘Baba, talk to us na, SMH!!!” If he speaks, everybody wails, “OMG! Baba shut up!” Yesterday all of Nigeria was in mourning. The best way to decribe it is if all the teams in the British Premier League played on the same day – and they all lost. Imagine the wailing and gnashing of teeth on the streets of Nigeria. Pretty much everybody agrees now that President Buhari should not do media chats again, ever, never, ever, never. I happen to agree. I do think there should be media chats – featuring just Lai Muhammed and the interviewer Ngozi Anyaegbunam. Just kidding! Just kidding! Drop your stones, SMH.

I actually enjoyed the media chat, even  before I watched it. The Igbo have an ancient saying, that Facebook comments are always more interesting than the original post. This was especially true with Buhari’s media chat. I kept laughing and fainting and dying as APC die-hards, Buharists, breathlessly tweeted and Facebooked their alarm, despair and disgust as their man Buhari kept mangling any and everything remotely resembling rigorous thought. It was cute, how PDP enthusiasts kept consoling the Buharists [“Ndo! It is well, this too shall pass, it doesn’t worth it, Buhari is useless, that is the crust of the matter, see him passing the bulk, SMH! Hiss!! Nonsense!!! Don’t cry!!”]. The tweets and Facebook posts, I must say were hilarious. I don’t need to post any here, they are everywhere.

Nigerians are proud people, they like to look and sound good. You can do anything you like, but don’t disrespect Nigerians by not representing them well. Buhari did not represent them well at the media chat. I finally watched the videoclip of the media chat; it was bad, but not as bad as it could have been. The interviewers were not the best, save for Ibangy Isine, the Premium Times representative. He at least looked like he had done his homework. Ms. Ngozi Anyaegbunam should not be allowed near a microphone again, ever. To say she was awful would be to disrespect the word “awful.” In general, the interviewers missed a golden opportunity to ask systemic questions, rather than “who chop meat” kinds of questions. The other way to look at it is that Buhari is incapable of big picture questions. He stubbornly refused to rise to the occasion at each opportunity. He sat there like a Nigerian iceberg glowering at himself and the world. He clearly has no idea what it takes to run a modern state, it just seemed like he had not read anything of substance for 30 years, as if he had been locked away in solitary and the keys thrown away. Does he have advisers who brief him every day? Poor Buhari, he still longs for the days of decrees and house arrests, democracy is in his way. And he pretty much said that. It was bad.

I have to say I love Buhari’s accent *dodges slaps* I honestly do, it is the only thing presidential about him. He should speak Hausa and use an interpreter. Let the West use English subtitles, who cares? They will anyway, even if he speaks what we think is English. My sense however is that it was his accent and delivery that upset Nigerians the most. Nigerians love style over substance. This time there was neither style nor substance. They came for suya, they did not smell suya, did not smell the smoke, did not hear the sizzle, certainly did not even eat the onions. Nigerians are steamed, and they are not having it.

Since 1999, it appears that the chief objective of democracy has been to humiliate Nigerians with leaders that are quite honestly unpresentable. Whenever Obasanjo would speak on CNN, they would use subtitles, as if he was speaking a rare variant of Yoruba. He came across as opinionated, arrogant, but poorly read. I still wonder what he is going to put in his presidential library. I met Yar’Adua once, I liked his delivery, he came across as humble and well read. I could never bear to watch Goodluck Jonathan. He was poorly read and did not look anywhere near presidential. I loved Madam Patience though, just loved the poetry of her delivery. I never understood her, to be honest. I did not know she was speaking English until someone told me that she was. And this was long after she’d left office. Yes, she was president of Nigeria. Her husband was simply warming the seat. Now, that is how to be a feminist.

I do miss the days when our leaders made us proud when they spoke. Leaders like Tafawa Balewa, Yakubu Gowon, Odumegwu Ojukwu, etc. etc.. We were respected world wide. Go to the archives and see how prepared and dignified Yakubu Gowon and Victoria Gowon were when they were guests at Buckingham Palace. Ah! Victoria! *swoons* Compare those halcyon times to the buffoonery that was the visit to the White House by Buhari and the boys. I am still crying. Here, watch Tafawa Balewa’s visit to the U.S. Compare it to today. You wil cry.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YT5m9Fn9RBg

I shall be back in the new year.

– Signed, Your favorite rascal, Ikhide

 

Summer Blues: Life is a beach

(First published in Next Newspapers, March 7, 2009)

 

I miss my wife. She is gone home to Africa to laugh with her sisters until her sides hurt, to eat mangoes until her teeth ache; and to dine on suya and sad stories until her stomach churns with the stress of too much food and information.

 

The children and I miss our mother and wife. The house is not the same without her. In her absence our spirits lose their nerves and their will. Maybe the ocean will help.

 

We will go to the ocean to play in the waters. Well, my children will play in the waters and I will stare at the sea until Africa waves back at me. So we are headed to the seaside, to the Atlantic Ocean, to feel Africa.

 

Dawn on the road in America. We are headed to the beach, the children and I. Well, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and I. The children are asleep in the truck, but Fela refuses to go to sleep.

 

He leans out of his vinyl hut and speaks truth to America s deception. They will arrest us today but I don’t care, I am enjoying this god, wearing nothing but his underwear and his saxophone, wailing truth to America’s power.

 

Suffering and smiling, I listen to the guttural voice of the priest’s, born of privilege giving voice to the dispossessed. The truck rocks with Fela; there is despair and desolation and truth and lies and suffering and smiling everywhere, even in America. The truth escaped Nigeria with me and after all these years, Fela reminds me that the truth stays constant. There are no mysteries, only lies.

 

America taunts my denial. Even after all these years, Fela’s words haunt and hurt badly. What happened to Nigeria? What happened to Africa? And what am I doing here in America? What is the purpose of all this restlessness? Here in America, I am in my middle passage.

 

I am like Chinua Achebe’s Okonkwo, seething, gazing forlornly at the Africa that my siblings in Nigeria say exists only in my imagination. They say Africa has moved on for good or for bad. And they say I need to move on. Even our masquerades are now rap artists wearing Dallas Cowboys tee shirts. After all these years, what force pulls us back to the womb of our past?

 

We are going to the beach to forget our miseries for a little while. The children have their iPods. I have Fela and Sunny Ade and Osita Osadebe. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is coming with me. I will read her stories on the beach and hope the lifeguards save our children from the ocean’s foaming rage.

 

I cannot get enough of Adichie’s stories. They remind me that we are making progress. She takes on our old story tellers, leans off the sturdy eaves of her defiant hut to give her own masterful call and response riff. From Achebe to Adichie, there are no dead white writers here. Yes, life is good.

 

Adichie’s stories are the affirmation of my mother’s stories and the bravery of Africa’s women and children. Ogaga Ifowodo is coming with me. I will read his oriki of suffering on the devastated shores of the delta. I will read aloud the dirges of the children of the delta, to the privileged of America. They must hear Ogaga. They will hear Africa on the beaches of America. Life is good.

 

I am sitting here on the beach staring at the Atlantic wondering when my wife will come back. I am wondering if I will ever go back home to Africa like I said I would almost 30 years ago.

 

Maybe I should resign myself to squeezing joy out of the remains of my current dispensation. I understand now why Kunta Kinte was so angry; dislocation aches the bones. We stayed too long in paradise and trapped ourselves in our own private prison. We are at war like no one has ever seen.

 

America is a strange place and I am in a strange place. In America, doors are always opening. And closing. I miss Africa and grandma coming down the little path. My spirit carries me past wretched bridges to nowhere. We are miserable in the new order called life.

 

In the new order, there is no order. Systems germinate and thrive out of seeming chaos. Chaos wails foul as we insist on order. There is no order; that is so past tense. Flow with the waves, relax your muscles and you’ll end up on the beach of the life, grinning sheepishly.

 

The Atlantic Ocean comes roaring, bringing forceful memories of Africa and the joy of my children to my feet. The waves rise, menacing walls, malevolent spirits foaming in the mouth; my voice dives tremulous into the jaws of the masquerade. “Children, be careful!”

 

The masquerade swallows my boys and spits them out, inedible offerings to greedy deities. The prayers rise in me and stop at my feet, putting jarring brakes on my boys’ death wishes. Out of the ocean, Africa comes crashing at my feet, steamy, hot, sweaty, salty, fertile, taunting me in the sterility of my exile. And a guiding light says to me from across the seas, “WHAT are you doing here, Okonkwo? Come home!”

 

We are back from the beach. The children had a great time. I was miserable. I missed my wife and Africa. But she is back now. Back with bottles of groundnuts and malaria.

 

Africa gives her lovers chills and headaches. In-between the delirium of her fevers she raves about Africa. She loved Nigeria and she can’t wait to go back. But the chills and the headaches of her malaria come in waves riding on the toasty heat of a body battling demons. Welcome to America, honey.

 

On EC Osondu’s This House is Not for Sale, jollof rice and all that jazz

I enjoyed reading E.C. Osondu’s book of fiction, This House is Not for Sale. The book shares many of the same issues that frustrated me in Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen (reviewed here) and Jola Naibi’s Terra Cotta Beauty (reviewed here) but still it does a great job of educating and entertaining the reader with humorous tales laced with historical accounts of a bygone era. The reader is regaled  with witty observations from the eyes of a child living in a house (called “Family House”) filled with interesting characters, characters that could only have been conjured up by a mind on steroids. I recommend it to the reader dying for good fiction. The blog Africa is a Country has a good review of it here. Its opening paragraph aptly sums up the book’s portrayal of life in a Nigerian city where:

…everyday life serves as the stage for spectacular dramas and miraculous events, where every neighborhood has its fair share of characters and crazies—the white-garment church pastor, the dodgy police man, the mad man with his thing hanging out, the prostitute, the political thug, the old soldier, the witchdoctor, the quack pharmacist, the old lady who everyone thinks is a witch, the Phd holder without a job, and so on. Life with these archetypes existed in a continuum of the hilarious, the surreal, and the bat-shit crazy.

There are many things to like in the book – from the editing (which sometimes morphs into over-editing), to the meticulous research, to the disciplined, short sentences that showcase Osondu as a writer in charge of his craft. Osondu deploys an unusual but ultimately effective approach to writing this book that draws primarily on his strengths as a writer of short stories. There are eighteen chapters, each of which could stand alone as a short story, because each chapter seems to bear little or no relationship to any other. There are these fascinating characters, people with names like Gramophone, Baby, Cash, etc., each one assigned to a chapter. All through, Osondu maintains a disciplined focus on the character that owns the chapter to the near exclusion of others who remain in the shadows. It makes for easy and pleasurable reading.

Osondu toys with innovation in this book and he is successful at it. The mansion “Family House” that houses all these characters is a living, breathing, brooding character in its own right, ruled by Grandpa, the patriarch, mafia don, fixer and enforcer. It is a rowdy house, the reader gets the impression that it is a house of umpteen rooms. Many people come to this house in this mythical city to try their fortunes, seek solace from terror, flee their demons, and in a few cases, their crimes. “Family House” is a not-so-mute witness to life, dishing out opinions through its many characters that live in her. As an experiment in writing out of the box of orthodoxy, Osondu pulled that off nicely.

With this book, Osondu slyly turns the reader into Obierika, the wise one in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, who thinks about things and quietly questions the way things are. The book forces the reader to reflect on cultural norms with respect to relationships, patriarchy, misogyny, sexuality and sexual preferences, pedophilia (as in child brides) child abuse and labor, the new Christianity and its demons, the mentally disabled and their treatment, infertility, infanticide, corruption, etc. Again, these are familiar themes that run through most contemporary African fiction, except that Osondu does not preach at the reader. Indeed, it is the case that some of the characters, especially the children (Ibe and the nameless protagonist who narrates each chapter) try to fashion joy out of a war they found themselves in, and they mostly succeed.

This House is Not for Sale does not delve deep into any of the myriad issues it confronts, but like a good tweet, fills your mind’s mouth with rich imaginings. The book jogged my memory a lot and I grinned as I read of “sentimental songs” and revisited legends of my time like “Kill-We” Nwachukwu. Google him. Yes, Osondu has a phenomenal memory; his sense of recall is impressive.

For the Western audience, the abuses against women and children might seem savage and distant, of a time and a place where women and children could be expelled from their homes by men, sent packing to make room for a new bride. Except that corporal abuse, humiliation of women under flimsy pretexts (stripping them naked, beating them up and imposing corporal punishment on them) continue to this day in many of these societies, despite the slick and glossy noises of over-funded “empowerment” NGOs. But the book lets you think about those things without making any judgments.

The chapter named Ibe was my favorite chapter.  Here, Osondu comes alive and one enjoys the power of his mind and his muscular writing skills. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book. The chapter took me back to my past and my childhood, to an era long gone, and I remembered a lot of things I had forgotten. Ibe, a cousin of the unnamed protagonist is an entertaining know-it all adventurous and impish boy who regales his audience with fantastic tales of his travels some of it made up in his head. My favorite lines are here:

Ibe paid for the movie with the money we got from the mission. Ibe bought suya. Ibe bought Fanta. Ibe bought Wall’s ice cream. Ibe bought FanYogo, Ibe bought Fan ice orange slush, Ibe bought guguru. Ibe bought epa. Ibe said we should walk into the movie theater like Harrison Ford walking into the Temple of Doom, we should walk in with a swagger and we should be swaying from side to side because no one could stop us. We did. (p 25)

I remembered this especially and I cackled with joy:

Cash had a framed picture in his store that showed two men. In one half of the picture, the man who sold in cash was smiling and looking prosperous in a green jacket and a fine waistcoat with a gold watch dangling from a chain and gold coins all around him. The other man who sold on credit was dressed in rags and looked haggard. All around him were the signs of his poverty; a rat nibbled at a piece of dry cheese in a corner of the store. (p 28)

cashcreditMany of the stories are lovely but Ebi and Fuebi were my favorites. Fuebi was a good story, a bit more passionate and self-confident than the others, intense and filling. The chapter Currency reads eerily like a narrative of the recently concluded Nigerian elections. All through the stories, “Family House” is a constant presence, mute witness to living chaos, and enabler of dysfunctions, with Grandpa as the patriarch. In a sense perhaps, “Family House” is the main protagonist, the one that takes all our stories – and tells them – like the Internet. Welcome, new world.

Many readers might find the disconnectedness among the stories to be disconcerting especially as the book seems to be marketed, not as a book of short stories, but as a novel. I actually liked that the stories were loosely or not connected. Osondu tried to experiment with all these characters in this huge house and create stories that sometimes went nowhere. Just like life. He did not attempt a contrived plot; I think that took supreme literary confidence or chutzpah.  Osondu did try to bring together all the stories in the last two chapters; that, in my opinion, was a messy mistake.

This House is not For Sale is not a perfect book; it reminded me of some of my pet peeves when it comes to African writing. It is written for a broad Western audience in mind; Many times, Nigerian words and idioms are italicized and carefully explained in the same or preceding sentence. African writers should perhaps learn to be more insular, I mean who italicizes akara and explains it as “bean cake” in the 21st century? If the reader is too lazy to use Google, tough luck. But then, to be fair, after all these years of railing at African writers, I now realize that African writers who choose to publish in the West are not negotiating from a position of strength; the editor is Western, the publishing company is Western and the audience is Western. It makes marketing sense. It doesn’t make it any less maddening. Imagine if Tolstoy in War and Peace had taken the time to italicize and explain every word foreign to the African reader. That book would have been way more than 50,000 pages. But then to be fair Nigeria has precious few indigenous publishing houses, what is a writer to do? You want to be published? Take the crap from the Western paymasters.

The chapter, How the house came to be uses conventional (and helpful) quotation marks to delineate dialogue; the others osondudispense with it, which is confusing sometimes, especially when it is a long dialogue. Also, sometimes I felt like I was being read to as if I was a child. It is as if Osondu started out writing a children’s book, then he changed his mind. The tone of the prose may have been influenced by the fact that the protagonist is a child. The characters are mostly caricatures, many of them behaving like pretend-humans lolling about in an anti-intellectual society, lacking an ideological core and an abiding spirituality. That would be contemporary Nigeria. Perhaps this is the case, but between the 70’s and the 90’s, it boggles the mind that for many African writers like Osondu writing about that era there seems to be a dearth of serious minded people as characters. The African writer’s trademark superciliousness mars the book, somewhat.

In a few chapters, the over-editing by the editor lowered the boom and passion of Osondu’s powerful voice into a near-whimper. The attempt to sell the book to the West was relentless, and readers, young readers especially now used to the raw indigenous attitude of writing on the Internet and social media would look askance at parts of the writing. For Chinua Achebe, it was a simple trick; appropriate the English Language as if it were your own and tell your story. We need bold writing like that. Achebe’s editors amplified his voice, at least in his early works. Osondu needs a powerful editor who gets the power of his narrative and the need for the English Language to bend to the will of the story in a culturally sensitive manner. By the way, Aatish Taseer, writing in the New York Times (March 22, 2015) seems to speak to the frustrations of writing to, for, and through the West:

But around the time of my parents’ generation, a break began to occur. Middle-class parents started sending their children in ever greater numbers to convent and private schools, where they lost the deep bilingualism of their parents, and came away with English alone. The Indian languages never recovered. Growing up in Delhi in the 1980s, I spoke Hindi and Urdu, but had to self-consciously relearn them as an adult. Many of my background didn’t bother.

This meant that it was not really possible for writers like myself to pursue a serious career in an Indian language. We were forced instead to make a roundabout journey back to India. We could write about our country, but we always had to keep an eye out for what worked in the West. It is a shameful experience; it produces feelings of irrelevance and inauthenticity. V. S. Naipaul called it “the riddle of the two civilizations.” He felt it stood in the way of “identity and strength and intellectual growth.”

As a near-aside, just keeping the reader entertained with a book in the age of social media is an amazing feat in itself and Osondu passed that test with me. The reader is also facing personal challenges; social media is the new addiction that comes in short posts and grunts in tweets. Reading long form is now the new distraction. The intensity of feeling, the rush that comes with the instant feedback and contact with the reader and writer and the reader becoming a writer also (reader and writer exchanging roles). I don’t see myself as addicted to social media; many readers now see the book as a mere distraction from reading. Writers must provide leadership in confronting this threat against traditional scholarship and entertainment. Welcome to the 21st century. And oh, Osondu loves jollof rice. A lot. That meal of the gods is a recurring character in this peppy little book of many memories.

Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen – and sordid tales

Chigozie Obioma’s debut work of fiction, The Fishermen, is a work of muscular industry and prodigy, and it is also an incredibly frustrating book, more on that later.  Obioma is one powerful storyteller. In this book, things fall apart in the worst possible way, over and over again for a Nigerian family of eight, with the first four sons the chief protagonists in this story from hell. This unusual book documents the family’s free fall into one grim tragedy after the other. This family is a country song, a sad country song.  The Fishermen is a powerful and tragic coming of age book and Obioma writes as if he is looking through hell’s windows. As an aside, Obioma is incredibly well-read, his vocabulary is intimidating; that alone is enough reason to buy the book, your SAT scores will soar.

The book is a tightly woven six-pack abs of stories. The chapters sport titles that represent characters, just like the inscriptions on the mammy wagons of my childhood. Obioma is no Chinua Achebe, he is his own man, but then the book offers parallels with Achebe’s epic Things Fall Apart. Father is Okonkwo, afraid of his being, a moody, emotionally absent father, tethered Mother doing the best she can, as if a single mother. The reader comes face to face with corporal punishment so brutal it terrifies and scars children and the reader. The children endure life under a physically and emotionally abusive and absent father and a doting, albeit overwhelmed mother. Here, there are haunting reminders of Okonkwo and his relationship with his sensitive son, Nwoye (good analysis of the relationship here).

the-fishermen-chigozie-obiomaReading The Fishermen can be a grisly exercise: There is mayhem and madness everywhere, blood and gore in excruciating detail. Read as a mad man sexually defiles a female corpse in full view of onlookers. Nigeria. Fear, rage, hate, revenge are persistent characters. Yes, hatred is a leech. There is jungle justice –extra-judicial killings of suspects – in the most grisly way:

I particularly liked how she recounted an incident about a robber who was lynched in our district, how the mob knocked down the fleeing thief with a hail of stones, and how they got a car tyre and placed it around his neck. She’d emphasized the mystery behind how the mob got petrol within that fleeting moment, and how, within coughing minutes, the thief had been set ablaze. I as well as Father had listened intently as she described how the fire had engulfed the thief, the blaze prospering at the hairiest parts of the thief’s body— especially his pubic area— as it slowly consumed him. Mother described the kaleidoscope of the fire as it enveloped the thief in an aureole of flame and his jolting cry with so much vivid detail that the image of a man on fire stayed in my memory. (pp. 27-28)

There are characters jumping out of the darkness and startling the reader, living and inanimate characters, The river Omi Ala is a powerful character. Even fear is a recurring, terrifying character in the book. History lives here and it is sobering, so much of it a sad reminder of Nigeria straining at the center and at the edges with social, political and cultural anxieties.  But then, the book is thematic, with a yawning absence of any vision, nothing soars here but words. That is perhaps its brilliance, nothing soars in today’s Nigeria but words, no vision, nothing. Chief MKO Abiola shows up in a chapter that is well worth the price of the book, amusing and touching. Biafra shows up, in brief, taunting, haunting cameo appearances:

I’d heard of a war that had happened long before— a war Father often mentioned in passing. When he said the phrase “before the war,” a sentence unconnected to the events of the war would often follow, and then sometimes end with “but all these were cut short by the war.” There were times when, while chiding us for an act that smacked of laziness or weakness, he’d tell the story of his escapade as a ten-year-old boy during the war when he was left to cater for, hunt for, feed and protect his mother and younger sisters after they all took to the big Ogbuti forest to escape the invasion of our village by the Nigerian army. This was the only time he ever actually said anything that happened “during the war.” Alternatively, the phrase would be “after the war.” Then, a fresh sentence would take form, without any link to the war mentioned. (pp. 116-117).

As I read the book, the beauty of some of the prose reminded me of the soaring prose and haunting sadness of Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country (read some beautiful quotes here). Powerful passages like this lie in wait for the happy reader and ambush the senses and one is forced to think about these things:

This dream fetched him much ridicule in the biting economy of 1990s Nigeria, but he swatted off the insults as if they were mere mosquitoes. He sketched a pattern for our future— a map of dreams. Ikenna was to be a doctor, although later, after Ikenna showed much fascination with planes at an early age, and encouraged by the fact that there were aviation schools in Enugu, Makurdi and Onitsha where Ikenna could learn to fly, Father changed it to pilot. Boja was to be a lawyer, and Obembe the family’s medical doctor. Although I had opted to be a veterinarian, to work in a forest or to tend animals at a zoo, anything that involved animals, Father decided I would be a professor. David, our younger brother, who was barely three in the year Father moved to Yola, was to be an engineer. A career was not readily chosen for Nkem, our one-year-old sister. Father said there was no need to decide such things for women. (pp. 25-26)

My best quote:

Mother was a falconer: The one who stood on the hills and watched, trying to stave off whatever ill she perceived was coming to her children. She owned copies of our minds in the pockets of her own mind and so could easily sniff troubles early in their forming, the same way sailors discern the forming foetus of a coming storm. (pp. 97)

I read of cattle egrets and I remembered my childhood as we would break out into happy song… Leke leke, gbami leke! You can feel, hear and taste Nigeria with a feverish noisy intensity:

The roads had widened so that the sellers got pushed back many metres from the jumbled roadways, which often filled with cars and trucks. An overhead bridge had been constructed over the road on two sides. Everywhere, the cacophony of vendors crying their wares roused the silent creatures that had crept into my soul. A man dressed in a faded Manchester United jersey ran along as we stopped in the middle of the clogged traffic, banging on the car, as he attempted to shove a loaf of bread through the window near Mother’s side. She wound up the glass. In the distance beyond the nearly thousand cars that were honking and raving with impatience was a mighty semi making a slow U-turn under the overhead pedestrian bridge.  It was this vehicular dinosaur that had brought the entire traffic to a halt. (pp. 286-287).

Obioma is intense; his portrait of Abulu the mad man who lives in a truck is etched indelibly in my mind. It is beautiful language – and a searing commentary on how Nigeria treats mental illness:

Now up close and certain he would soon die, I let my eyes take an inventory of the madman. He appeared like a mighty man of old when men shredded everything they grasped with bare hands. His face was fecund with a beard that stretched from the side of his face down to his jaw. His moustache stood over his mouth as though it had been applied there by fine brush strokes of charcoal paint. His hair was dirty, long, and tangled. Thick foliations of hair also covered a large part of his chest, his wrinkled and swarthy face, the centre of his pelvis, and encircled his penis. The matrixes of his fingernails were long and taut, and in the bed beneath each plate were masses of grime and dirt. I observed that he carried on his body a variety of odours, the most noticeable of which was a faecal smell that wafted at me like a drone of flies when I drew closer to him. This smell, I thought, might have been a result of his going for long without cleaning his anus after excretion (pp. 223-224)

From cover to cover, The Fishermen unveils multiple tragedies within just one family. Still, it is a tender story in parts, shyly tucked among gripping blood-curdling chapters, a true reflcection of the juxtaposition that is life in Nigeria. Obioma loves gore and catalogues it with near-gleeful graphic unsparing detail. There is child abuse in perverse abundance; for the child in Obioma’s world, the world is a vast classroom of unrelenting terror and abuse. And there is the terrifying descent into depression and lunacy by a distraught mother. Sad, almost beautiful, is the sadness that drapes this powerful book. Obioma tackles the familiar positions on the new Christianity – the desecration of customs, institutions, and religious totems in the name of Christianity.

And this made me remember of trips to my village from the city where we lived:

Like a miracle, a host of people, almost all of whom were relatives, Nde Iku na’ ibe, some of whom I’d seen before and others whose faces merely peopled the many daguerreotypes and fading photographs tucked away in our family albums, arrived at the house within two days. They had all come from the village, Amano, a place I barely knew. We’d visited it only once, during the burial ceremony of Yee Keneolisa, an old immobile man, who was Father’s uncle. We’d travelled through a seemingly interminable road sewn between two vast stretches of thick forests until we reached a place where the great jungle shrunk into a few trees and cultivated heaps and a distributed army of scarecrows. Soon, as Father’s Peugeot negotiated the sand-filled tracks, jerking furiously, we began to meet people who knew him. These people greeted our parents and us with a boisterous effulgence of geniality. Later, dressed in black clothes with a host of others, we’d marched down in a procession to the funeral, no one speaking, but merely crying as if we had been transformed from creatures capable of making speech to ones that could only wail; this had amazed me beyond words. (p. 146)

From my perspective, The Fishermen is not a perfect book; it is bipolar, confounding the reader with its beauty – ugliness. It showcases powerful writing that is often cruelly ambushed by the whims of a clueless editor trained to wean stories of their passion and meat. Western editors should collaborate with African editors. Obioma can be quite bombastic; he likes the word “declivities” and a few other big words. I will be blunt, the dialogue was awkward and contrived; a result of clumsy attempts to explain Africans to Western readers. That grated on my nerves.

Here is a strange passage:

Locusts were forerunners: They swarmed Akure and most parts of Southern Nigeria at the beginning of rainy seasons. The winged insects, as small as the brown brush flies, would leap out of porous holes in the earth in a sudden invasion and converge wherever they saw light— it drew them magnetically. The people of Akure often rejoiced at the arrival of the locusts. For, rain healed the land after the dry seasons during which the inclement sun, aided by the Harmattan wind, tormented the land. The children would switch on bulbs or lanterns and hold bowls of water close so they could knock the insects into them or cause them to shed their wings and drown in the water. The people would gather and feast on the roasted remains of the locusts, rejoicing at the oncoming rain. (p. 128).

They are not locusts, they are termites, what does it matter, we do not eat bugs in my village, we eat irikhun! Google that! And in Nigeria, we don’t call lorries “trucks.” But then, Obioma is the sum of his experiences, he is free to use porpoises in his fiction. What he did to the Pidgin English was unnecessary and poorly done. It was contrived and rejiggered for the benefit of the Western (paying) audience. We don’t talk like this. It made for awful dialogue, an insult to Pidgin English. Here is a sample that made me reach for my cognac:

“Her pikin, Onyiladun, dey sick. As her husband come inside, she tell am make im give medicine money, but im start to beat-beat am and im pikin.” (p. 107)

Bee ni— it is so,” Iya Iyabo said. “Aderonke vex say im dey beat the sick pikin, and fear say because of im alcohol, say im go kill am, so she hit im husband with a chair.” “Eh, eh,” Mother stammered. “The man die,” Iya Iyabo said. “Im die just like that.” (p. 107)

We don’t talk like this. It goes on and on with the characters mumbling in the sort of contrived Conradian language that made Achebe call Conrad a thorough going racist and that incurred my wrath in the essay The Balance of our Stories. Thanks to the contrived language, the book gives the wrong and unintended impression that the characters speaking Pidgin English are unthinking dolts invested only in mimicry. But then, Nigeria’s rulers work hard every day to give the impression that we are not serious human beings.

The attempt at translating the language to the other in this book is relentless, we are the other faithfully italicized and explained to the other. Everything is italicized down to wrappa. And this: I almost stopped reading the book at this point upon reading Obioma’s attempt to explain beans to the West:

“I recall one Sunday afternoon when Iya Iyabo came in while we were eating black-eyed peas marinated in palm-oil sauce.” (p. 106)

So much was lost in the translation of Nigerian Standard English to a format favored by Western readers, it was not funny. Obioma badly wanted to use Nigerian voices: “What if we follow them from a distance, through corner-corner?” (p. 67) Apparently, his editors could not stomach much of that insular stuff. So they went rogue with their red pens and tried to butcher a good book. The result is a crippling loss of language and indigenous context. “Dodo” is helpfully explained in parenthesis! Fried plantains! Who does that? The language problem haunts Obioma. From my perspective, The Fishermen is a failed experiment with language. From another perspective it would be a brilliant attempt at bridging both worlds with contrived language. I understand the other’s perspective. The other is paying.

There is a God. Half-way into the book, Obioma stopped the annoying experiments with dialogue and language and things got better. Over time, the characters formed and matured as identities become distinct and unique. The Fishermen is a beautiful book, – once you survive the penury of the first few chapters and the ignorance and cultural incompetence of the editor. I learnt several new words though! A skink is a lizard, LOL!

 

Africa: Statesmen, executioners, and black-on-black oppression

“The white man may be gone, but the pillage and the oppression he brought are still there. That, we kept. The people in power now are proud of this government, this omnipotent blunderbuss of a thing they didn’t even create, whose sole goal was to oppress and exploit. In the eyes of this elite of ours, the country is a cake there for the eating, not a common project, something we all work at together.

The people who govern us owe everything to the white man: the diplomas they brandish to ‘prove’ their superiority; the high-ranking positions they milk for personal gain; the cars they drive; the suits they wear; and the kids they send abroad to get a decent education. Even the president is a product of the white man! He patterns himself on him – and he’s proud of it. Don’t we say of Paul Biya that ‘he’s a white man’? His whole entourage is expected to act white along with him. There’s little room made for Africa and its traditions in the state apparatus – except for those traditional dance troops that get trotted out at the airport whenever the president travels, as if the whole thing hadn’t been a colonial invention in the first place, created to cheer and stomp whenever some De Gaulle flunky showed up.”

        – Jean-Pierre Bekolo Obama

Visiting South Africa’s Johannesburg in 2005 left me confused. I expected a joyful place, ringing with the bountiful fruits of freedom from the horror that was apartheid. Instead, I saw in the eyes of the poor, fear and despair and one wondered if they knew the difference between the past and the present – or if there indeed was any difference. At this conference, poor blacks served the participants with a certain deference and trepidation that stayed with me all through. The Black and White conference participants seemed fine with it. What seemed obvious was that the black ruling class had merely mounted the saddle of the former oppressors and was now using the same state-sanctioned instruments of oppression to oppress the poor – and amass power and wealth. I looked around me and it just seemed that white on black oppression had been replaced with black on black oppression. No compassion.

This horrific dysfunction is repeated in virtually all black African nations. The poor in my village are blissfully unaware that they were freed from colonialism; huge swathes of the village look like a place time forgot. Take those nations freed from colonialism; not much in terms of the culture and structure has changed. All over the land, the intellectual and ruling elite swagger like drunks, armed with pie charts and PowerPoint slides, mouthing bullshit as the poor ferry them from broken hovel to broken hovel on their backs. No one holds them accountable because they own the bully pulpit.

It is as if the warriors merely took over from the white man, shoved the poor into “boys’ quarters” and ghettos and continued the looting and brigandage. In the case of apartheid South Africa, the oppressors came to stay with their families and so they built robust structures and institutions for their enjoyment and use. The colonialists came, ruled as if from afar, built temporary structures – which was fine since their families were back home attending real schools and being taken care of by real hospitals. Each time they got sick, they would fly back home to have their rashes treated. Today’s post-colonial African ruler is exactly the same as his white ancestor. His families are abroad and each time he has a cough, he flies home to the West to be taken care of in real hospitals. There is no investment in his society – because he does not believe in his society.

The dysfunction is now being aggravated by the uncritical adoption of a form of crippling governance, what I call democracy without accountability, an aping of what happens in the West. Outside of slavery and AIDS, nothing has hurt African nations more than decades of looting in the name of democracy. Why are things the way they are? Why are we like this? Until we confront our challenges with real honesty and rigor, African nations will continue to be the butt of jokes in the international community of nations.

We are headed in the wrong direction. That much is obvious, let’s not lie about things. Our intellectual elite must stop bleating inanities and admit that there has been a rank failure to lead from their end. Our intellectuals have become the problem; lazy and loud parrots of lies and obfuscation all so they can feed their mouths. All I see is mimicry, and loud parroting of stolen ideas. In the absence of a robust infrastructure; of home-grown accountability, in the absence of a real willingness to work, our nations will remain caricature nations. We must think about these things.

And no, I do not agree with Jean-Pierre Bekolo Obama. A return to colonialism would be silly. But read his interview, right here; he has thought hard about these things.