Mujila Fiston Mwanza’s Tram 83: Requiem for the African writer, and again, the balance of today’s stories

There are cities which don’t need literature: they are literature. They file past, chest thrust out, head on their shoulders. They are proud and full of confidence despite the garbage bags they cart around.

– Mujila, Fiston Mwanza. Tram 83 (p. 96). Deep Vellum Publishing.

The literary acclaim that Tram 83, Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s 2015 debut book (translated from French to English by Roland Glasser) has garnered world-wide is a new writer’s dream. The reviews are uniform in their praise. The UK Guardian crows with awe, “Acclaimed newcomer Fiston Mwanza Mujila has dazzled the literary world with his debut novel, a riotous look at the underbelly of life rarely featured in sub-Saharan African literature.” It is perhaps one of the most highly decorated and acclaimed first novels in the history of “African literature”; it was long-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize (2016) and won the 2016 Etisalat Prize for literature,, among other notable awards. It proves that there remains a huge reading and paying market for African literature in English in the West. It is also instructive how the world still views Africa, especially through the eyes of Diaspora “African writers”, those who deign or have been anointed, to speak for Africa.

What is Tram 83 about? After reading it, I really don’t know, to be honest with you, it is innocent of a coherent plot. This is how the book’s blurb describes the experience of reading it:

In an unnamed African city in secession, profit-seekers of all languages and nationalities mix. They have only one desire: to make a fortune by exploiting the mineral wealth of the land. Two friends — Lucien, a writer with literary ambitions, home from abroad, and his childhood friend Requiem, who dreams of taking over the seedy underworld of their hometown — gather in the most notorious nightclub in town: the Tram 83. Around them gravitate gangsters and young girls, soldiers and stowaways, profit-seeking tourists and federal agents of a nonexistent State.

Tram 83 plunges the reader into a modern African gold rush as cynical as it is comic and colourfully exotic. A daring feat of narrative imagination and linguistic creativity, Tram 83 uses the rhythms of jazz to weave a tale of human relationships in a world that has become a global village.

The “unnamed African city” is probably a fictionalized Lubumbashi in the troubled Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Mujila, who now lives in Austria, hails from. Mujila (who is interviewed here by Roland Glasser, the book’s translator) is the darling of some of the most respected authorities in contemporary African literature. The book’s blurbs, almost all written by Western notables, throb with high praise. The praise is breathless and almost patronizing as if the world is surprised that this black man can string pretty sentences together. Not to  be outdone, the Ghanaian scholar Ato Quayson, Chair of the Etisalat Prize panel that awarded Mujila the prize, who lives in Toronto, Canada, writing in BrittlePaper, had great things to say about Tram 83 and shared that the panel “recognized the book for its great humour, its experimental narrative style, its adroit characterization, and for the subtlety of its reflections on the state of African politics today.” It is consistent with the foreword by the acclaimed US-based Congolese scholar, Professor Alain Mabanckou, who crowed thus:

Tram 83 is written with the kind of magic one finds in only the best of storytellers, an astute observer of everyday life and a genuine philosopher. His words bring to life the city of Lubumbashi, filled with a cast of characters, writers, drunkards, drug dealers, dreamers, lost souls, all living side by side in the popular neighborhoods in which all of life’s pleasures are traded. And then there’s also the “trashy side” of life, the drugs and the vodka, a glimpse at the underbelly of life that is so rarely featured in sub-Saharan African literature, a world far from the images on the postcards sold to tourists. Fiston’s novel has lifted the veil Africa has been compelled to wear over the years, and she now stands naked before us. His voice is original, a genuine breath of fresh air, and we will surely be following this exciting new voice in the years to come. I can hardly believe Tram 83 is a first novel … So much creativity, linguistic innovation, and such a pleasure to read!”

Clearly, either Mabanckou and I read two different novels with the same title, or he has not been reading a lot of contemporary African literature lately, so the notion that Tram 83 charts new territory in its depiction of “the underbelly of life” that passes for African writers’ image of Africa, is with all due respect, absolute nonsense. There is nothing original in Tram 83, and not much that is creative, sadly. In fact. many African writers should protest such disrespect to their work, which is the propagation of poverty porn as African literature.  Chris Abani has done as much harm to Africa’s dignity but with better prose and creativity  vision. Indeed, reading Tram 83 filled me with incredible sadness, because I thought we had gone past the notion of African writing as a pejorative, the expectation that the only literature that can come out of Africa is one that reeks of misogyny, sexism, patriarchy, despair, poverty, wars and rapes, with women and children objectified as unthinking sex objects, hewers of wood, and mules.

Mabanckou is dead wrong; Tram 83 breaks no new ground. Let me just say I am yet to read a book written by an African that was more disrespectful to Africans than this book, and I am including Abani’s books. This is clearly how not to write about Africa. You read Tram 83, rub your eyes and ask the question: And why is this unique to Africa? The cynicism and jadedness that Mujila directs at Africa in the name of fiction is nuclear: Mujila’s Africa is all stereotypes and caricature, filled with stick figures fucking mindlessly, defecating, wolfing down “dog cutlets” and “grilled rats” and drinking up a storm under the watchful eyes of a supercilious writer. It is all so annoying. I thought we were past this nonsense.

Tram 83 starts with a promise. And ends right there, dissolving into the detritus of Black Africa’s failures and regurgitating the same old tired stuff about Africa we already know. Tram 83 with its obsessions with women’s breasts and buttocks, rat and dog meat, baby mamas, and unthinking hustlers, is Africa peopled by those who only live to eat, fuck, shit and beg for sex and money. Tram 83 is debauchery always interrupting reasoned thought, because the way African Diaspora writers see it, in Africa, there is no reasoned thought. In Tram 83, Africa’s men doze, wake up, order dog meat and grilled rats and fuck more women, pretend humans with fake buttocks and “melon breasts’ and return to sleep to continue with the misogyny and self-loathing. Africa has suffered.

Tram 83 1Tram 83 is a strange, confusing concept; lacking a plot or any discernible vision, the reader is forced to endure a droll roller-coaster that leans on what appears to be an autobiographical dream: Lucien the writer-protagonist has an idea for a novel and he pitches it to a prospective publisher:

I trained as a historian. I think, unless I am mistaken, that literature deserves pride of place in the shaping of history. It is by way of literature that I can reestablish the truth. I intend to piece together the memory of a country that exists only on paper. To fantasize about the City-State and the Back-Country with a view to exploring collective memory. Historical characters are my waymarks. But baby-chicks, diggers, famished students, tourists, and …

The prospective publisher is not impressed and brushes him off with a prescription. This is what you should not write about, the publisher says, because the world is tired of it:

I’m familiar with that view of things. We’ve already had enough of squalor, poverty, syphilis, and violence in African literature. Look around us. There are beautiful girls, good-looking men, Brazza Beer, good music. Doesn’t all that inspire you? I’m concerned for the future of African literature in general. The main character in the African novel is always single, neurotic, perverse, depressive, childless, homeless, and overburdened with debt. Here, we live, we fuck, we’re happy. There needs to be fucking in African literature too! (pp 44-46)

And what does Mujila do? He proceeds to give the world Tram 83, over 200 pages of rancid poverty porn. Re-fried beans as literature. I thought we were past that.

Tram 83 is a strange book. The pace is sometimes maddening, boring in many places. It features mysterious puzzling prose. One sentence can go on for as long as two pages, (yes, two pages of one sentence; midway you are begging for sweet relief or death). Maddening. After pages of this silliness, I understood the problem with the book. The “novel” must have been first conceived as a movie script, hawked around as one and when Mujila could not get a buyer, he convinced a publisher that it would work as a novel. The result is a clumsy novel clutching an essay that waxes incoherent on the looming demise of African literature and the world as Mujila knows it. In a flat one-dimensional medium of the book, Mujila tries using two-page long sentences to create scenes meant for the stage or a movie and he fails spectacularly.

In order to understand the motivation behind Tram 83 and the minds of Glasser (the translator) and Mujila you must read this insightful interview of both in Bomb Magazine by Sophia Samatar. They are both steeped in and passionate about the performance arts; this explains why the book reads like a failed movie script. It is a useful interview and Mujila comes across as a brilliant visionary with profound insights on his world. He says: When a state ceases to exist, your body becomes your own state, the one and only state you have. And suddenly it occurs to the reader, this is the 21st century, old walls are crumbling around communities and new walls are forming around the individual. Mujila is right: This paradigm shift offers new possibilities – and problems, especially for the artificial nation-states of Africa. Who are we? Who should we be?

Tram 83 2

Let me recommend Chinua Achebe’s insightful essay, Today, the Balance of Stories (in the book of essays, Home and Exile) to all African writers who wish to reflect on how they portray Africa. His 2000 interview by Ashley Fetters in The Atlantic offers the same profound views:

The Atlantic: In Home and Exile, you talk about the negative ways in which British authors such as Joseph Conrad and Joyce Cary portrayed Africans over the centuries. What purpose did that portrayal serve?

Achebe: It was really a straightforward case of setting us up, as it were. The last four or five hundred years of European contact with Africa produced a body of literature that presented Africa in a very bad light and Africans in very lurid terms. The reason for this had to do with the need to justify the slave trade and slavery. The cruelties of this trade gradually began to trouble many people in Europe. Some people began to question it. But it was a profitable business, and so those who were engaged in it began to defend it—a lobby of people supporting it, justifying it, and excusing it. It was difficult to excuse and justify, and so the steps that were taken to justify it were rather extreme. You had people saying, for instance, that these people weren’t really human, they’re not like us. Or, that the slave trade was in fact a good thing for them, because the alternative to it was more brutal by far.

And therefore, describing this fate that the Africans would have had back home became the motive for the literature that was created about Africa. Even after the slave trade was abolished, in the nineteenth century, something like this literature continued, to serve the new imperialistic needs of Europe in relation to Africa. This continued until the Africans themselves, in the middle of the twentieth century, took into their own hands the telling of their story.

For me, this is not about prescribing to writers a certain way of writing about Africa, it is about purpose, it is also perhaps about expectations in the face of changing roles and circumstances. It occurs to me that perhaps my expectations of that tribe called “African writers” are misplaced and unrealistic. Certainly, in the 21st century, they do not speak for anyone but themselves. It is however the defining tragedy of Africa that these are the voices that the world hears. For, for as long as the West especially listens to these self-exiles, these Diaspora writers lounging in alien cafes, Africa will be seen as a space for caricatures, pretend-humans, by a self-loathing intellectual class. For as long as we read what passes for African literature in books, we will only read of the Africa of women objectified as merchandise and unthinking creatures, cute dolts only raised to fuck for money, to turn tricks. The unintended consequence of seeing everything written by an African writer as unique to Africa is that the vision is thus dimmed. All the reader sees are vast islands of despair while “African thinkers and writers” drink lattes in soulless places and write gibberish about places they long fled from. Let me repeat myself: Tram 83 is also about who “speaks for Africa” in the 21st century. Imagine an American immersing himself in a pawnshop in the seediest part of Southeast Washington DC, penning drunken prose and declaring it American writing. That would be Tram 83. I daresay that all the voices revered as voices of Africa by the gatekeepers of literature are Diaspora writers pecking away at their laptops in the coffee shops of the West. As the walls come down, in this new intimate global world, perhaps it is time to stop the pretense that these folks are speaking for Africa. The new gentrification makes a mockery of their pretensions. Again, Why do we write? What is the purpose of writing? How does the writing in Tram 83 affect the price of bush meat in the Congo? The truth is absolutely zero. Most of today’s African writers are not only largely indifferent to the social and political challenges of African nations, in some instances they are complicit in the mess. Nigeria is an example of team incompetence, of collaboration between once-dreamers (writers and intellectuals) and ever-thieves (politicians) to plunder and loot a rich to perdition.Tram 83 3

By the way, I am tired of Western patrons of the arts infantilizing African writers whose only achievement seems to be that they have written a book. It is affirmative action taken too far. The Western gatekeepers of “African literature” are keeping poverty porn alive by indulging these writers. I can just see your stereotypical “African writer” lounging in the chic cafes of Europe and North America infantilizing the Africa of his or her imagination in the worst possible way as a besotted white critic listens adoringly. I think of a writer playing at the edges, with faux innovation, egged on by a gleeful Western readership.

The self-loathing and the stereotypes in Tram 83 simply grate on the reader’s nerves. It is interesting to me that of all the fawning reviews by the major news outlets, not one of them complained about the horrid misogyny in the book, women objectified beyond belief as if they are one-dimensional simpering sub-humans only good for cheap sex in strange places. An alert reader in Goodreads did complain politely:

An overwhelming tumult of language, something like being pulled under by a big ocean wave and sent tumbling. The story itself was secondary to the feeling. It’s a very male book. Also overwhelming was the endless stream of women’s commodified bodies being described by their parts–women were defined in the story by what men see, what men touch. I was in turn riveted, repulsed, bored, amazed, wrenched around.

The reader put it too politely, Tram 83 is not merely a male book, Tram 83 is a frontal, violent attack on African women. This is not just merely a male book, it reeks of misogyny on each page. In Mujila’s world, in his Congo, women are nothing but mere objects to be used and discarded like used condoms. On every page. Any white writer who dared describe an African this way would be called a racist:

In the meantime, he assessed the curves patrolling the sector. Steatopygia remained the epitome of beauty. All the honeys swore by Brazilian buttocks alone. You had to have those buttocks, or nothing. They would desperately slug a particular soy-based drink, take pills, and swallow food intended for pigs in order to increase the area of their rumps. The results left much to be desired: buttocks shaped like pineapples, avocados, balloons, or baseballs; one buttock excessively more pronounced than the other; oblique, square, or rectangular buttocks; buttocks that pedaled all by themselves, and so on. (p. 18)

What is new here? VS Naipaul would approve.

It also says a lot that none of the reviews that I read could make any connection between Mujila’s humanity (albeit inarticulately expressed) and anywhere else outside of Africa, certainly nowhere near the West. To them, Tram 83 was about Africa, just as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was not about a shared humanity, but about a simple yam farmer in Igboland. Africa’s humanity is not of theirs. Perhaps this is what African writers know, and that is why they laze around the cafes of Europe and North America, trying hard not to be invisible people, but looking like what the singer Hugh Masekela says: We are invisible. We are bad imitations of the people who oppressed us. Yes, a close reading of Tram 83 and you will be tempted to be generous to Mujila. You would be tempted to say this is not just about the Democratic Republic of the Congo, this is not just about Africa, it is about our humanity, about those that increasingly left behind as the detritus of capitalism and rank bigotry of the moneyed class, Donald Trump’s new victims, the ones that the scholar Amatoritsero Ede worries a­bout:

The core instinct and ethic of this [Donald Trump’s] bi-polar regime is disdain for the Other and an official dissimulation to sustain it. This is in keeping with America’s founding egotism – American interest above all interests. And in that regard, who is defined as ‘American’ is ultimately (de)based on the same Othering disdain and spite, which in its most vitriolic form, escapes out as the murderous actions of an unrepentant Dylan Roof. America’s political death-wish is the result of that unthinking, headless racism. What else could have brought an alt-right-post-truth-alternative-facts-President to power if not an insidious and cancerously benign racism couched in the language of shameless self-interest, rabid nationalism and of ‘securing a homeland’ that is, in reality, only a body of immigrants – except for the indigenous ‘first nation’ native American.

Ede is right. A close reading will show that Tram 83 is perhaps about migration, from place to place, from a certain hell to a new uncertain hell. It is a daily trek through mountains and seas, the disenchanted and the disenfranchised will not stop until relief – or death comes. Ben Taub has a good piece in the New Yorker on the forced migration of thousands of teen-agers from Nigeria who risk death and endure forced labor and the degradation of prostitution work in Europe. You can hardly tell from this mess of an experimental script, but Mujila is probably thinking about them as the narrator mused:

… that a new world was coming, the Railroad Diva, beers were passed around, we trembled from head to toe, we dumped in our pants, we masturbated, we climbed on the tables, we banged our head against the walls, we gathered at the doors to the mixed facilities, that voice, that voice, that voice, it penetrated us, flayed us, trampled us, shredded us, voyage, birth, dream, we thought of those whom the earth had swallowed up, all those whom the trains had taken following a derailment, the bitterness and the eyes riveted on those who’d left to seek new lives across the ocean and who’d never got there betrayed by the wave ….” (pp. 179-180)

Ultimately Tram 83 is about the power of words and of the medium of expression, and what gets lost in translation. In Tram 83, a powerful narrative lumbers through layers of translation and in the wrong media format it becomes a huge canvas for humiliating an already humiliated people. I don’t care what the blurb writers and the reviewers of Tram 83 say, this book should have remained a script, not another ream of poverty porn. How is it that the voices of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are only seen through the eyes of a seedy nightclub? There is no music here, unless when it is mocked, there are no thinkers here, even Lucien the writer is a hustler. And there is the politics of the translation: Why did Alain Mabanckou or any other Congolese scholar not do the translation? He speaks and writes French just as fluently.

Mujila should re-work the novel into the movie script that he probably dreamed of,  make a movie, let the world see the people of the Congo dance, let them see that Africans are not drunken monkeys, they think about things too, he should tell the word that he and Naipaul are wrong, real people live in Africa. Indeed, it is the case that the reader will get more from Anthony Bourdain’s television food series’ trip to the Congo, than from Tram 83. You will learn that the worst holocaust in modern history may have happened in the DRC (yes, King Leopold of Belgium is said to have exterminated 10 million Congolese). Google the late Mobutu Sese Seko and you will find out how he looted the DRC to perdition and built decaying monuments to his deadly buffoonery. And yes, with all due respect to Glasser, the translation did little for me. Mujila should give us the movie. Make your script into the movie and let us do the translation. Let me be clear, this is the 21st century, no one should write like this about Africa. There is no compassion, there is no vision.

African literature as exists in books has had the effect of distorting the narrative of Africa, so much is lost in translation as writers and publishers struggle to keep market share by fashioning plots and discourse that appeal to an imagined Western audience. Perhaps it is time to return to the oral tradition of our ancestors. I hope Mujila finds a movie for his book. It would make a great movie. As a work of fiction, it sucks. There, I said it, come and beat me. What gets lost in translation is what one doesn’t, or refuses to see. Tram 83 is not about Africa. It is about us. Ask Trump. The failure to connect it beyond the boundaries of the DRC is more a testament to an ossified mindset than anything else. He should find inspiration from the robust work of  Ousmane Sembene (the famed author of God’s Bits of Wood) and his return to the film and the oral tradition as a form of expression. If all else fails, there is always YouTube. There is no excuse for sticking with an inappropriate medium in the 21st century.

I have said it before and I will say it again; What passes for African literature, as determined by the Western gatekeepers of narrative suffers the crushing burden of alienation–from what gets lost in the translation. Who speaks for “Africa”? This question speaks to the growing irrelevance of orthodox African writers and writing to the real narrative about Africa. This is not Africa. The reader would have to go to social media and other outlets on the Internet to see Africa. Over there, Africans are proving that they are the sum of their lived experiences. The growing incoherence and irrelevance of African writers is not all their fault. But as they go to those conferences and fora that only they attend, as they give themselves high-fives over puzzling narrative that only they read, they must ponder these questions that African readers are increasingly asking: What do our writers see? What is their vision? What is their mission? Do they see a world without walls and the implications not just for Africa but for the rest of the world? One last thing: The fiction of the idealistic incorruptible African writer is a silly myth. Those days are gone. Today, the African writer is a hustler, either at home or abroad, his or her muse fueled by loot from the oppressors at home, and/or abroad. Nigeria is a good case. The writers and intellectuals have become the problem. Yet they persist in writing horror stories of Africa that absolve them from blame. They are not to blame, because they have become the problem. A huge problem. Would I read Tram 83 again? No, once is enough. Would I recommend the book to anyone? I would wait for the movie. Tram 83 would make a great movie, I think.

On that Buhari Media Center, paid “public intellectuals” and assorted jazz

What’s on my mind? The Buhari Media Center, the pejorative now known as the BMC. Apparently, there is a place in Abuja, Nigeria, where young men and women are assembled and for 200-250K a month they are mandated to spin the national narrative in a certain direction – to please and flatter Aso Rock. The discovery of this house of poorly educated (from their tweets and FB posts, they surely need to be in school, not “proffering solutions, lol) imitation Goebbels has created quite the furor. For good reason.

What do I think? I am not exercised by it. I do think the government of the day has every right to have a PR outfit. Indeed Buhari’s abysmal leadership performance has required a really robust professional PR team to help the populace swallow the bitter pill of disappointment that has been Aso Rock to date. The BMC is of course far from professional and effective. But that is another Facebook post. By the way, the irony and the hypocrisy are not lost on me that the government appears to be paying an army of hustlers lots of money to do what Audu Maikori got detained for: manufacturing and/or spreading fake news. Audu apologized. The others got paid.

What I have found objectionable is that those behind the BMC appear to have been paying young writers/bloggers/social media “overlords” and other assorted scumbags to appear to be objective public commentators. That toga has of course given them cover and credibility to spin the narrative and national discourse at least on social media, in the favor of their paymasters. In many instances they have engaged in Goebellsian subterfuge, bullying, blackmailing and trying to run aground people with views hostile to Aso Rock’s agenda. That is wrong. Disgusting actually. All this time, many of us had been engaging paid hacks and we did not know it. They have every right to be employed, we the public have every right to know their names and how much they are paid so that we can discount their utterances accordingly.

In fairness, as obnoxious as they are, the members of the BMC team are tiny shrimp in the grand scheme of things. They are being paid pennies to write half-baked stuff, while “public commentators” who many Nigerians think are independent arbiters of public opinion are bleating all the way to the bank with millions of Naira. One day, the records will be released and Nigerians will gasp at the unmasking of masquerades. Many voices are being paid to do many awful things to dissenting voices. The members of the BMC is bad, but they are altar boys compared to the big guns paid to defend darkness. Many of those concerned Nigerians who write on “international newspapers” are doing what the government has paid them to write. Yup. I happen to know.

Many nations would require these paid lobbyists to register publicly as, well, lobbyists. Once identified, the public clearly knows where they are coming from. When they write op-ed pieces in the New York Times, they are required to issue a disclaimer at the end of the piece – that they are paid lobbyists of clearly identified interests. Not so our Nigerian hustlers. They do not understand the notion of conflict of interest and ethical violations. There is no motivation because they are not held accountable, the laws are not enforceable.

I was once part of an editorial board that had a top ranking aide of a governor as a sitting member. He did not understand why it was a conflict to be making “objective” comments about governmental policies of that which you serve. And virtually everyone on the Board agreed with him. Much of what we do with respect to the Nigerian project is a farce, we have pretend functions and processes and just want to look the part. We are really not that interested in ethical conduct. It doesn’t put enough food on the table.

Let me end on a positive note by thanking all those mostly young advocates who have forced the government’s feet to the fire by using technology, hard data and good old shoe leather hard work. Without them we would be held hostage by a heavily compromised media, a corrupt tribe of intellectuals and a deadly congress of baboons pretending to rule our nation. Young people are taking matters into their hands and making some progress without the help of anyone. I see how they dealt with the budget scandals, Buhari’s health issues, Nasir Ahmad el-Rufai’s attempts to gag dissent, etc and I am filled with pride. A lot more needs to be done, and things will get better. We have no choice. There may be hope after all.

Good night.

Sex, the bees and the boys…

Sex. Let’s talk about sex, you know, let’s talk about the birds and the bees. In my country, Africa, there is this lovely tradition where elderly men call young men into the family room, or sunroom or living room of their huts and over human skull cups of ice-cold beer, Malbec, or warm cognac VSOP, tell them about the birds and the bees, you know, sex.

By the way, in Africa, men do not teach girls about sex, it is taboo for real men to talk to women about those things. That is the job of women. This is a fact. Read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart please for more information about this great custom, in that great book, girls learn the truth, that babies come into this world on the strong backs of weaver birds. This is why African men flog boys who come close to their daughters. Unless they are rich. Girls must remain chaste for their weaver birds.

So this one day, my dad Papalolo talked to me about sex and got me drunk. I remember that fateful day. It was in 1980 on a cold snowy harmattan day in our village, Ewu. I was very young, I had just finished my national youth service corp program (NYSC) after graduating from the University of Benin, the Harvard of Africa, with a First Class Upper degree. I hate to brag, but I am the only one in Africa with a First Class, Upper degree. Yes o, I was always first in class! Nor be today I begin to know book!

As I was saying before I rudely interrupted myself, I walked into Papalolo’s sunroom (we have those in Africa, you know, smh!) with a copy of The Economist under one arm while texting my friend Emeka on my Samsung Galaxy 1.5 about meeting him at Shoprite down the road later. I loved hanging out with Emeka, we would hold hands like real men do, and go from store to store in our village mall dreaming about going to Dubai together and buying things we couldn’t afford! We loved Victoria’s Secrets, our village mall had one across from Radio Shack. I loved our village Radio Shack, I was always buying knick-knacks from there with my dad’s American Express card. Long story. I will tell you later.

Anyway, as I walked into the room, my dad looked up at me and he frowned, he was in a bad mood, I quickly surmised that he was missing his iPad; Obioma the tailor had taken it away for repairs, the Made in China SIM card was not working and GLO and MTN signals were being finicky. Dad did not look happy.

In those days, my dad, Papalolo loved to be on Facebook where he would spend all day “liking” inanities and typing “LOL!”on cute girls’ walls while drinking Gulder or cognac, and when he couldn’t be on Facebook or Twitter, he would become a crabby pain in the ass.

This day, I was his victim. As I walked into his sunroom, he looked up from his beer and copy of Sahara Reporters (in those days, they had print copy), peered at me through his bifocals, coughed and said, “My son, I never see you with girls! All I see you with are men and books, abi you don’t like women? Abomination! Tufiakwa!” We are not igbo, I don’t know why he was fond of bleating “Tufiakwa!” Perhaps, it was all those Achebe books he read! I told him I liked women but I didn’t know what to say to them! He said, “Ah, that’s easy, my son, whenever you see a pretty woman, tell her she’s pretty, she will smile and once you make a woman smile you are half way there! If she’s not pretty, tell her she’s pretty anyway, when she smiles she’ll be pretty!” I told him I am too shy to talk to girls. He shoved a bottle of Gulder beer in my hands, “Here, drink a beer, it will loosen your tongue and make you bold in front of women! Drink two sef!” Papalolo was right, beer loosens tongues!

Well, the other day here in America, I decided I needed to talk to our teenage son Fearless Fang about the birds and the bees, you know, sex. I would start early, no need waiting for him to graduate from the university! So, we were in the car Anikeleja cruising along the highway and I coughed and said, “Son, we have to talk about sex!” OMG!, you’d think I had shot this boy! He screamed,”OH MY GOD, DADDY!!!! THAT IS SOOOOO DISGUSTING!!! THAT IS WHAT HEALTH CLASS IS FOR!!! STOP THIS CAR RIGHT NOW!!! I AM SO CALLING SOCIAL SERVICES ON YOUR AFRICAN BLACK ASS, SMH!!! OH MY GOD, DADDY, WHY WOULD I BE DISCUSSING SEX WITH YOU, GROSS!!! YOU ARE MY DADDY! STOP THIS CAR RIGHT NOW!!! OH MY GOD, DADDY!!! WHY ARE YOU LIKE THIS? I WANT MY MUMMY!!!”

I was driving at 70 miles per hour, I am telling you, that boy jumped out of the car and raced back home into the waiting arms of his mother, whimpering, “Bad daddy! Bad daddy!!!” What a wimp! At his age, I was a colonel in the Biafran army, assisting Carl Gustav Von Rosen to drop ogbunigwe bombs in the moat in Benin City.

So much for sex ed. SMH. That did not go well. Sigh. I will continue the conversation in our sunroom after Fearless Fang graduates from university. We have sunrooms in America, you know? I wonder if ML has talked to the girls about sex! I am not going there, who wan die? Besides I am a titled chief, the Ogbejele II of Esanland. It would be taboo for me to talk to our daughters about those things! I am sure ML has told them that children come from heaven on the backs of weaver birds or American storks and it is bad luck for a boy to touch them anywhere until they are thirty! Pray for me.

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Christmas, longing, loss, home and Babylon 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nigeria is not a country: Of ogbono, snails, sex, eccles, and hell’s longing

Yemisi, I have saved the best words for you. For you…

My son is the reason behind my forthcoming book Longthroat Memoirs. Even if I loved stories before he arrived, I had no strong motivation to collect them and examine them in the context of food. He woke me up at 5am to cook breakfast and kept me on my feet all day cooking. I angry, exhausted, depressed and raging against everything. The necessity of cooking day in day out produced two and a half years of writing for a Nigerian newspaper on food and a faltering blog on food. And it also produced Longthroat Memoirs.

– Yemisi Aribisala (November 7, 2015), in the essay, Mother Hunger

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There are many reasons why you must read The Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds, Yemisi Aribisala’s lovely volume of essays, published by Cassava Republic Press. One: It is a gorgeous book, professionally done, one that proudly adorns my coffee table, Cassava Republic Press exceeded my lofty expectations on this one. Two: Aribisala dispenses with the pretense of narrative through fiction and tells her stories straight. Thus, unburdened with rules, the stories fly out of her fecund mind, lush rivers of thought feeding into the reader’s mind-road. In the process, with muscular essays, she joins thinkers like Chinua Achebe in rejecting the stereotype of the African writer as a mere storyteller, not a thinker. Three: She successfully injects respect into Nigerian cuisine with well-researched pioneer work and taunts the stereotype of Nigerian food as stodgy and unimaginative. Four. The Longthroat Memoirs introduces you to one of Africa’s finest essayists, an erudite thinker who has masterfully surfed the waves of the digital revolution to force feisty and important debates on a breathtaking range of subjects from feminism to the texture of moin-moin.  Compared to worthy compatriots whose books are published in the West, she is relatively unknown. If you don’t write a book published in the West, you are invisible, you have no voice. This sad reality begs the question: Who speaks for Africa? The likes of Aribisala who write for Africans are hidden in plain sight in favor of those who italicize their egusi and twist their words and accents to fit foreign (Western) tastes.

Some of the most important debates on African issues have ensued online thanks to many of Aribisala’s powerful essays. She has, more than virtually any of our writers of stature influenced the trajectory of modern thought within the African literary/intellectual community. She will not be recognized this way, but be defined and limited by the one book she has published. The Longthroat Memoirs is an awesome book, no ifs, no buts about it, but it is only the gorgeous tip of the impressive work Aribisala has been putting out for many years online, starting with Farafina magazine. I have old copies of the now defunct Farafina Magazine, where she was founding editor, that show that Aribisala (Yemisi Ogbe at the time) was defiantly appropriating English as her own. As an example, in her epic essay, Giving it all away in English (Number 6, August 2006, reproduced by Chimurenga in 2015), she wonders impishly: “If we are progressive enough to understand that Jamaicans have made the English Language comfortably theirs in spite of colonization, why haven’t we successfully done the same in Nigeria without condemning those who speak with and accent or make grammatical mistakes to purgatory for the incompetents and erudite?” She was talking about the appropriation of English as an African language many years before it became the burden of a chic debate.

There are more compelling reasons to read The Longthroat Memoirs. Historically African writers have treated food and sex at best as a collective afterthought, but many times as taboo subjects. Reading through African fiction from Achebe to Adichie, one gets the definite sense that African characters rarely eat or have sex, and when they do there are enough apologies to fill the River Limpopo. The single-story narrative of poverty porn hawked by many African writers does not associate Africa with good food and great sex. To hear many of these writers say it, Africa is a land of stick figures, distressed disease-ridden pretend humans leading meaningless lives, stumbling from war to pestilence, gouging on empty air – or the occasional road kill. To be sure, there are delightful exceptions; one of my favorite passages in Wole Soyinka’s You Must Set Forth at Dawn describes a feast to die for in his bosom friend’s house. He tells the tale with much pride and one marvels at the fusion of friendship and repast.

The good news is that things are changing; a not-too silent revolution is happening among African writers, they are re-tooling the narrative to redefine writing from Africa and to include the sum total of the experiences of the continent’s citizens. In Longthroat Memoirs, Aribisala ups the ante with a cunning and stunning way of writing a memoir that connects the rich dots of humanity from her lived life, to the rest of us. And food (accompanied by notions of sexuality) is the common thread that connect the dots, from ekoki in Calabar to eccles in London. Aribisala talks about herself as if she is talking about food and by the end of this rich volume of essays, you can pretty much piece together much of her life’s journeys, to the extent that she lets you. You sigh in awe as she talks about her life with a near-clinical detachment and then you fall in love with this quietly defiant warrior who is determined to live life on her own terms, regardless. So what is this book about? Many reviewers have called it a book about Nigerian food. It is and it is not. It is like calling Achebe’s Things Fall Apart a book about a simple farmer and his yams. Perhaps we should return to Aribisala’s passion and say that she used food as a delicious basis to permit us a peep into our lives, anxieties and joys and to demonstrate that our varied experiences as human beings are like the many rivers that run through the earth; perhaps they end in the same place, who knows?

Aribisala’s book is a multi-dimensional tour-de-force; we learn about Nigerian regional cooking and cuisine, and we find out that despite its exotic ways and crude, if cute instruments of measurement (who measures ingredients with the precision of empty tins of tomato paste?) it is complex and is governed by rules of science, and art, spirituality, and in some cases superstition. You learn all of this with prose remarkable for its beauty and brilliance. Aribisala is the legendary journalist Peter Pan Enahoro with even more substance. And one remembers Achebe’s brilliant essays in the way she uses food as the palm oil that aids the digestion of life’s lessons. Achebe once stated that he wrote children’s books because the ones from the West were not written for his children. Decades from now scholars will marvel at Aribisala’s prodigy, this warrior who wrote about Nigerian cuisine and culture in a way that has never ever been done before. This is great stuff, As an aside, I can visualize Aribisala teaming up with the itinerant TV personality chef Anthony Michael Bourdain traipsing the great nations that make up Nigeria and tasting the various degrees of ogbono that are out there. Better yet, I would subscribe to an online portal dedicated to her mind. But I digress.

I digress. Back to the book. The Longthroat Memoirs is a hugely ambitious undertaking which serves to prove that Nigeria should be a continent. Yes, Nigeria is a large country and anyone who tries to capture all of Nigeria’s cuisine and its various shades and iterations will die of unresolved dreams. Hell, in my village, you can tell ogbono from clan to clan. You can taste the changing earth and seasons as ogbono, that sauce of the gods, roams from clan to clan.  Starting with Calabar, Aribisala really concentrates on cooking from certain regions largely in the South, including mouth-watering forays into the riverine and Edo speaking regions of Nigeria’s old Midwest. Even at that it is an ambitious undertaking. As Aribisala finds out, Nigeria is a nation of hundreds of little nations.  In the end, she triumphs as she wraps her hands and her head around that complex nation space called Nigeria. Writing with wry humor and intimidating brilliance, the reader learns of everything from meat substitutes to sex. She explores the mystery and myths of the ingredients of soup and sex in Nigeria. She struggles with the definition of Nigerian “soup” until she gives up triumphantly and declares that there is no comparison; there is soup and there is soup. When one calls ogbono soup, a lot gets lost in the translation. Here, soup is an indigenous Nigerian word, it is not English. It is certainly not sauce.

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Aribisala’s passions, heart and soul are firmly rooted in the soil of Nigeria’s ancestral lands, and in soaring prose-poetry she lets her angst rip. Outside of Nigeria she is inconsolable. Here is a poignant definition of exile:

You just can’t buy local chicken in Brixton or Peckham High Street. Not the kind that tastes Nigerian. The plantains are a rip-off. They are not sweet. They are pretenders. The yams are tired and shrunken from travelling so far. There is no fresh afang to be bought, no fresh pumpkin leaf. The ogbono seeds are not first-rate; you can smell rejection on them. (pp 88-89)

Yes, The Longthroat Memoirs is about cooking, life, sex, patriarchy, misogyny, love, loving, ethnic and class distinctions, lust, longing, exile and the nostalgia for home; all those ingredients that go into making what passes for living in Nigeria and elsewhere. From Aribisala’s perspective. It’s all fascinating. And she pulls it off. There are forty-two essays in this volume, if you include the introduction, which is a full-blown essay and an excellent summary of what the book is about. Indeed, the introduction qualifies as a great self-review and enough excuse to buy the book. Scholars will have their hands full deconstructing all that is in these essays, each one is the proverbial dry meat that fills the mouth that will keep a class of inquisitive students entertained and educated.

Each essay deserves its own review. Indeed, this text should be required reading in online multidisciplinary courses at the tertiary level, it is too rich for just leisurely reading. You will fall in love with the essay My Mother, I will Not Eat Rice Today, a wildly hilarious and brilliant deconstruction of social conditions in Nigeria via a little boy’s culinary anxieties. Here, Nigeria comes alive and you do not need pictures to feel and taste the land. It is a great riff on Lagos. And Lagos comes alive, you can feel the breeze strolling across the lagoon. It features also a good recipe for jollof rice and some of Aribisala’s best prose. In Akara and Honey, the prose is so good you might as well be eating every letter of every word and be calling it akara. Sigh. Oh and Aribisala has a recipe for akara that she swears is the perfect therapy for PMS. How? Go and read it! Kings of Umani is a throaty rejection of the ubiquitous Maggi bouillon cube in favor of making stock from scratch.

Letter from Candahar Road is so poignant and funny, one remembers Soyinka narrating how he smuggled bush meat into the West and risking being the first Nobel Laureate to be arrested for poaching. Okro Soup, Georgeous Mucilage is about the many ways to cook okro, mucilaginous things and hints of sex and it also reminds the reader of a time when ships sailed to Nigeria bearing Shackleford Bread. It is about the pull of home and the purgatory that is Babylon.  Longthroat Memoirs, the essay that bears the title of the book, is a lovely ode to the land, jazzy, laconic but still taut with longing. Aribisala recreates the streets of Ibadan with the dexterity of an orange seller peeling oranges with knives fashioned out of empty margarine tins. You must read The Snail Tree, a free-flowing discussion about everything from snails, to sex, to Wainaina Binyavanga with everything thrown in between. It starts out with quiet defiance and quiet force and ends in quiet defiance and quiet force:

I have saved the best words for you. For You. There are places in a woman that a penis will never reach. I have said it. And what I mean to say and don’t feel under any pressure to reiterate, but will say again anyway because I was asked for my opinion, is that sex is overrated. (p 111)

In Fainting at the Sight of an Egg, impish sentences troll the Nigerian condition with deadly accuracy. There are many uses for an egg, we find out, including as a test for virginity and you laugh like a maniac as she lampoons a fridge suffering epileptic power supply. In Sweet Stolen Waters, every sentence is a deliberate work of art communicating something – with flair and attitude. There are all these sentences writhing with energy, turgid from sexual suggestiveness. This book is horny. When Aribisala riffs on plantains, the reader’s loins stir with longing and wonder:

They are luscious and thick and the yellow colour of ripeness burns holes in the retinas. Frying them is sacrilegious; they must be steamed in their skins. When they are removed from their skins they look too good to eat, like beautiful golden rods. Their texture is soft, spreading slightly on the tongue. They’re sweet with hints of treacle, hot all the way into the depths of the stomach, every atom delicious in every ramification. (p 148)

Aribisala loves the land and her seas and she writes about them with such tenderness, it is sometimes heartbreaking. Ogbono is a goddess, and rightfully so, says the essay, A Beautiful Girl Named Ogbono. Only Aribisala can dredge up romantic notions about ogbono soup, who knew? This essay is the most comprehensive study of the effect of first rate palm oil on the quality of ogbono soup. It puts the researchers of Nigeria to shame, they should go burn their degrees. To Cook or Not to Cook reads like a well thought out feminist manifesto, immensely readable and one that one can relate to because it is grounded in the reality and context of life in the ancestral lands of Nigeria. Between Eba and Gari muses on bigotry, ethnic anxieties and the politics of food jokes. Ila Cocoa is pure delicious prose-poetry. Here the recipe is the story. Brilliant. In the prose-poetry of Fish, Soups and Love Potions, one remember the haunting beauty of Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country.

River Oyono is a smoke-grey cloak animated by a strong wind. It is, in fact, only a small conceited river. It embraces the Atlantic Ocean for a passionate 24 km. Just before the open seas, there is an unusual meeting point of brackish and fresh seawater, creating an environment that provides stunning produce for the markets in Calabar. They say you will find fish there that you will not find anywhere else in the world. (p 275)

Peppered Snails is a stifled climax, the closest Aribisala would allow the reader peek at a love story. Here, Aribisala, is the composite of all those women gathered around a tripod, cooking, laughing and singing songs of the oppressed. Bush cuisine is a delight as we encounter what the white man would call game or venison. Read The Market Place and remember Molara Wood’s enchanting short story, Night Market in Indigo, her book of short stories.

Aribisala probably hates labels but she is an Afropolitan, with eclectic tastes that range from Rex Lawson to Sergei Rachmaninoff. Still the sea draws her near with her mucilaginous tentacles. The trademark superciliousness of the African writer is there in full force. There is the obtuseness of Soyinka: When Aribisala says, “Local olfaction collapses the astringency of smoke into the idea of fresh air, as if that were possible,” one remembers Soyinka’s “Metal on concrete jars my drink lobes” and one chuckles, with great fondness for these weird ones. Yes, the book sometimes comes across as too rich, like too rich soup. Sometimes you feel like you are reading Teju Cole of the fine mind, with the refined senses, of writers of color who have traveled to all these places, eaten all these wondrous things while listening to music that comes out of rare and expensive pianos instead of from empty Fanta bottles. Burdened with a mind on steroids, she overthinks things. Sometimes one just wants to eat, shit and fuck. Why the drama? But then, that could be this reader’s problem, to be a philistine, a peasant autodidact should be a crime.  Yes. Aribisala is aware of her wealth and she flaunts it. The book is an embarrassment of riches, it is not gaudy but everything is in this pot and you wonder what will happen when this pot is exhausted, will you eat again? The photographs are nice but they only made me hungry for more. Collaboration with photographers and graphic artists would have been an even nicer touch. I miss hot links to the various terms and recipes. A digital version is not available, which I find disappointing.

The Longthroat Memoirs is also a conversation about what gets lost in the translation when you express yourself in an alien language, as I have argued elsewhere and ad nauseam. What does the term “fattening room” really mean in Calabar? We may be relying too much on a colonial and racist interpretation and turned a once honored ceremony into a pejorative. Today, post colonialism, the kitchen is the most visible totem of subjugation. Did we have kitchens before the coming of the white man? It is a great question: In my village, there was more clarity in roles between men and women. The men were the hunters and gatherers and all the spoils came home to the women who managed spoils and the household. There was no word for “kitchen.” These days there is a perversion of culture and women and children are the victims. Aribisala sometimes trades in stereotypes, put-downs, and stick figures and after a dozen essays it begins to grate on the reader’s nerves:

The archetypal businessman in Calabar is the civil servant, married with three children, two house-helps, a complicated and dependent extended family, two cars and a racy mistress with a large bottom who owns a small boutique. He closes work at about 4 p.m., and with so much free time on his hands, he would be ungrateful not to carouse in it. He is a devout Presbyterian, goes to church on Sundays, makes love to his wife once a month, visits his mistress once a week and fills the rest of his schedule with slender UniCal girls who have stomachs like chopping boards and skin smooth as processed shea-butter.

The antiquarian fattening rooms where women are still sent to grow love handles and learn the intricacies of how to pamper men’s personalities into that of suckled babies might be on their way out, but that spirit of male entitlement to as many available women and young girls as are willing remains.

Women are indoctrinated from a young age into the mindset that men have all the advantages and, to be truly successful, a woman must somehow attach herself to a successful man, be it brother, husband, uncle, lover or sugar daddy. Enter that necessary artillery among artilleries: cooking. A woman must cook well; very, very well. Sex is a given, but it doesn’t have to be outstanding sex. Sometimes the man wants a docile lover, but there is no compromise when it comes to food. A man will not marry a woman who cannot cook (a true abomination), nor will he emotionally desert a wife who can cook to play with a mistress who can’t (a ridiculous proposition). A suitable wife must be a good cook, attractive, homely, God-fearing and must come with a guarantee that she will bear children. A shrewd mistress must be a great cook; flatter diabolically; keep a scented, relaxed, undemanding second home where foot massages are spontaneously administered; know how to at least pretend some degree of sexual kinkiness; and know how to engage a man for as long as possible by whatever means necessary. (pp 277-278)

The Longthroat Memoirs is a great compilation of a fraction of Aribisala’s essays, most of them from her days at the brainy but ultimately troubled NEXT newspapers where she ran a blog. There is the equivalent of several volumes of books of her works scattered all over the Internet. It is a sign of the times that the enterprising internet-savvy reader can find some of them online (for example, the luscious Fish soup as love potions as well as this excerpt in The Guardian). Chimurenga has a rich archive of her works here that shows the breath-taking range, vision and courage of Aribisala, from an insightful essay on the artist Victor Ehikhamenor, to a review of Adichie’s Americanah. Google searches will find her brilliance scattered all over the place like this essay on Nigeria and the culture of respect. There are good interviews of her (here, here and here) that provide rich insights into this quirky goddess of words. It is sadly ironic that The Longthroat Memoirs will probably be used to define Aribisala’s contributions to writing. That would be a huge disservice to her prodigy and industry, she is easily one of Africa’s most quietly influential thinkers.

This brings me to my pet peeve: The unintended effect of using the book as the sole yardstick of writing is to severely underestimate the worth of the African writer.  When hard print was the main medium of literary expression (as in books), it was appropriate to use the book as the sole determinant of a writer’s output. In the 21st century, in the age of that infinite canvas called the Internet, this yardstick is a travesty and especially unjust to African writers who are increasingly turning to the Internet for relief from mediocre or non-existent publishing industries. Aribisala should be remembered in writing history as the total sum of her works as compiled (albeit haphazardly) on the Internet. When NEXT newspapers folded, the proprietor simply shut down the website and writers like Aribisala were left with nothing but drafts as evidence of work done over a period of several years. The Longthroat Memoirs, to the extent that it beautifully recreates those essays is perhaps the best evidence that at least as an archival tool, the death of the book is a tad exaggerated. Still, I dream of an online library where there will be entire digital books like The Longthroat Memoirs with hot links to explain stuff, with forums for debates on the several issues that Aribisala so coyly throws up. Readers would happily pay for the service. I will gladly pay. Yup, to be at the table listening to this eclectic, quirky thinker from Hades’ lascivious kitchen, cerebral dominatrix, talk about snails, mucilage and love in one breath, and on her own terms, coolly indifferent to your pressing needs, knowing that she will feed you and love you in time, on her own terms. Now, that is a book to die for. A reader can only dream.

Nigeria on my mind: Who will bell this cat?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good night.

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

Flora Nwapa and the house that Onyeka Nwelue built for her

It is hard not to fall in love with The House of Nwapa, Onyeka Nwelue’s free-wheeling documentary on Flora Nwapa, the enigmatic writer who died in 1993. Reader, be warned, Onyeka Nwelue courts controversies and lives and breathes by them, and this documentary is no exception. Nwelue has strong views on just about anything and he offers them freely and loudly. He recently gained more notoriety for his disparaging remarks about Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (in this Premium Times interview):

“I think Things Fall Apart should be buried and never made to resurrect. Yes, Anthills of the Savannah is a very beautiful book; it’s well written. But I don’t agree with Things Fall Apart being called the great African novel by everybody. There are better books. If you’ve read Things Fall Apart and have read what young people write these days – people like Helen Oyeyemi, Diekoye Oyeyinka and Chigozie Obioma – you would know that Achebe’s writing of Things Fall Apart at that age was not intelligent; he was not exposed.”

So, who is Flora Nwapa? In the same interview, Nwelue offers this rather colorful description of the enigma that was Nwapa:

“I have a documentary, which would be premiering at the Image Women Film Festival at Harare at the end of August. It is called The House of Nwapa on Flora Nwapa whose story has been completely erased from the literary consciousness of Nigeria. Most people have forgotten who she was, but this was the most powerful woman in the South-East in the 70s. She married two men and also married another woman for her second husband. Her uncle was the first Minister of Commerce in Nigeria, J.C Nwapa. She was Mabel Segun’s close friend but people don’t know. They were very strong women. Mabel represented Nigeria at the Olympics, while Flora engaged in her own bid as the Commissioner of Survey in the old South-Eastern region.

“Young people of my age have no idea who Flora Nwapa was, so they need to be told her story. The story is very interesting, as most of the Igbo who ran to the US during the Civil War did so through her help. She helped them through Cameroon and Portugal. Nwapa was the Registrar at the University of Lagos when the war broke out but ran back to the East to work with the refugees. Flora was the most powerful woman; I didn’t say one of the most powerful woman but the most powerful woman. Buchi Emecheta even lived with her at a point, and got the title of her book Joys of Motherhood from Flora’s first work, Efuru. Flora never called herself a feminist but she was a symbol of women’s liberation in Nigeria.”

Wikipedia also has a good biography of here (here). As documentaries go, this is an unusual production, certainly far from a perfect production, rough around all the edges, sloppy and sometimes baffling in its incoherence (not all the parts jell). Still its flaws give it a rustic charm and in a counter-intuitive sense, make it a documentary to watch. There is a trailer of the movie here on YouTube. The House of Nwapa is more than what it appears, it is not merely a collection of old footage cobbled together to make a story; in a real sense, it is more than the story of the coolly cerebral and mysterious Nwapa.

nwapaThis is an important documentary, despite its myriad technical flaws. Nwelue deserves kudos for this film, it is clearly done on a shoestring budget, but he did not wait for everything to be perfect before completing this project. He comes across as a thinker and a doer, albeit a sloppy worker. He could have used professional help and more resources. It is a crying shame that a nation like Nigeria where politicians routinely give away millions to their lovers cannot fund such a worthy initiative. Until recently, Nwapa’s significant contributions to literature, women empowerment and service to Nigeria have suffered benign neglect. This is a shame; Flora Nwapa is an incredibly important marker of African literature. It is great that of recent her name is becoming common on the lips of lovers of literature. Nwapa is best known for the epic novel Efuru which turns 50 this year (there are quite a few plans by fans to celebrate the event).

It bears repeating: The House of Nwapa is best described as a work in progress, not quite ready for prime time but what he has done, you must watch. Kudos to Nwelue’s boundless energy, passion and persistence. He clearly did the research and traveled thousands of miles and quite a few continents to bring together many fascinating people willing to talk about Nwapa. Watching the documentary, one gets a sense that this is really more than Nwapa, but about the world that she lived in. The viewer will love the historical black and white video clips from the archives that Nwelue inserted in the documentary beginning with a clip about Biafra that starts the movie. In it, a young unbroken and defiant Biafran lady intones, “Biafra is going to emerge as a nation. We shall never go back to Nigeria again!” Her dream is still, well, a dream.

The voice over is done by Onyeka Nwelue the producer of the documentary who tries hard to tee up controversies by setting up rivalries and binary arguments: Yakubu Gowon versus Odumegwu Ojukwu, Chinua Achebe versus Wole Soyinka, Nwapa versus Mabel Segun, etc. Ona Nwelue, Nwelue’s mother, a distant relative of Nwapa plays a cameo role, and there is the flamboyant Charles Oputa aka Charly Boy along with a host of her relatives offering salacious if not gossipy tidbits about Nwapa. To be honest, some of the footage can be baffling, it is either not clear why this is about Nwapa or why this is about literature. It all makes for fun viewing though. There is a particularly charming section where young Nwelue is interviewing Professor Wole Soyinka. One comes face to face with Soyinka’s mortality, he looks a bit frail and hard of hearing. He clearly needed his hearing aid. And you want to hug Kongi, awesome lion luxuriating in the winter of his life’s journey.

nwelueandmomNwelue did back-breaking research for this documentary. Sadly, one wonders if many of those Nigerians interviewed ever read any of Nwapa’s books. If they did, they had a poor way of showing it. Many of the responses were vague anecdotes, syrupy panegyrics with little substance. Many who ordinarily would know about Nwapa are old and having trouble recalling much of substance. The legendary James Currey, editorial editor (1967-1984) of Heinemann’s African Writers Series struggled mightily to recall Nwapa or anything profound she had said when he allegedly knew her in the sixties. I would not have used that interview. The interviews with Nwapa’s children (Ejine Nzeribe, Amede Obiora, and Uzoma Nwakuche) were charming but if you were looking for literary insights from them, you would be disappointed. The son Uzoma Nwakuche remembers a lot about his mother but not much about her books. If he read them, it doesn’t show. He remembers that his sister met the late Haile Selassie of Ethipoia and he offers that: “I knew my mom more as a mother than as a writer!”

Nwelue trots out several younger writers who offer opinions ranging from profound to the banal to the baffling. It was great to see Wale Okediran and Tess Onwueme., however, many clearly had not read a page of what Nwapa ever wrote but felt obliged to humor Nwelue. The most charming – and head-scratching is Nwelue’s interview with the young writer Mitterand Okorie. There is no mention of Nwapa in the interview, just a benign plug about his new book, All That is Bright and Ugly. I am not sure why the footage is there, it looks like something from a failed project that was thrown in as a filler. We do learn a lot about Okorie who shyly brags about “an accomplished dating life but full of turbulence” that involved up to ten girls over a ten-year dating period and who offers that he loves sex if “it is methodical, if you don’t just want to lie down and do mama and papa style, you will enjoy the act.” Too funny. But why was it here? Ask Nwelue, his demons are many.

The interview with the eighty-six year old writer Mabel Segun is worth the cost of watching the documentary. She is feisty and mabel_segunfunny as hell. She literally took over the interview and over a lengthy period of time, with Nwelue watching amused, she set out to debunk the notion that Nwapa was the pioneer of women’s literature in Nigeria, she loudly and effectively situated herself in a rung in the ladder above Nwapa and trotted out documentary evidence of other women writers. She reminds us of other female writers like Zulu Sofola, Zainab Alkali, Adaora Lily Ulasi, etc. You must watch that part, Segun does not take prisoners. She is colorful, kai, she has kind and unkind things to say about many writers living and dead and you fall on the floor laughing as she ridicules her ex-husband and his philandering ways. The title of the documentary should be changed to The House of Flora Nwapa and Mabel Segun, Her thesis? Women were not silent before Nwapa! She has interesting things to say about the NLNG Prize and Professor Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo with whom she shared the then $30,000 prize in 2007. Talk about feisty, lol.

I enjoyed Nwelue’s trip to Oguta Lake in Imo State, Nwapa’s ancestral land, in his search of the connection between Ogbuide the water goddess of Oguta Lake and Nwapa. There are rumors that the water goddess was Nwapa’s guiding spirit or demiurge just as Ogun is Soyinka’s. The research is at best inconclusive but gives us some of the best scenes of the movie.

Polygamy is treated well here. Nwelue’s interviews of several of the writers included an interrogation of Nwapa’s conflicted views about feminism. This part I found interesting as I listened to many writers like Jahman Anikulapo who asserted that Nwapa’s generation did not need to raise their voices; they simply had a deeper understanding of the concept of feminism. He seemed dismissive of what he termed the “cyberspace feminism” of the current generation. Similarly the writer Chinyere Obi Obasi saw Nwapa as a pragmatic feminist. These and many other views including that of Nwelue who served as a highly opinionated voice over are bound to extend the debate on feminism into fiery territory. Ainehi Edoro has an insightful piece on Nwapa’s ambivalence towards feminism, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of her epic book, Efuru. There are other interesting anecdotes offered by established Nigerian writers like Adimora-Ezeigbo and Denja Abdullahi, the current president of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). They and an army of Nwapa’s relatives provided interesting anecdotes about her life.

Nwapa, ever enigmatic and mysterious features as herself in a couple of video clips where she is interviewed and where she is dancing. They are lovely scenes, she is pretty, graceful, cerebral and purposeful. And she dances and dances and dances like someone with no care in the world. Thanks to Nwelue, we can now say that her personal life is well documented. She was sensual, coolly bold and ahead of her times. In the video narrative was rumored to have had many relationships with many men. She was in a polygamous marriage with Gogo Nwakuche and the second wife, Maudline Nwakuche. It all makes up for a very enigmatic character and the best work Nwelue does in the documentary is to pretty much establish that there is a biographical slant to Efuru. All very interesting.

In a supreme irony, the better prepared interviewees were foreign experts. There is Margaret Busby (good interview of her here) whose response to patriarchy and literature was to produce The Daughters of Africa, an anthology of poetry by 200 female poets. In the documentary she mentions that Soyinka’s poetry anthology did not feature a female and in a sense her collection was a response to that omission. Professor Sabine Jell Bahlsen anthropologist, and author Water Goddess was similarly insightful. Watch this footage of her on Nwapa and Efuru at the 2016 conference in London. Professor Mani M Meitei, Dean of Humanities, Manipur University in India who translated Things Fall Apart into Manipuri seemed to have done his homework. Soyinka by contrast, merely offered that Nwapa was “one of us.” In general, I would say that Nwelue had great access to several important actors, he was however not disciplined enough to take full advantage of the opportunity.

The House of Nwapa is a labor of love and you end up grinning through it all, there is never a dull moment and sometimes for reasons other than the literary. We need more of this.  Inspiring is the list of funders, most of them private individuals on Facebook, who helped a dreamer execute a worthy project. I love that Nwelue gave them all credit at the end of the documentary. We need more patrons of the arts like these folks. Go watch the documentary and see the names for yourselves. Where should you watch it? I don’t know, you would have to ask Nwelue himself. You know where to find him. On social media.

 

 

So Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature, who cares?

bob-dylanThe world has not rested since the 2016 Nobel Prize was awarded, not to Ngugi wa Thiong’o, but to Bob Dylan, that legendary poet who also sings. There have been impassioned essays for and against the award to Dylan. It all makes for fascinating reading.  Take this piece from Rajeev Balasubramanyam, writing in the Washington Post (October 22, 2016) who makes an interesting case for why Ngugi should have won the prize:

Ngugi’s decision to move away from English was a brave one for a writer hailing from Africa, a continent frequently treated as irrelevant by the rest of the world. It could, in fact, have led to his disappearance from the global stage, but instead it solidified his reputation as a writer of supreme political commitment, though few of his contemporaries or juniors took up the call to write in their native languages. Ngugi’s attitude toward this, however, is markedly self-aware and flexible.

 We of the elder generation,” he told the New African three years ago, “are so bound up by our anti-colonial nationalism, which is important for us but the younger generation ― they are free. You find they don’t confine their characters necessarily to Africa. They are quite happy to bring in characters from other races, and so on … that’s good because they are growing up in a multicultural world.

Okay, let me share a few thoughts:

1. Ngugi richly deserves the Nobel, no ifs, no buts about it. This warrior deserved the Nobel in celebration of a prodigious life marked by industry, hard work, innovation, a profound love for the word and its application in civil rights activism.

2. Ngugi’ innovation, in my view, is not in experimenting with writing in a Kenyan language. I didn’t find that particularly innovative, many writers (not well known of course) have always written in indigenous African languages. It was quixotic in the sense that there was not a market for it, a bold experiment perhaps, but not innovative.

3. Literary innovation was in how in their early works, Ngugi and Chinua Achebe took the English language and appropriated it as if it was an African language. I will go so far as to say they made it an African language. Achebe, said it all, as if with a wink and a smirk: “Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it.” It is thanks to them and the young writers of the Internet and social media, and not to today’s contemporary African writer (of books), that words like “molue” and “egusi” are now words defined in English dictionaries (Yes, Google it!).

4. I would have danced myself crazy had Ngugi won. For many years, I agonized over Chinua Achebe not winning the Nobel Prize. I once said something about this in the once thriving literary list-serve krazitivity and I think it was the writer Obiwu, not sure anymore, who counseled me against looking outside for validation, Achebe was certainly not sitting around waiting for the Nobel to honor him. That spoke to me and in a sense has inspired me also to urge us to look inwards.ngugi

5. These are exciting times to be a reader if you love African literature. I have said this ad nauseam, advances in technology, especially the advent of the Internet and social media have exposed the world to the universe of the narratives of Africa. Our books are still incredibly important but you have to read the young men and women who are doing some pretty amazing and innovative work on the Internet and on social media to get a sense of the sum of our stories. They have pushed the frontiers of the work started by pioneers like Ngugi and Achebe. In their stories, we think, laugh, make love and cry like the human beings we are. Africans are not the pathetic disease-ridden stick figures we read of in African books of fiction. Like their Western counterparts they have learned to be “provincial” as the writer Chigozie Obioma wrongly (in my view) puts it in his recent piece in the Guardian, or in my words, insular. I applaud the new African writers of the Internet and social media. They don’t explain themselves, they just write. If you are curious enough, google “egusi” or “molue.”

6. These are exciting times to be a reader if you love African literature. Advances in technology, especially the advent of the Internet and social media have exposed the world to the universe of the narratives of Africa. Our books are still incredibly important but you have to read the young men and women who are doing some pretty amazing and innovative work on the Internet and on social media to get a sense of the sum of our stories. They have pushed the frontiers of the work started by gusi” just as you would “crumpets.” If you care enough about my world, you would be curious about my words. These young men and women do not write for the West, they just write. And guess what, the world is getting it. I say to young writers, keep doing more of what you are doing, may you profit from your demons.achebe

7. And profit they should. Young African writers need a lot of support and affirmation. They are doing good work and they need all the help that they can get. I have serious issues with Nigeria’s NLNG $100,000 prize, I have been loud in decrying is as an embarrassment. It is a crying shame that the NLNG Prize committee spends the equivalent of the Nobel Prize (about $1 million) yearly to award a $100,000 lottery to one writer. I am happy for Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, he and Elnathan John (a runner-up along with the awesome writer, Chika Unigwe, a previous winner of the award) are exactly the kinds of exciting young writers I have in mind when I am talking about innovation in African writing. I have studied those two and think their entries are among the most important narrative to come out of Nigeria in the past decade or so, but we must push the conversation about how best to use $1 million every year. Right now, much of it is being wasted and the prize is seen more as an absurd give away than a real literary prize. There are so many innovative projects that the money could be used for. It is exciting to talk about the Nobel and who they should give their money to, but we have a great opportunity here in the NLNG Prize being wasted like a gas flare. By the way, I would have split the prize between Abubakar and Elnathan, they were both deserving of the award.

8. We need to support not just African writers of fiction and poetry and drama, we should also support the essayists in our midst. At the risk of generalizing, my observation is that African writers don’t do fiction well, many times what they call fiction is autobiography or long theses on social anxieties. Many of these works of fiction should be essays or works of creative nonfiction. Acknowledging these efforts might encourage many African writers to focus on their area of expertise. Even at that, writers should not wait for prizes or seminal events to hurriedly staple together thoughts. Many of the essays on Bob Dylan, for or against, that I have enjoyed were actually written months if not years ago. Western journalists and writers tend to anticipate events and write ahead. May Soyinka live long to torment us with his genius but he won’t live forever. Many Western newspapers have already written his obituary. Our writers are merely waiting. When he passes on to the next pantheon, there will be syrupy pieces on how we drank wine together. Get to work. Today.

9. Writers and thinkers should look at our world and ask hard questions about the way things are – and adjust to the changing of the seasons. I am happy that the award was given to Bob Dylan. Students and fans of Bob Dylan like me fully appreciate the Nobel for not only honoring him, but for in an unintended way, giving a loud nod to the fact that today’s literature is no longer your mama’s literature. Where it was once flat, it is now multi-dimensional, in song, on YouTube, in print and on the oral tradition of my ancestors.

10. So, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize and I am delirious and happy for him, who cares? African literature is undergoing a renaissance. We are making progress. I am happy.

Hurricane Andrew, Hurricane Trump, Hurricane Aso Rock, and the silence of lambs…

Corruption kills;
absolute corruption kills absolutely;
so does silence,
aiding, being accessory to the realities
of corruption invested in all kinds of affiliations…

Trapped, double-trapped, triple-trapped…
Everybody is talking about cleansing,
but everyone is afraid of the cleansing lotion.

– Professor Remi Raji, Facebook, October 9, 2016

Silence is not always golden. Sometimes you just run out of things to say. Sometimes the ways of the world simply garrot your voice box. It is what it is. So, the soul visited the seaside all of last week to get away and to be mute witness to two ugly, mean hurricanes, raging demons foaming in the mouth. Hurricane Matthew. Hurricane Trump. Olokun, goddess of the sea cooks up these hurricanes, and the white man names them. And sitting at the feet of rage-waves, I thought of home. Yea, home was on my mind. I would like to go home. But where is home? Dunno. Sigh.thesea

Hurricane Matthews has disgraced those who took Haiti’s billions and gave her nothing but pie charts and PowerPoint slides. Hurricane Trump is racing through America’s catacombs and wreaking major havoc on her anxieties and hypocrisy. This one is for the history books. The Lord is good, the (white) women of America may have finally stopped Hurricane Trump, yes, Trump the bully, Trump the bigot, and Trump the racist. Make no mistake, America reveres her (white) goddesses. Trump found out the following last week: You can make monkey noises at black men and women, you can body shame Mexicans and call their men rapists and America will look you in the eyes and make polite noises, you can call all Muslims terrorists and berate their women. Just don’t defile (white) women, for if you do, you will hear from (white) America. Yup. Trump found out last week.

It is a crying shame; those elected leaders and citizens of stature who were prepared to make a racist and misogynistic buffoon president of the greatest country on earth finally rose in rage and shut down his dream – and our nightmare. Trump should have asked Bill Cosby, his pal in crime (yes, sexual assault is a crime), about sexual assault. Trump has assured us that he is guilty of sexual assault, he should be in the big house, not in the White House. (White) America will make sure of that. Good for them. He scared them. In his new (white) victims, they saw their mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters. And justice may finally knock on Trump’s gilded doors. This is America, their America, says John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo.

Where were the calls for Trump to step down on account of his well documented bigotry? Where was the outrage? Certainly not at today’s decibel level. I am happy for Hillary Clinton, though. I am #TeamHillary to the very end. She has earned my vote and that of America. In any case, I will never vote for the Republican Party in a partisan race; the Republican party has no place in her heart and soul for people that look like me. But then, the Democratic party has grown to take my loyalty for granted. What has the party done for people of color lately? We must ask these questions. Was it not Bill Clinton that enacted anti-crime laws that prescribed triply harsher drug penalties for poor black youth compared to their richer white counterparts? Was it not Bill Clinton that refused to do anything about the Rwandan genocide because he did not see how it was America’s business? And what has Obama done for Black folks and Africa lately? We may not have anywhere to go, but that does not mean we are fools.

Oh Haiti. Who cares about Haiti? Many do. It is just not obvious. Billions of aid dollars have been sunk in Haiti and it is still so poor, it does not qualify to be a third world nation. Billions of dollars sunk into Haiti that have ended up in the deep greedy pockets of NGOs, an equal opportunity pantheon of the greedy feeding fat on the poor and the vulnerable. If all the billions stolen by NGOs and multinationals were simply dropped on Haitians from airplanes, each Haitian would be a millionaire today. Ditto the IDP camps of Nigeria.

There is a war on the poor and dispossessed everywhere. Come and see America; the poor are locked up in neighborhoods guarded by liquor stores, fast food joints, pawn shops and pay day loan sharks. And with the police, it is a turkey shoot of beautiful people whose only crime is to be black men. Where are intellectuals of color? They are writing pretty books and long essays on injustice from deep within lush summer homes in Martha’s Vineyard. This dispensation has exposed the intellectual rot and hypocrisy within the temples of intellectuals of color. There is a wide sea-gulf between the elite and the poor, fueled by arrogance and ignorance.

Nigeria. Home. There is no need to talk about home anymore. Home is Nigeria. Or is it? And the poet said, prepare for dark days ahead. Dark days are here. There is a picture of a door to a judge’s home torn down by a uniformed mob in the name of fighting corruption. This is a democracy they say. Why is the DSS arresting judges, why? Where is the outrage? Thosepretending to lead Nigeria who have properties worth hundreds of millions of dollars in Dubai and elsewhere, those who murdered and buried almost 400 Shiites, 400 human beings, 400 Nigerians, with absolutely no consequences, those who feted a Nobel Prize laureate to a $500,000 dinner, are the ones leading this assault on the judiciary and on the opposition in the name of fighting corruption. And we are all silent. Yes, Professor Wole Soyinka, the man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny. The man has died in all of us. ALL of us.

Sometimes, you just have to be silent because talk is cheap. Sometimes this Diasporan thinks if you can’t do anything to help those trapped in the land you fled from, just shut up and walk away. I should walk away. In any case those who have voices have walked away. They are writing books about poverty disease and deprivation, they are fighting over “literary prizes”, crying louder than the bereaved and worrying about the oppressed of other nations, fighting over definitions of feminism even as they beat up their house help for chilling the red wine (“It should be at room temperature, STUPID WOMAN!”). And yes some learned ones, some writers are defending this outrage. Yes, some are defending this outrage. As in America, this has exposed the greed, intellectual rot and hypocrisy within the temples of Nigerian intellectuals. There is a wide sea-gulf between the elite and the poor, fueled by arrogance and ignorance. Trust me, this will not end well. Why are things the way they are? We don’t know. Or we know. But we are afraid of the answers. Let it not be said that we are children of a lesser god.

Do not ask me what I think. I have said enough. I have said that in Nigeria, thieves are fighting thieves, cheered on by their intellectual hirelings. There is no rule of law, none, nothing but hypocrisy and thuggery. Impunity is the word that fills me with rage and sadness. This is sad. I have said that there clearly is no difference in substance between the APC and the PDP, they are all boll weevils and termites with strong jaws eating up what’s left of our country. Where are those voices that gave Nigerians this hell? Where are they? They should speak up and stop this nightmare. No one is building structures and institutions, no one, Buhari’s regime is too inept, too clueless to care. My heart goes out to the young; to have to stand by helplessly and watch your present and future eaten up by the thug-elders, is worse than anything I can remember.

Someday perhaps, there will be a group of dreamers and doers who want to really help. Until then, talking and talking and talking about these things does not really make anyone feel better. Besides, I am no longer there. Those who really feel this hurt at home must lead the way and tell us how we can help. Where is home? I honestly don’t know. Hurricanes roam the earth and you might as well sit where you are until it all blows over. I have said my own.

And oh, here, click on this link below, here  is important work about South Africa. It is a photo essay about white privilege in South Africa. Political correctness makes the artist look sideways at the truth. There is white privilege in South Africa, yes, but this is now being subsumed by class privilege. The poor blacks of South Africa are going through hell in the hands of the black and white middle and upper middle class elite. Yep, it is beyond a black-white binary though. Mix it up with class and you get really fed up with South Africa. Where are Black Africa’s voices? They are cowering in the cafes of Europe and North America, navel gazing and self-medicating at book readings with free cheese and red wine. Nice pictures, though.

http://www.huckmagazine.com/art-and-culture/photography-2/photographer-deconstructing-white-privilege-south-africa/