Ikhide

Father, Fighter, Lover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senator Sola Adeyeye responds to ASUU

Responding to ASUU’s Spokesman

By Prof Sola Adeyeye

Vice Chairman

Senate Committee on Education

I was quite bemused by the reference by ASUU spokesman, Dr. Ajiboye, to my enjoyment of Duquesne University’s reputed Flex benefits for its members of academic and nonacademic staff while denying similar benefits to ASUU members.  First, in most instances, as its very name suggests, the Flex Benefits Program at Duquesne was flexible. It was also contributory.  The University simply matched, up to a predetermined ratio, whatever amount had been contributed by the staff. For example, each faculty or staff made individual decision about how much he or she would contribute towards retirement, pension, life insurance etc.

 In my case, I contributed 12% of my salary towards retirement and pension but the university was obligated to contribute not more than 6% of my wages towards my retirement portfolios which had been divided by me into different mutual funds like Vanguard, Lincoln, Travelers and TIAA-CREF. At the same time, there were colleagues who contributed only 3, 4 or 5% of their wages towards retirement and thus enjoyed less than the maximum of 6% which the University was obligated to match. In accordance with the flexibility of the program, at no time did I contribute towards or enjoy the benefits of Duquesne University Health program. Likewise, whereas some colleagues at Duquesne paid over $1,000 per annum to park on campus, I neither paid for nor enjoyed the campus car park facility.  After losing my protest to the university President that the parking charges were excessive, I simply bought a monthly bus pass; I rode public transportation to work. Doing this drastically reduced expenditure on car maintenance while still enabling me to get to and from work at a cost of less than half of what I would have been paying just to park.

 The flexibility in Duquesne University benefits program paled into insignificance when compared to the flexibility in salary structure. At the risk of sounding immodest, the truth is that I joined Duquesne University employment with superlative credentials that aided my bargaining power in matters of salary. Indeed, I was the highest paid Assistant Professor in Duquesne University’s College of Liberal Arts which at the time included all Science as well as Arts Departments. God enabled me to enjoy such exceptional successes in grantsmanship that I was offered an assurance of at least a 10% annual salary increase for three years at a time when annual salary increase in the university averaged 3.5% and some faculty were given no increase at all! The university knew that I would take my service elsewhere if it failed to make attractive offers to retain me.  The consequence of this was that by the time I became an Associate Professor, my salary had already outstripped those of my colleagues in the same Department. Even so, whatever I earned was far less than what an Assistant Professor was earning in the College of Pharmacy where a beginning Assistant Professor’s salary exceeded those of some full Professors in the College of Liberal Arts! It is noteworthy that when the stock market bubble got burst in the USA, with the concomitant reduction of university revenues, Duquesne University like many universities across the USA, froze salary increase for a few years! My wife is a Professor and Chairperson at Roosevelt University, Chicago, Illinois, where salary and wages have been frozen for the last three years. Since Dr. Ajiboye admired Duquesne University Flex benefits program so much, would he canvass that ASUU adopt such flexibility rather than the current system where a Professor of Engineering at the University of Lagos enjoys similar salary structure as a Professor Religious Study at Ibadan and a Professor of History at Ile-Ife?

 There are five universities within a four mile radius of Duquesne University. One of these is Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) where I taught before moving to Duquesne. Each of these universities had salary, wages and benefits structure that were unique to its own institution. For example, CMU contributed a fixed percentage of a staff’s salary towards retirement regardless of whether or not the staff contributed. By contrast, Duquesne University contributed NOTHING towards the retirement funds of a staff or faculty who chose not to contribute. In any case, Only in Nigeria would an academician demand overtime allowances under the euphemism of Excessive Work load Allowances. Such a demand would seem incongruous across the world.

 Dr. Ajiboye erroneously (and perhaps deliberately mischievously) sneered that as Senator, I sent my own children to be educated in the USA while not caring for the children of ordinary Nigerians. It would have been easy for me to also sneer at any ASUU member whose child, sibling or ward might be studying abroad where academic staff unions would never contemplate declaring a strike so that an academic staff could be paid allowances to supervise a thesis or dissertation! Do these staff not benefit from such researches which are crucial towards the scholarly publications necessary for academic promotion? If someone has been paid for doing or supervising research, should he again be rewarded with promotion and its concomitant salary increase on the basis of a service for which he had already been rewarded?

 In any case, the truth is that I left Nigeria on September 14, 1980 and did not return until 2002. By then, all my children had either graduated or had been admitted into a university.  God is extremely gracious in giving me academically gifted children all of who enjoyed full scholarship for their university education. I am tempted to tout the academic and subsequent professional achievements of my children but I would be vicariously taking a credit that belongs to God. Suffice to say that all of my children were already oscillating in the orbits of success long before my entry into Nigerian elective politics.  In my hometown, long before I got into elective politicking, nobody dead or alive, has made more personal financial contributions towards education than myself.  I have demonstrated that the success of my own biological offspring had not made me unconcerned about the larger community.

 Interestingly, it was quite convenient for the ASUU spokesman to forget that my contribution on the senate floor castigated successive Nigerian Governments for the neglect and underfunding of education. I drew attention to visionary Obafemi Awolowo’s expenditure of 32% of the revenues of Western Nigeria on education alone.  Awolowo had exceeded the benchmark of 26% long before UNESCO had the wisdom to set it. Indeed, during his campaign in 1978 and 1979, Awolowo repeatedly stated that if necessary, he would spend 50% of Nigeria’s revenues on education.  I also castigated Government for entering agreements it seemed to have known it would not implement.

There is no question that the enormous rot in Nigeria’s education sector cries for urgent and immediate attention. But as unpopular as saying so might make me to the membership of ASUU, the truth is that ASUU has been a part of the problem.  I would gladly love to engage Dr. Ajiboye in a prime time televised debate on my assertion.

 Meanwhile, we must leave the ridiculous for the sublime. Now, even as I did during my contribution on the floor of the senate, let us direct our attention to some practical solutions to this most national pressing crisis.

 First, the National Assembly of Nigeria should henceforth appropriate at least 26% of Nigeria’s current revenue to education alone. Second, Government in Nigeria, especially the Federal Ministry of Education, has been denigrated into a beast of burden. The metastasis of asphyxiating bureaucracy demands the streamlining of the endless parastatals that drain resources while making little or no contribution to national well-being and progress.  Third, to raise revenue for funding a national redemption program in education, all imports should attract a mandatory education tax of one percent. Fourth, beginning from January 1, 2014 till December 31, 2018, all workers in Nigeria must contribute 5% of their income as education taxes. Embezzling any amount of these revenues targeted for education should be taken as an act of treason.   This should attract the most severe penalty such as impeachment, imprisonment and perhaps death penalty. Fifth, the costs for running the offices of all elected and appointed political office holders should immediately be pruned by 50%. Something tells me that the implacable demands by ASUU are fueled by resentment at the cult of obscene privileges which Nigerian politicians have become. But our task is to curb needless privileges rather than add to them

 Finally, as a member of the Education Committee during my tenure in the House of Reps and now as Vice Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, I have almost always been the strongest advocate for the well-being of Nigerian universities. At a senate hearing not long ago, a chieftain of the Nigerian University Commission disparagingly lampooned academic staff of Nigerian Universities for depending too much on Government rather than obtaining extramural funding as is the case abroad. I was the one who immediately and robustly came to the defense of the academicians. I explained that the comparison was in error for two reasons. First, well funded private grant agencies like Ford Foundation, Carnegie Foundation, Howard Hughes Foundation, etc do not exist in Nigeria. Second, it was egregiously incorrect to assert that most research grants in the USA came from outside government. I pointed out that the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the United States Department of Agriculture were Federal Government agencies from which principally fund research in science, health, and agriculture respectively. With the absence of such agencies in Nigeria, I submitted that it was unfair to blame the academicians.

African Roar 2013: The hunt for the elusive African story

African Roar 2013, the fourth anthology of short stories by Africans, this time, edited by Emmanuel Sigauke, is out. Well, I would say, buy it and read it. It is on Amazon. This challenging and african roar2013ultimately frustrating collection is instructive in many ways, as in the previous editions, it asks more questions about literature and “African” stories than it seems equipped to answer. Sadly, it struggles with an identity crisis from the very first page, beginning with Sigauke’s “Introduction.” The decision to standardize the English of the stories, for instance, using the Queen’s English, is in my view, unfortunate, because it attempts to sanitize a key story of the journey of the story. American English is different from the Queen’s English in more substantive ways than the spelling of “color.”

Reading African Roar 2013 was a chore, for many reasons. These days, the book as a medium for telling the story struggles gamely against the Internet for the attention of the reader. Many readers are finding that the book is a mere distraction, folks want to bury their faces in the best book out there aka the Internet. It doesn’t help that many of the stories in this collection are just plain awful, and give the moniker, “short story” a bad name. There is no reason why they are even stories, they read like carefully typed dry memos issued by humorless civil servants. With a few exceptions, they were patterned along the true, tried and tired formula that has made the term “African writer” a near-pejorative. In these (non)tales there is a morbid fascination, an obsession with the seamy side. The alleged aridity of Africa is on full display here and this reader wonders, what is new? Not much. Many of the stories present like dirty chores, miserable dishes encrusted with stale food. African writers are an unhappy miserable lot, this collection simpers and whines ceaselessly about a wide range of tired issues. Sigauke says it best in his introduction,

Here we have stories dealing with a wide range of issues: street life in South Africa (Bauling), intercultural dating and the problems of exile (Erlwenger ), the past’s grip on family life and legacy (Muqutu), relationship and marital problems in contemporary urban Kenya (Matata), the works of a mysterious puppeteer whose powers bring both excitement and death to a community (Dila), a father’s moving account of how he met his daughter’s mother in the England of the 60s (Nubi), the joys and challenges of post-independent life in Zimbabwe (Mhangami)… African Roar 2013 (Kindle Locations 60-67). StoryTime. Kindle Edition.

In the 21st century, there is something about hard copy print that mummifies the creativity of the writer. It is all so frustrating really,because the writers showcased in this edition are all good writers. Many of them (Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende, bwa Bwesigye, Mike Ekunno, Ola Nubi, etc.) are higly respected digital story tellers who make social media (Facebook and Twitter) rock and hum all day, with raw unfiltered luscious stories. I make bold to say that the best book of African literature today is the Internet, with Facebook and Twitter as star chapters. In this digital space, the writers and their stories are unfiltered and unhinged, and they tell the world about the sum total of the experience of the human being who happens to be an African. It is not always about certain social issues, sometimes, we get laid also. And enjoy the experience. Go to Twitter, it is all there, we love to share. Thank God. In the 21st century, the book is a chore, an annoying distraction. You just want to read something else. Thank heavens for the Internet.

So, what are these stories all about? Home by Alison S. Erlwanger seems to be a conversation about identity, a reminder that many who treat Africa as one monolithic country are themselves Africans. For Home, Africa is an ideology. Why are we drawn to see only a monolithic Africa? Is this our concept of unity or do we yearn for unity and as a result diminish the complexity that is Africa? Home features superfluous unnatural dialogue, a piece suffering from an acute identity crisis – one minute it is a cheesy romance story, the next, it is a shallow discourse wrapped around an unctuous morality tale. Good writing though.

Business as usual by Jayne Bauling is probably the most visionary short story I have read in a long time, using the anxieties and promise of the digital age to explore change and class. The laconic lazy pace of the story is endearing, I love that the writer does not italicize African words. Yup, google it, I like that. The story is a sumptuous feast of pretty writing:

You know these are difficult days because the timber trains have stopped coming along the railway through the old part of town. Grass and weeds cover the tracks. Before, you would hear the blare of a train, sometimes two, most weekdays. The traffic police still trap drivers for not stopping at the crossing. Fana was laid off from one of the sawmills. (Kindle Locations 414-417)

And:

The water in the pothole has dried up, but the bulbuls haven’t forgotten and keep coming back to see. Maybe they itch under their feathers the way my skin is itching in the winter dry. For us it’s cold, and Boo-man is full of snot, but the winter people say this place doesn’t bite your bones the way Jozi does. (Kindle Locations 467-469).

And this:

There’s nearly always someone ready to buy him something. He never asks. I think it’s because he has an interesting look, like a tree that has seen a lot of life, tall and thin and ancient. People talk to him, and he’ll tell his story different ways, with twists and turns to make it longer. I think he makes up some bits. (Kindle Locations 480-483).

Salvation in Odd Places by Aba Amissah Asibon unfortunately defines the stereotype of the African story. It is a dark story, full of promise, but one that lacks suspense. It drifts all over the place like the drifters in the story. But mostly not in a good way. You read pitiful whiny lines like, “He often dreams about his homecoming to a whole guinea fowl…” desolation and despair recorded in various stages of expertise, lice-ridden, dust-covered men and women of Africa carrying sacks of poverty all over the land, afflicted with the curse of aimlessness and a meaningful life. Where is the spirituality? Haven’t our writers said enough? What are we doing about these things other than hoping to be published in reputable/prestigious journals and spaces? What did this story tell me? Well, I know now that “Aba Amissah Asibon is a Ghanaian writer who has had fiction and poetry published in Guernica, The University of Chester’s Flash Magazine, The Sentinel Literary Quarterly and The Kalahari Review. She lives in New York, and is currently working on her debut novel.” It is pretty bad when the blurb about the writer is more interesting than the short story.

The Faces of Fate by Abdulghani Sheikh Hassan drones on and on until blessed sleep saves you from the prattle. This reader honestly has no idea what this story is all about. There is a lot of squalor in it. Makes sense. Hassan “is a humanitarian Aid worker in the biggest refugee camp in the world -Dadaab. Some of his poems are published online by The Kenyan Poets Lounge. He also runs a personal blog: My Voice, My Freedom where he posts poems on Contemporary political, socio-cultural and economic events…” An NGO monarch writes a manifesto on African poverty. The only interesting part of the stories is at the end – where the blurbs about the writers show that they mostly live interesting lives – overseas. These are interesting people who have very little to write about that is interesting.

In Bramble Bushes by Dipita Kwa continues the tales of woe. Inarticulately. Hear Kwa:

For the last one month, one of life’s well-hidden secrets that filled Yandes with anger every morning when he woke up from sleep, was the reminder that nobody knew how it felt like to be dead. How the afterlife felt or looked like, nobody could tell. He once heard that souls of dead men who had made several enemies in this life were chained by their dead enemies and dragged along streets covered with sharp, hot gravel. If that was true then he didn’t have to worry. His greatest enemy was himself. He had been an enemy to his own body and life had failed to restrain him from ruining himself. That was why he had made up his mind to spit on the very face of life. He wanted nothing more to do with living. He wanted to die. (Kindle Locations 987-992).

There is a God. This pity party, this macabre festival of gloom and doom is broken in the middle by an aptly named short story, Transitions, by Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende. It is an affecting story about interracial friendship in the dying days of Rhodesia. You start reading and want to weep with joy, Finally! There is atmosphere; you can finally smell aromas and odors that do not belong to Mrs. Poverty. Roasted maize, goat meat, and green vegetables. Green vegetables! In Africa! What a concept. In this story, we learn how integration or assimilation into a white neighborhood heightens alienation, self-doubt and self-loathing. Mhangami can write. Still, this is writing as protest, a preachy editorial, not a short story. Eventually it ends in predictable despair; it is not so much a story, but an essay. If our writers continue like this, readers will never wean themselves of social media. I know I won’t.

A Yoke for Companionship by Andiswa Maqutu made me understand why my son hates reading books, many of them are awful, I would rebel too. Memo to African writers: God loves Africans too. And no, Africa is not a country. SMH.

The Puppets of Maramudhu an attempt at a detective thriller by Dilman Dila shows promise in attempting to showcase the coming of the digital age but it soon fizzles into nothingness. This story is a mess; every conceivable anxiety is thrown in, no suspense, just murder, blood and gore and witchcraft. It is dark and disturbing only because it is inarticulate.

Through the Same Gate by Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire is a faux quirky experiment gone awry; faux in the sense that is about the usual, if you like social commentary that prattles on about a child born out of wedlock and the ensuing marital tensions, AIDS, spouse abuse and whatnot. I am not sure why this piece made it into the collection. And I read it twice. This is a shame because on the Internet, Bwesigwe is one of the finest and most exciting writers I have never met. Evidently something happens to his creative muse when he needs to put his thoughts in a book.

A.B. Doh’s The Spaces In-between starts with a tantalizing promise – that this won’t be all about the usual. Nah. It is. The perils of arranged marriages. Childbirth, stillbirth, blah, blah, blah.  Here it is mildly comical how feminism links Buchi Emecheta and Nurudeen Farah and Ousmane Sembene – in the 21st century. Doh needs to read more contemporary writers. In this blighted story, the Elnathan effect (named after Elnathan John’s much copied literary style) lives. Hear Doh:

You inhale the medicinal smell that permeates the room. Sweat droplets glide down your nose, settling stubbornly in the crevice of the ‘M’ that defines your upper lip. Eyes flutter— unsure whether to hide in the darkness behind the lids or courageously face the altered world before them. Thin arms lie unmoving at each side . Heavy legs are splayed, reaching towards the metal ridge at the foot of the bed. It’s the way they’ve been the last four hours; the way they’ve been since you gave birth to breathless life. (Kindle Locations 2022-2025).

The pickings are slim but read Anti Natal by Mike Ekunno. It will still your ADHD. Finally, there is suspense, you can almost feel and taste the streets. This piece alone is worth the price of the collection. It demonstrates good writing techniques; Ekunno’s ability to get into the character of the female protagonist makes this reader jealous. Anti Natal is probably the most contemporary of the stories. And funny too.

I loved Green Eyes and an Old Photo by Ola Nubi, a mercifully short but nice tale about living in England in the sixties. There is racism and interracial marriage but then it goes nowhere like a promising work in progress.

Cut it off by Lydia Matata is mere reportage, with an advocate’s passion – and biases. There is the usual – marital rape, cheating, with a “Kill the bastards! Cut off their penises!” chant. End of Story.

The stories run into each other and you can hardly tell one story from the other. There is precious little attempt at experimentation, the writers seem genuinely allergic to taking risks with their work. All we are left with are carefully edited memos, making you cross-eyed like a jogger racing past miles of manicured lawns, boring yard after boring yard.  These writers would have been better off writing essays. I am being generous here, African Roar 2013 is a collection of writing by writers who happen to be African. The editors should perhaps stop calling the series African Roar. It is deceptive and presumptuous. These writers certainly do not speak for Africa.

So what do I really think of this book? Well, I must thank Ivor Hartmann and Emmanuel Sigauke for their work in relentlessly and proudly pushing the envelope in terms of African writing. When the history of this phase of our struggle is written, their names will be up there in blazing letters. They are visionaries especially in the digital medium, who are struggling to live with a legacy system – the book. I think the book as a medium of expression robustly sabotages the considerable talents of these writers. Our writers no longer know how to write for hard print. A writer friend of mine did not include an online poem of his in his forthcoming anthology – because it contains hot links and it would not make sense without the links. THAT is the problem with books. The book is dying a long slow death and we are in denial. Well, I liked the cover design by Ivor Hartman, using Charles Nkomo’s painting, Memories.”  Read AfroSF Science Fiction by African Writers edited by Ivor Hartmann. It is on Amazon.com Now, THAT is good writing, period.

science fiction

ASUU is on strike again. Who cares? SMH

The Academic Staff Union of Universities of Nigeria. ASUU. ASUU is on strike again. Who cares? They are thugs, they are always on strike, nobody seems to know why, except that it involves being paid a boatload of money by their counterparts, those thieves euphemistically called the Nigerian government. ASUU. My contempt for that body of narcissistic thugs knows no bounds. There is really not much one needs to say about how these rogues in academic robes have colluded with any government in power (AGIP) to defraud and rob generations of beautiful children what is their right – a good education. To say ASUU is on strike is to state the obvious, they are nearly always on strike, even when they are at work, they are on strike. Their members want to have sex with every child that walks into their pretend classrooms, when they have satisfied themselves, they pimp their helpless wards, yes, they do, to their friends, constipated generals and pot-bellied rogue-politicians who have too much money in their thieving pockets.

If you don’t believe me, Farooq Kperogi has a disturbing piece here on the sexual harassment epidemic in Nigerian universities. You read that piece, and when you have stopped shuddering, you understand why fully less than 10 percent of Nigerian university dons have children living in that mess called Nigeria, let alone inside the filthy chicken coops that pass for classrooms from preschool to the tertiary level. In those criminal hovels, children of the poor and dispossessed are trapped and mis-educated by those whose children are being nurtured in the West. Their children will come back home from North America and Europe on holidays to the pretend suburbs of Abuja and Lagos island, wave a Cold Stone ice cream cone at the wreck built by their thieving parents and berate Nigerians for being wretched Nigerians. They often travel First Class. Ten percent? I made it up of course. I am a Nigerian intellectual. We are lazy like that. It could be less even.

Follow me, let’s go to the silly website of ASUU right here. Let us visit their officers, all of them mean looking men, except for one harried looking token lady who has the cringe-worthy patronizing title of “welfare secretary.” I am sure she does important things for the #OgasAtTheTop of ASUU. Maybe she is responsible for making pounded yam and bringing water so the men could wash their filthy hands. SMH. Yes, Nigeria is the patriarchy from hell, in Nigeria, misogyny reigns even in the 21st century and even among the men of the ivory tower. Hiss. Here’s ASUU’s list of  men “leaders” and one token woman: Dr, Nasir Isa Fagge, president, Bayero University, Kano, Professor Biodun Ogunyemi, Vice president, OOU Ago-Iwoye, Professor Ukachukwu Awuzie, immediate past president, IMSU, Owerri, Professor Victor Osodoke, financial secretary, MOUA Umudike, Dr. Ademola Aremu, treasurer, University of Ibadan, Professor. Daniel Gungula, internal auditor, MAUTech, Yola, Dr. Ralph Ofukwu, investment secretary, FUAM, Makurdi,  Dr. (Mrs.) Ngozi Iloh, welfare secretary, University of Benin, and Professor Israel Wurogji, legal advisor, University of Calabar. All the men and one woman have horrid looking pictures of themselves on the website, except for Professor Wurogii, ASUU’s “legal advisor” who either is too lazy or too busy to provide one. He is perhaps genuinely afraid for his life – not from the SSS but from irate abused students who have spent the past decade trying to get an education from these thugs.

If you think I am being harsh, ASUU is a body that works really hard to be disrespected. Read the message on the website from the president, Dr. Fagge. It is unprofessional, coming from an educated don, grammatically challenged and in need of a weed whacker, not just a professional editor. Somebody actually wrote that letter, proofed it and approved it for world consumption. ASUU should go hang its greedy head in shame. You go past that obnoxious letter written in the syntax of the 60’s cold war, and desperate for a reason to empathize with these guys, you root around for what it is they want (we know what they want, lots of money and in dollars please!). You find “Memorandum of Understanding, MoU that led to the truce in January, 2012. Government is still playing the ‘deception game’.” You truly want to do some serious research and contribute to the “debate” about “money, mo money for oga professors dem.” Nope, the link is broken, you can’t download anything. These people are not serious.

ASUU’s website is a dump, one that clearly advertises the mediocrity and incompetence of a body of people that only want to be paid. If you cannot maintain a simple website, why should you be trusted with the education of children? If you cannot provide on one page, a simple summary of what the issues are and what your ask is, why should you be taken seriously?  Click on all the pretend-links on the right hand side and weep for our children. If you can get two to work, you are lucky. When it works, it is unreadable, consisting of mostly dated material (try the one on conferences, SMH). This is not the first time I have called ASUU’s attention to that disgrace of a website. There are some on their roll that truly believe that in the 21st century, websites are an inconvenience. It is a distinctly Nigerian phenomenon, one that I have been blogging about for years now (Viewing Nigeria through a web of broken links).

The dysfunctions in the Nigerian educational system are well documented on the Internet. You must read Okey Iheduru’s heartbreaking experience as a Fulbright scholar in Nigeria.  If my rant sounds very familiar to you, it is because you have read me over and over and over again on the ASUU wahala, since 2009. ASUU does not listen. I now believe that ASUU has earned the right to be banned. I personally believe in employee unions and collective bargaining, I don’t support bans, but these thugs are pushing my patience. It is a body of carcinogens inflicted on the children of the poor. As if poverty is not enough. ASUU is an irrelevance that Nigeria should get rid of. Until then, I say continue to ignore their blackmail, it should make no difference given the products of their laziness. We have writers that cannot tell an adjective from a noun (and sometimes win big Nigerian prizes for that honor), engineers that threaten to build things that would collapse on the innocent and now, get this, a postgraduate student of the University of Lagos, Nigeria hopes to win the Nobel Prize by  trying to prove proudly, through the use of magnets, that homosexuality is unnatural. I would not be shocked if his “academic supervisor” is a member of ASUU.  That my people is my generation for you. We are today’s intellectuals, today’s politicians. From Aso Rock to the moldy hallowed halls of Nigerian universities, we have MBAs, master bull artists who say all the right things to the masses and do all the right things - for themselves only. Our children do not attend public schools in Nigeria, our families treat their rashes abroad. When all of this is over, history will record that democracy came to Nigeria to prove once and for all, that we are incapable of governing ourselves. And of course it is all the white man’s fault. Na today? Hiss.

PS. And yes, I don’t need any patronizing lectures about how I am generalizing, prattle, prattle, prattle, we all know that not all ASUU members are self-serving thugs, we all know that not all our students are being abused in Nigerian classrooms. I am too lazy to put “most” in front of my sentences. Do it yourself!

 

Afam Akeh: Letter Home & Biafran Nights – The poet as priest

For Ingrid, whoever you are…

London. April 2013. The days are wondrous and enchanting even under England’s moody skies, communing in a lazy haze, days with a friend, hands in my khaki pants, wondering the wondering. London was wonderful and words fail me each time I remember. I would like to write something – of days spent in the company of kindred souls, relishing the warm comfort of similarly vulnerable members of my writer-tribe. And I met the poet Afam Akeh. Akeh came from somewhere in England, Oxford I think it was, to grace the panel of writers honoring the works of our friends. He came, spoke, hung out with us for a little while, and disappeared into the gloomy English night. Just like that. I have pictures.

Afam Akeh? Who is Akeh? How do I explain Akeh? Well, Akeh is in my view, one of the finest writers, definitely one of the most important poets to come out of Africa in contemporary times. If he is relatively unknown, it is because he and many in that army of writers coming after Professor Niyi Osundare’s generation are notoriously reticent about the limelight. Akeh is elusive, perhaps reclusive, definitely enigmatic. I think of him and strangely each time, Christopher Okigbo comes to mind. Which is interesting, because as poets, they are very different – in attitude, temperament and perhaps vision. Where Okigbo’s verse is opaque and beautiful, Akeh’s is transparent and beautiful, heir verses united primarily by degrees of obliqueness.

Akeh is different from Okigbo in one important sense; his verses allow you to own them personally, and he is generous enough to e-smile indulgently when you claim them as your own. But I think of both Okigbo and Akeh as master wordsmiths, fastidious almost to a fault. I think of them as master gardeners, tending a postcard-perfect garden, each flower in its right place, a snip here, a touch there, nothing goes to the market until it is perfect. And because the master gardener is rarely satisfied, the market is starved of the genius of prodigy.

afam-akeh1959

One can never get enough of Akeh’s verse and his latest volume of poetry, Letter Home & Biafran Nights proves that beautifully. Letter Home & Biafran Nights was longlisted for the 2013 NLNG Prize in literature (poetry) First things first though: This reader must stop to congratulate the NLNG Prize folks for compiling a most thoughtful 2013 longlist: Afam Akeh, Amatoritsero Ede, G’ebinyo Egbewo, Iquo Eke, Obari Gamba, Tade Ipadeola, Okinba Launko (Femi Osofisan), Amu Nnadi, Obi Nwakanma, Promise Ogochukwu and Remi Raji.  It was a great list with pretty much everyone a strong contender. Although, Tade Ipadeola, Amu Nnadi and Promise Ogochukwu ended up on the shortlist, it is actually the case that many on the list deserve the prize and our eternal gratitude for a lifetime of meritorious work in the service of literature. Outside of the legendary Femi Osofisan, I am thinking of Afam Akeh, Remi Raji, Amatoritsero Ede, Tade Ipadeola, Obi Nwakanma, virtually all of them in the 35 to 50s age range who have distinguished themselves through consistent output and outstanding leadership in the digital age, an era when the book has come under fierce competition thanks to new and muscular digital tools that have democratized the reading and writing culture.

The 2013 NLNG longlist was an unintended gentle nod to that quiet group of folks, most of whom started out in the Krazitivity listserv in the early 2000s, and set out to fashion a way of telling our stories in the new dispensation. There are too many names to mention, but I am thinking of passionate digital literary warriors like Molara Wood, Olu Oguibe, Obiwu Iwuanyanwu, Lola Shoneyin, Toni Kan, Victor Ekpuk, Chika Unigwe, Victor Ehikhamenor, Obododimma Oha, Chuma Nwokolo, Sola Osofisan, Abdul Mahmud (Obemat), Nnorom Azuonye, Chuma Nwokolo, etc. In those days they hosted and participates in online poetry workshops and many listservs were fierce places to be in as a writer. If I had the money, I would give each one of them a $100,000 for their service, they are still here, quietly influential in the background, and still devoting hours daily to the written word and the visual arts. I don’t often agree with many of them, but they have all earned my respect. I salute every one of them.

So, yes, this group of writers came right after Niyi Osundare’s generation. They had to deal with the new dispensation called the Internet. They had to bring Nigerian literature into the new medium. Quietly, they fought (many times each other) brainstormed, dreamed, and built new houses for our stories. They labored quietly in the shadows, they did not have time to worry about writing books. Occasionally they would write their own, and it would be published in some obscure and often presitgious journal. But they were the new priests, working to give others succor and to build up the work of others. Many of them are aging now, and the world is just now coming around to give them their dues. It is awesome that this year, Nigeria’s increasingly prestigious NLNG Prize for literature unwittingly acknowledged their influence and industry by including several of them in the NLNG long-list. It bears repeating: Each of these writers and many more of their generation deserves the prize and more – not just for their books, but for a lifetime of selfless dedication to the cause of world literature. These are unsung giants toiling quietly and with great determination in the shadows of lesser - and noisier mortals. I salute them all.

So, Akeh was longlisted for his new work, Letter Home & Biafran Nights. I will say it again: Akeh’s generation will not be judged by their books, they will be judged by their immense contribution in harnessing the digital world and bringing the African writer to the reader, managing the morphing and blurring of roles between reader and writer and creating a new genre of literature in the call-and-response mode of our ancestors, bringing the reader to the writer, and the writer to the reader. Under their fearless leadership, the writer is gradually metamorphosing from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side of the reader. It is a beautiful new world, thanks to these visionaries.

afamka2Now, dear reader, you must read Letter Home & Biafran Nights. This is not your mother’s poetry; this is not postcolonial poetry as we remember it. Here is a journey – of man and movement, a restlessness even when one is still. The pages hum with energy, longing, alienation, and a certain triumph of spirit. There are warriors everywhere, not victims. All through one’s tribulations, even in the throes of the Sokugo’s suffocating grip, thoughts of home are never too far away.

Akeh walks around, as if in a trance, reminding us of the miracle, the pain, the wonder that is Babylon. But then is this not home also? Hear Akeh in the long poem, Letter Home:

Let it be told how the gecko
seeking warmth
behind shut doors
clambered
to its new perch,
dreaming of home
in another life.
That familiar dream
a constant lure,
many roads after
still distant
as at the beginning. (Letter Home, p 4)

Ah. When I am stressed, good poetry will comfort me. Akeh is great poetry. That is as it should be. In the 21st century, more than ever, the reader is not an expert on poetry, does not want to be, the reader simply wants to enjoy a good word or two. Letter Home & Biafran Nights does the job and more. You read Akeh’s profound words, and you own them, but still, it is not about you. It is about the movement called this life. And somehow Akeh manages to remind you of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, of Uchendu, Okonkwo’s maternal uncle comforting Okonkwo in the chilly winter of his exile (in this memorable passage).

In Akeh’s musings, the reticence of the traveller shows, haunts, hunts, hurts, and bleeds fiercely through the dirty curtains of memory – and the living. And the rhythm of the words, gently comforting, reminds the reader of the gentle rocking of a lorry enduring worn, broken roads with that sign that sighs and mutters, If Men Were God:

One thinks mostly
Of smells and touch,
Spring on treetops,
Radio voices from
A childhood of dream-
their broadcasts
through an uncivil war
assurance that peace
was English, life
English as they rhymes
One clung to beyond
The carnage, hugging
the promise
of an English day. (Letter Home, p 2)

 And the majesty of Akeh’s words and vision makes you gasp sometimes as your heart soars with the force of the pulsating mind of this owner of words:

The heart as a bird
In flight, wings spread
To every wind
Every flight in its search
finds a perch
some place of rest
or lasting jelp,
sometimes caravan,
sometimes nest, sometimes
a grave in the open earth.
Somewhere in time,
Someone digging in
or moving on,
between a reset
and delete button. (Letter Home, p 6)

The long poem, Letter Home, comprising four movements is the immigrant’s story. Any immigrant, especially of color, could title it ME and it would fit snuggly.

If some left familiar shores
And pulled down totems
To raise a new world
He thinks he can.
And they turned hostile lands.
Taming horses and cacti,
going as if their earth
never shifted, that frontiers faith
in all or  nothing. (Letter Home, p 11)

Akeh does portraits of friends, of cities, of continents roiling in the sweat of immigration and alienation. Exile wears a new face every day. Here is a portrait, and a portrait, and a portrait.  Movement. Africa is restless. The warriors of Africa are in Europe, turning tricks for Africa’s survival. Antwerp is on Akeh’s mind, the sisters on cold city streets turning tricks for hard men, whose dreams have gone flaccid. The puns are sly, oh so sly. And everything comes together in a brilliant collusion of pretty and vibrant colors dripping with sweet innuendoes and plump puns:

Antwerp of storied lives.
Rubens, son of the soil, had
a rogue eye on his muses,
painted them wanton, like
Venus and the Graces.
Helene, his delight, posed
Like a window woman.
The female nude
In Baroque contours
Andromeda, maid Susanna,
Leda and the Swan, art
making love not war,
Caravaggio’s rage
defused by desire. (Letter Home, p 17)

In the travels of Wole Soyinka and other writers unknown, Akeh plumbs the depths and anxieties of sojourn. Read Letter to Soyinka and marvel at Akeh’s profound mind.  Defiant, he politely but firmly speaks truth to Soyinka’s angst about a certain generation flung and scattered all over the globe as if lost. In Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known (2002), Soyinka muses ruefully:

The children of this land are old
Their eyes are fixed on maps in place of land
Their feet must learn to follow
Distant contours traced by alien minds
Their present sense had faded into past.

Akeh’s response is luscious, defiant and delightfully impish. And wintry rage meets thunder:

I am that brood of brats
you haunt in verse.
Some feet I know
may never walk home.
They are alien
to any land.
Memory is not their friend,
They have lived
many lives
away from childhood.

I am with my fellows
less convinced.
I have shit.
And I dump.

I dump in poems.
I dump on people.
I dream of home
and dump.
The world I walk
Is not your world.
It has neither clarity
nor empathy. (Letter to Soyinka, p 30)

Now, this is poetry: In general, each movement of Akeh’s poetry starts as a quiet spiritual chant, grows into a grumble and a rumble, and in the last gasp, it roars and fills the mind’s stadium with wonder – and longing.  In the poem, At the Common Room, you lay on pretty lines like this: Someone asleep/ with open eyes lets his bowels speak. And the sighs tumble out of your soul.

In Biafran Nights. Rage, controlled rage is a powerful undertow in this little volume of words that speak truth to hell:

There are nights that speak with clenched teeth.
A sense of depth comes with their dark,

 Awareness of things not present, and
to remember is to relive what is not redeemed… (Biafran Nights, p 67)

The book’s end signals the beginning of the loss of a certain innocence. Biafra. 1970. The poem. 1970. Ripe, bursting with hope and joy.

And you the child saw that change had come,
the adults like children bouncy with wellness,
hugging and shouting ‘Happy survival!
Happy survival!’ Folk, singing all the time.
What else could it be but that bread was back.
Life could eat without guilt, school as before
the convoys passed and everything changed,
Boom! Bang! Hunters saying it with guns,
saying yes to hope, nothing fired
in anger, no one bleeding. (1970, p 77)

 Finally, in Finale, Achebe’s Uchendu, strong voice, returns to console the weary traveler:

If in your way, you wake up in your puke, or feel
Raw and far from home, put your ears to the wind
And listen. You will hear colours and movement,
Birth and death colliding, waves of white noise.
Hearts beating, hearts breaking. (Finale, p 79)

I love Letter Home & Biafran Nights, even with all its imperfections. And there are several. First of all, it is unconscionable that the book is not available as an e-copy, how difficult can that be in the 21st century? African publishers have to understand that in the absence of physical distribution channels, their best bet is the Internet. Akeh struggles with his own spirituality, the church is on his mind and one suspects that sometimes his poetry is inspired – and compromised by his near-unquestioning allegiance to his Christian faith,  for example, Messiah, is quite simply proselytizing – and disappointing. (p 46) Akeh tries gamely to wrestle his faith from his work as a writer, he is not successful. In No More Elliot, She Said, great lines remind the reader of Okigbo’s deeply spiritual lines but then they wrestle with Afam’s own struggle with his Christian faith, awesome lines looking askance at sermons begging to be preached. (p 48) I don’t believe the poet should proselytize. Akeh’s demon’s sing lustily with his long poems; some of the short pieces (Portrait, Slug, etc.) read like warm-up acts for the long pieces, they feel to me like works in earnest progress, not quite ready for prime time. Billy Boy is quite literally for the dogs, and not in a good way (p 50). Silly Poem, is just that, silly (p 58). And I would have loved a publication that looked a lot better than it was merely stapled together. SPM Publications stapled Akeh’s pieces together and did a great job with the editing. However, this reader expected more, perhaps a collaboration with an artist to sketch in pencil, Akeh’s thoughts, and bring the words to life even more, if that is possible. The good news is that the power of Akeh’s words easily trumped these failings.

It is quaint. No one writes letters home anymore. Oddly intriguing, the choice of title. But that would be Akeh for you. Intensely private, the reader strains to read pieces of Akeh’s life in the pages. The evidence is scrawny, but you read Role Play (p 37) and you wonder about a little boy with a certain intelligence and just wonder, who is this boy? And Akeh’s indulgent e-smile returns. And my favorite poem? Ingrid. Don’t ask me, you must go find that poem. And read it. It is in the book. Buy the book and read Ingrid. Thank me later.

The NLNG Prize for literature: Honoring phantom books, laziness, and mediocrity

The final shortlist for the 2013 NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature is out.  Sincere Congratulations to the lucky three:  Tade Ipadeola (The Sahara Testaments), Amu Nnadi (through the window of a sandcastle), and Promise Ogochukwu (Wild Letters). This year, the prize is for poetry and the purse remains a whopping $100,000 (US dollars, a Nigerian prize offered in US dollars, that is another story in itself).

Last month, eleven poets graced a thoughtful longlist: Afam Akeh, Amatoritsero Ede, G’ebinyo Egbewo, Iquo Eke, Obari Gamba, Tade Ipadeola, Okinba Launko (Femi Osofisan), Amu Nnadi,  Obi Nwakanma, Promise Ogochukwu and Remi Raji. I thought it was a great list with pretty much everyone a strong contender.  

But this is what struck me after the longlist was announced. I have great respect for the longlisted writers. However, of the eleven books, just TWO were available for sale online or anywhere – Afam Akeh’s Letter Home & Biafran Nights and Amatoritsero’s Globetrotter & Hitler’s Children. Shortly after Iquo Eke’s Symphony of Becoming joined the group online, followed by Tade Ipadeola’s The Sahara Testaments. I would like to own each of these eleven books.

Several of my friends are on the ground in Nigeria looking for the books in bookstores. My friends are either lying to me (possible, but highly unlikely) or these books are simply not available for sale. They are definitely available for prize sponsors. I own and have read Akeh’s Letter Home & Biafran Nights, Ede’s Globetrotter & Hitler’s Children and Ipadeola’s The Sahara Testaments. They are beautiful books deserving of the recognition that they have gotten from the NLNG folks. However, I cannot tell how many copies of these books have been sold at home, worldwide or even on Mars; it is not the fault of the NLNG folks, but it is the truth. We need a conversation about the (lack of a) distribution network of books in Nigeria.

Of the three shortlisted books, only Ipadeola’s The Sahara Testaments is available for sale or review anywhere I can think of. My friends are hunting for the other two books. I am sure the books exist, how else would the judges have judged them worthy of consideration for $100,000? As things currently stand, this is not a literary prize; this is a lottery, a jackpot for one lucky writer. Let me just say this: It is quite simply appalling, no, disgraceful, that the NLNG Prize is in danger of being given to a book that no one else but the judges has seen.

It is a mockery of literature and a huge farce that the NLNG will spend $850,000 annually to honor what amounts to laziness on the part of book publishers and writers. In the 21st century, it is not hard to sell a book on the Internet. There is absolutely no excuse for this farce. It is not too much to ask that between now and October 9th, 2013 when the winner will be announced, that Nnadi’s through the window of a sandcastle, and Ogochukwu’s Wild Letters be made available to the general public online and elsewhere. It would be nice if the publishers would go online to announce where these books may be bought by regular readers like me. We would like to buy the books; we would like to see with our own eyes, what the judges saw in the books. This is what obtains elsewhere with real prizes. When the shortlist is announced, there is usually a run on the books. And trust me, no prize sponsor worth its name would dare put on a shortlist a book that only the writer, his/her publisher and friends have seen or read. They definitely would not be getting $100,000. Nonsense. 

It bears repeating: It is hard to justify giving $100,000 to an author for a book that only 20 or fewer people have read. Again, the NLNG prize costs $850,000 to administer yearly. We really need to have a conversation about how best to use that money to honor our writers – and to support our literature. The publishing industry could use some of that money. What is wrong with us?

The press release announcing the shortlist says this of previous prize winners:

“The Nigeria Prize for Literature has since 2004 rewarded eminent writers such as Gabriel Okara for his volume of poetry The Dreamer, His Vision (co-winner 2004 – poetry); Professor Ezenwa Ohaeto, for his volume of poetry Chants of a Minstrel (co-winner 2004 poetry); Ahmed Yerima (2005 – drama) for his book Hard Ground;  Mabel Segun (co-winner 2007 – children’s literature) for her collection of short plays Reader’s Theatre; Prof. Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo (co-winner 2007 – children’s literature) with her book, My Cousin Sammy; Kaine Agary (2008 – prose) for her novel Yellow Yellow; Esiaba Irobi (2010 – drama) who clinched the prize posthumously with his book Cemetery Road; Adeleke Adeyemi (2011 – children’s literature) with his book The Missing Clock and Chika Unigwe (2012 – prose), with her novel, On Black Sisters’ Street.”

And dear reader, just in case you think, I am picking on this year’s prize, try this game; please go to any bookstore online and try to find any of these books that won previously. If you are in Nigeria, go to as many bookstores as your energy can muster and look for the books. Come back and tell me how many you found. I know the answer but I am trying hard to make a point, that we have to find a way to use the NLNG funds wisely. The NLNG folks are wasting money that could be better utilized to help our ailing publishing industry for instance. Do not get me wrong, I have said this ad nauseam, many of these writers deserve to be honored and rewarded for a lifetime of work in the service of our literature, but that is not what the NLNG Prize is currently doing. It is honoring books that are remarkable mostly by their absence from the market. That is absurd. There has to be a structural way to ensure that our  writers are not hurriedly stapling things together just to meet the deadline of a jackpot er literary prize.

And I have another suggestion for the NLNG folks. I know Nigeria honors patriarchy and gerontocracy but the NLNG prize does not have to replicate such foolishness. There is nothing wrong with having one or two elderly professors on the judge’s panel but for heavens’ sake please include some young people who actually read contemporary literature, I am saying include someone really young and knowledgeable, who does not actually use bifocals to read stuff. I doubt that there is anyone on that judges’ list that knows what a blog is. Don’t get me wrong, I have grown fond of the NLNG Prize but I think that there has to be a concerted effort by readers, writers, and publishers to ensure that the money allocated to this laudable activity yearly is well spent. Right now, I believe it is shaping up to be an annual farce.

What do I really think of the shortlist? Well, Ipadeola’s book sings. The Sahara Testaments is quite simply drop-dead gorgeous poetry. I am sure that Nnadi’s and Ogochukwu’s are similarly drop-dead gorgeous, offering awesome writing and deeply profound vision. It is just that we have not seen them.*cycles away slowly*

Our America

America. The leaves are falling in America. And we celebrated the changing of the seasons with a barbecue. The kids love things that come off the grill. We had hamburgers, chicken, hot dogs and steak. I cooked the steak the way my American foster parents taught me; introduce the meat to the fire enough to race the blood juices in the steaks to medium rare glory. And like their American forefathers and foremothers, I fed my children bloody strips of meat hot off the grill. They loved it, the little carnivores. Oh yes, and the corn and the plantain. They loved the corn but they were indifferent to the plantains – big bananas, they called them.

Change is hard. In America. We live in a land where people with strong opinions stuck deep in the rigid ways of the land devise engineering experiments that dream of mixing the rich, vibrant colors of our humanity into a cloying palette of meaninglessness. The result deceives and lulls the senses away from where the real communities are. Subversively, people are forming neighborhoods a la carte. Here in America, I don’t know my physical neighbors and I don’t care. If I need a cup of salt I will order it online. Long live the Internet! The spirit lives on my monitor screen.

There is a yard sale down the road, past the blonde kid manning the lemonade stand. They sell used languages and broken cultures, and my people come in broken trucks to buy tee shirts and dying books that will go to die in Africa. Buy one, get a free hot dog. And some lemonade. I bought shadows of our former language and the owner of the hot dog stand gave me a hot dog, some ketchup and some mustard, and I said, Hola! America wishes to sell Africa’s carcass to my grandchildren. Welcome to the new world. Say hello to Babylon, the ultimate blender, mixing little bits of truth with gallons of lies, mixing skin colors to produce virtual vitiligo, mixing sexes and sexuality to produce nothing.

America, take our children, these rejects from the indifferent gods of the land of my ancestors. They stumble through the land of their birth, these brand new warriors, pants at their knees, knees rubbed raw from worshipping the gods of the dollar. They speak in the funny accents of the masquerades that raided my father’s yam barns in his sleep, and they mock me, scandalize me behind misty veils of nuances and insincere platitudes. And we ask you, father, we ask you mother: “What have you done? See what you made us do?” Did you not say: “Go to America, they will like you over there,”? America has snatched our offspring from us, and like a hungry hyena, made away with our jewels dangling merrily in her jaws of steel.

Here in America, we see our children; they don’t see us. What the eyes see confuses and aggravates our anxieties. Looking away in sorrow, I shudder at the past, hug my son and hold him close. I remember my chores at his age – splitting firewood, getting water from streams, going to the market, baby-sitting fellow babies, and maneuvering my way around adults sporting dark, dark issues. Oh, Nigeria. It was not always suffering. There was some smiling, through the tears. Oh, Nigeria. You should see my little son, he is every inch the spitting incarnation of our ancestors; every cell of his, every muscle, every attitude, that face. Oh, that face; may our enemies never catch up with him at that junction that houses ethnic cleansers; he would not stand a chance of survival.

But hear my son speak; watch him eat; he is an American, no ifs, no buts about it. Goddamn it, he is an American. What have we done? My friend, she lives in Nigeria, her daughter goes to school here in the United States. The other day, as she listened to her daughter speak in her new “perfect American accent”, she broke out in grateful song to her Lord Jesus Christ, she clapped, hooted and hollered with joy; her daughter’s vocal cords have been liberated from the tyranny of that “Igbo-made” accent that followed her like an unwanted guest from Nigeria. She will throw a big owambe party to celebrate the blessed event – the graduation from the shame of our being. I shall invite you to the party.

We are living witnesses, perhaps, to our own irrelevance because we are not managing change well. It is our turn, perhaps, to be hunted, captured, skinned alive, kept alive long enough to supervise the annihilation of what stands, what once stood, for us. For, even as the world browns, we have ensured that this is still not our world.  First, we will let them bake us into willing caricatures, and then they will kill us off. Have a glass of lemonade. And a hot dog. Do you want fries to go with your hot dog? Here, have some mustard; it gives your hot dog some taste. Welcome to our America.

The library lives still

For my friend, Uzo Onyemaechi, the Millenium librarian. Biri kwe!

The writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a lovely piece in Guernica magazine, Why Are You here?. It is a sobering commentary on what passes for education in Nigeria.  Hear Adichie:

“It is not surprising that parents do not want their children to attend university in Nigeria. Many students themselves would leave if they had the opportunity. About ten years ago, I left after almost three years at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, not so much because of the conditions, which were not good, but because I no longer wanted to study medicine. Now, the student complaints are sadly the same—the classes are overcrowded, no books in the library, no computers, no chemicals in the lab, lecturers force students to buy handouts which are just recycled outdated textbooks, incessant lecturer strikes elongate programs, exam schedules are often haphazard. Private universities are increasing in the country, many of them affiliated to churches, many of them expensive.”

Adichie’s piece is fascinating reading. Lately, I have been reflecting on what used to be the hub of learning in every institution – the library. Once upon a time we had to go to the library, the house of books for knowledge and entertainment. Now, ideas and entertainment come to us wherever we are. Our leaders persist in building houses of books still and they are despondent that increasingly few people come to visit the temple of books. The world is changing. Traditional libraries are dying everywhere for different reasons. In Nigeria, academics and rulers entrusted with the sacred rite of educating beautiful children have made off with the funds meant for education and deposited them and their children abroad for personal safekeeping. There is a hot place in hell for them. It is the eternal shame of my people that the only libraries that ever functioned for the children of my generation were libraries founded by white folks. When they left, the libraries were mulched by thieving termites and locusts.

This is a huge shame. I would not be here today without the library of my childhood. I salute the Catholic priests for the gift of reading. They did many wrong things to us but they certainly gave us an eternal library of ideas that many of us carry with us everywhere we go today. As a little boy growing up in Nigeria, I travelled the world in books. The walls of my school’s library fairly throbbed with the power of words. I loved the library and it was one place where you could find me, basking in the smell of books. I remember the few distractions that kept me from the library of my childhood. There were girls. Then there was the coming of television to the same village. The library suddenly started getting stiff competition.

Advances in media technology are forcing libraries to go to people rather than for people to go to them. Distributive, push, rather than pull. I would argue that the custodians of libraries all over the world did not see the internet revolution coming. When they did, they remained complacent, convinced that it would be a passing fad.  Attempts at reform have been half hearted; it is not enough today to simply install a bunch of desktop computers in a library and christen it a “media centre.” When librarians bother to examine how today’s children live their lives they would understand why funeral dirges keep humming in the ears of their dying libraries.

The other day, my daughter and I went to a newly built library in our community. It is a beautiful library, well thought out, spacious, with meeting rooms and couches for reading. It is welcoming, warm and nurturing, with art adorning its walls. As we walked the halls, I asked her what she thought of the library, she shrugged: “Seems like a waste of space. All of this would fit in my laptop.” When I recovered from the shock of her words, I wondered if anyone had ever thought of including a student in the design team. I thought of my daughter doing her homework on her computer, along with her colleagues on Skype.  I thought of the way she puts together her papers and it occurred to me as I came up with the decision tree, increasingly, the traditional library is no longer part of the equation. The library is going the way of the post office.

Many institutions now have media centers, staffed by media specialists, a happy medium of analog books and digital media that tries to make the point that both can co-exist peacefully. The march to the current dispensation is stalled only by the denial of the powerful. These are incredibly stressful times. They are also exciting times to be alive. Let us dream of the possibilities. What will schools look like in the future? Leadership involves charting society’s changes and forging an appropriate communal vision. Ideas live. Books are dying. What will a library look like in 20, 30, 100 years? Who is today’s librarian? The library lives in all of us.

Remembering Ekwensi’s spirit: Ode to the Sokugo

For Cyprian Odiatu Duaka  Ekwensi (1921-2007)

Deep in America’s grinding labor mines, my memories hear my childhood chiming the Angelus. I pause to luxuriate in the coming pleasure of tugging at the camphor smell of mama’s wrapper. The bugler stands, starched khaki clean, on the hill of many wars, horns hollering Taps for a warrior struck one last time by the sokugo. Our dispatch-rider, high on joy, and apeteshie, stands tall on giant Fanta bottles of ogogoro balanced on his Triumph motorcycle. Uniformed myrmidon of the coming darkness, dispatch rider of generations of Africa’s worst despots takes a break from ushering yet another coming of yet another dictator and performing somersaults on the motorcycle of many memories, and confirms the final journey of the warrior, Cyprian Ekwensi. Here in America, we shiver at attention in our blue suits – alien regalia offspring of our ancestors apologizing in alien regalia.

cyprian_ekwensi

I write this for Cyprian Ekwensi,  loyal teacher, who moved on to the pantheon of our ancestors several moons ago. We celebrate the life of a great soul, Cyprian Ekwensi, rising one last time in joyful defiance of the call of the sokugo. The sokugo? Ah, if you have never read Burning Grass, find a copy and read of Mai Sunsaye’s restless journey under the arresting spell of that mesmerizing wandering disease, the sokugo. We also salute the living, great warriors of a raging battle for the heart and soul of Africa. I salute Chukwuemeka Ike, T.M. Aluko, and John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, seer-poets with a deep abiding love for and pride in Africa. It was probably a function of their time – you just knew you were not going to be rich from writing but in the name of our ancestors you were going to enjoy doing it. These visionaries wrote for a precocious generation (mine) that went through books with the same intensity with which today’s children flip through the pages of the Internet. The pressures on these writers of Africa were enormous; readers were impatient for entertainment and education and they just could not get enough of their stories. And they delivered story after story, as they painstakingly transferred them long-hand from foolscap papers onto the typewriter. In their time, the god of mischief was still cooking up the wonder that is now called the Internet. And as children, we sat at the foot of these teachers and listened with rapt attention, in awe, to the stories of these gentle warriors

Burning grassThe Sokugo is a metaphor for the movement of change. The first step is for the writer to accept some ownership for the circumstances Africa finds itself. Show some respect for Africa, actually model respect for Africa and everything African. Immersing ourselves in a contrived culture of despair may earn us fame and fortune but the damage to Africa is permanent and incalculable. The Stepin Fetchit character occupies a prominent place in contemporary African American folklore. It is all about investing in self respect and dignity. It will pay off in the long run; it certainly won’t hurt. The world we live in is a different world from that inhabited by the youths of Achebe, Ekwensi and Soyinka. It is a world at once large and small.- there is an impish deity up there re-arranging relationships. Our ancestors did not go to the moon because they did not need to. There was no clutter in their lives because they knew the benefits of clarity in everything physical and spiritual. Their meals were simple and in the seeming simplicity of their lives, life triumphed in joy and song over the tribulations of the day. And then the walls came tumbling down, brought down by white masquerades. And things fell apart, crushed under foot and the totems of our gods spat on the virility of their old masters. And wise men became idiots and our poets and poetesses were proclaimed illiterates because they shunned alien hieroglyphics.

We mourn the loss of order. We are still here, children of the teacher, sitting at the foot of these griots and listening with rapt attention for the return of the stories of these gentle but solid warriors. Teacher, thanks for everything. And now I must sit down.

Jagua Nana

Lost in America: Self-portrait

Who am I? I am glad you asked. I am an area boy. That is the sum of my essence. I have been loitering around this earth doing what, I don’t know. I expect that when I get to the pearly gates, Orunmila would ask me: So… what did you go do over there? And I would reply: I have no idea! Shebi you were the one that sent me over there!

So I have told you that I don’t know what I am doing here. I have found myself floating lazily on bits and pieces of the flotsam and jetsam of life, sometimes enjoying myself, sometimes, just being miserable, call it a bi-polar existence. I have three sets of admirers: Those who love me when I am rolling with the joy of the ride, those who love me when I am rolling with the rage of my condition, and those who love me anyway. I don’t like formal education; I am happily anti-intellectual. My most miserable times have been spent being miserable under classroom arrest, quaking in my boots before someone with enough gumption to call me a student. The forced structure of a classroom experience, the suffocating dictatorship of the classroom’s hierarchy, the sage on the stage silliness instead of that guide by the side paradigm, man, that stuff eats me up. But I lived through it all, I survived (I think) the tyranny of Catholic Boarding School (five hellacious years) and the phoniness of a university education.

IKHIDEIMPSo I have all these certificates but so what? Na book man go chop? I can honestly say that they have been worthless to my sense of self-worth – they read like an after-thought, an irritating footnote to everything that I hold dear. I still read a lot but I don’t read a lot <grin>. I mean, if you read something and you don’t remember that you read it have you been reading? I think that the book as a medium of communication is dead. I exaggerate slightly. The book is on life support. Who read reads books anymore? Why bother? A monkey with a credit card can bag a PhD off the Internet in two weeks flat. Money talks. Just click on the one you want, it goes in your electronic shopping cart and voila, in two weeks when the post office delivers your certificate, you are now Obo the monkey, PhD!

Books just confuse the hell out of me. Take Ben Okri’s books for instance. I am yet to finish any one of his books. My ego will not let me denounce them as unreadable. I wish I had Chinweizu’s courage, he famously said that  Wole Soyinka winning the Nobel prize would be a nice instance of “the undesirable honoring the unreadable.” Soyinka went on to win the Nobel prize in 1986.  Don’t get me wrong, I think that Ben Okri is a genius. In his books, poetry shows up in many places. Okri is a survivor of a war. Westerners roaming Okri’s world would definitely find a magical world, albeit one that is a grimly overrated reality for many children of Africa- mute witnesses to a looming tragedy.  Okri is one brainy warrior determined to tell a story to the world. But I don’t get Okri. I started out with The Famished Road. Dropped it. Picked up In Arcadia and left it somewhere in the bathroom, awed by its incoherence. Picked up The Famished Road again. And I have just stopped reading it again. The Famished Road is a ship-wreck of a novel – shimmering like glassy pieces of brainy material glued together by Okri’s nightmares. The Famished Road immerses you in the despair that you already know of – a story that goes nowhere, fascinating in its mindlessness, but Westerners in America’s suburbs would find it riveting in its grounding with an imagined reality. They will see a society forced into mindless drudgery, its citizens worshipping the deities churning their dreams into nightmares. There will be a need for heavy lifting to shift from this paradigm of irredeemable despair. Hope assures us of the triumph of the will of the beautiful children of Africa willing themselves to survive the vat of hellish carcinogens that is the world they have been thrust in. You will not find that hope in Okri’s world. Despair sells like hot crumpets. I will probably be back because my friend (who is soooo smart) loves Okri. She is always saying, Ikhide you must read Okri, you must read Okri, he is a diviner! I will read Okri again because my friend says to read Okri. But I don’t get Okri.

I haven’t read a real book lately. I read a lot of junk on the Internet. Every now and then one comes across some good stuff but I wonder if the author knows… I recently read this really nice piece by the writer Tolu Ogunlesi – Burn a Bookshop Today and here is an actual quote from this genius: “After the man who invented education, the guy who invented books and publishing deserves the title of Public Enemy No.1.” And I say, Amen! And one last thing, this visionary (Tolu Ogunlesi, that is, not me!) suggests: “If you can’t burn a bookshop, there’s something else you can do: Kidnap a writer, especially a published one! That will discourage the unpublished ones.” A double Amen! to that! I shall be back. A ga na hun O!

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