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[Guest BlogPost -Wandia Njoya] When we remember, we believe

Address at Rwanda Genocide Commemoration “Kwibuka 20”

Mount Kenya University, Thika

on 14th March 2014

by

Wandia Njoya,

njoyaWandia Njoya teaches Literature and French at Daystar University in Kenya, where she also serves as the Head of Department of Language and Performing Arts. Wandia received her PhD in French from the Pennsylvania State University, and has taught in Kenya, US and France. She has published articles and has presented conference papers in Rwanda, Kenya and the United States on the African literature, culture and politics. She tweets @wmnjoya.

Your Excellency, Yamina Karitanyi, the Rwandan High Commissioner to Kenya,

Hon. Ezekiel Mutua, Ministry of Information

Your Excellencies, High Commissioners, Ambassadors and Representatives of Countries represented here,

Students and teachers, and our generous host, Prof Stanley Waudo, Vice-Chancellor of Mount Kenya University

Fellow East Africans,

I am always humbled to talk about the horror that visited our Rwandan brothers and sisters in April 1994, when families were tortured and wiped out because of the ethnic tag “Tutsi.” No matter how much I read and listen to the testimony of victims of the genocide against the Tutsi, I can never imagine even half the horror they must have felt to see their fellow Rwandans, emptied of their humanity, turn against their neighbors, friends and relatives and deny the humanity of others.

We must honor the memory of the victims. We must pray for the survivors who lived through the horror, and pledge to support them and Rwandans in their recovery, in whatever small way we can. And what is our support?

We in the universities may have no millions stashed away to open a school for people who need education. We may have no medical training to heal those still traumatized. All we have is our intellectual training. Frantz Fanon, the writer of the classic The Wretched of the Earth, when speaking of the anti-colonial wars in Africa in the 1950s, said that while the contribution of politicians is on the military battlefield, the contribution of intellectuals to the war for freedom is on the battleground of history. So my remarks here today are my small contribution to the journey of Rwandans as they “Remember, unite and renew.”

But while this commemoration is about Rwandans, I must address the reality that right here and now, I am speaking mostly to Kenyans. And standing here, I am requesting Kenyans, boundaries away from Rwanda, though in the same East African community, to remember what happened in Rwanda, to unite with Rwandans, and to walk with Rwandans as they renew their commitment to humanity, to living together in peace and dignity, and to prosperity.

But why must Kenyans remember the genocide against the Tutsi?

For me, the answer has always been this simple: what happened in Rwanda, and what was continues to happen to Rwanda, happens because Rwandans are Africans. Rwandans’ fate and tragedy – but also triumph and recovery – are an integral part of the African story. Even though the Rwandan people are unique, with their own culture, history and identity, the political circumstances that incubated the genocide against Tutsis were to be found in many places in the continent. Including here in Kenya.

Like many Africans, Rwandans suffered the brutality of colonial rule, first at the hands of the Germans, then at the hands of the Belgians under King Leopold whose ghost continues to haunt Congo. Rwandan men were forced to migrate to countries like Tanzania and Uganda to sell their labor in order to earn money pay hut taxes. Under Belgian rule, Rwandans had to take part in forced labor, often under the humiliation of being whipped like slaves. In a country where land use was already stretched, the Catholic church and colonial government voraciously appropriated land for colonial institutions.

And when it came to culture and education, the Belgian government did the unforgiveable: it destroyed the ties within the Rwandan community as its tactic of divide and rule. It then baptized three socio- economic classes, races or ethnic groups, and started to teach Rwandans that they were three different tribes, even though they were one people who spoke one language, believed in one God Imana, and were from the same families and clans.

Besides condemning Rwandan culture as barbarian and unchristian, colonialism incorporated the Tutsi elite in implementing the humiliating forced labor and appropriation of land. Worse, given that the Belgians considered labor Rwanda’s only resource, Belgians made little effort in educating the people, and the few education opportunities available were used to favor a few and discriminate against the majority. The very few schools that were ever built were built by mainly by a very conservative Catholic order whose goal was to convert; not to broaden the minds of the African students. Meanwhile, the government’s only interest was in training collaborators from among the Tutsi elite. And then when the wind of change blew across Africa in the late 1950s, the Belgians switched sides, sponsored an ill-thought “revolution” in 1959 that saw the first purge of Tutsis. At independence, Belgium left Rwanda with an ill-educated population, a crowded country with barely any land to live on, with a paranoid and ignorant Hutu regime, poor infrastructure, surrounded by refugees humiliated in Uganda and Congo, basically fermenting in the hatred and poverty that would explode in waves of genocidal violence in 1973, 1990, and eventually 1994.

Rwanda was suffering because she was colonized, and she was colonized because she was African. But when each cycle of violence broke out, the world forgot the colonial part of the equation and only remembered that Rwanda was in Africa. So as Rwandan women were brutally raped and spears inserted through one end of their body to the other, while men were castrated and left to die a slow death on trees, while dogs fed on the insides of people cut open but who were still breathing, while the rivers were full of rotting bodies, while Ugandans near the shared water bodies with Rwanda found human body parts in the fish they caught, the international community just looked on and said “that’s Africa.” French president François Mitterand even remarked that “in places like that, genocide is not a big deal.”

kwibukaflameuseBut finally, Rwanda emerged from the ashes of genocide and began to reconstruct itself. And all of a sudden, the very community that looked away as one million people were killed, now wanted to dictate how Rwanda was going to be rebuilt. The Western powers now wanted to offer a blanket amnesty with no trials of the criminals, wanted NGOs to dictate Rwanda’s development agenda, and assigned themselves the role of approving Rwandans’ political choices. But Rwandans have proved resilient and determined to push back, on their own terms, the deliberate underdevelopment of colonial times, and this they have done through universal literacy, health care, a new constitution and a progressive political culture.

But Rwanda has gotten this far because she committed herself to remember. By remembering where she came from, the injustice that created the horror of the genocide, Rwandans are able to unite and forge ahead, believing that even though humanity has repeatedly failed to honor the promise “Never again,” a world without genocide is still possible.

And we too, as Kenyans, and as human beings, can share that belief, because we too remember. We remember how the Africans were transported into slavery from Fort Jesus, we remember the squatters at the Coast, the kipande system, the hut tax, the colonial jails and the villages during the emergency, and the IDPs of 1992 and 2007. We remember Mekatili wa Menza, Elijah Masinde, Koitalel arap Samoei, Mary Nyanjiru, Syokimau, the Mau Mau movement from Tanzania all the way to Maralal and even with supporters in the United States. When we believed that Wanjiku could get a new constitution, it is because we remembered our brave warriors who fought before us in the 19th century and beyond. We remembered and we believed in a better Kenya. And if there’s anything amazing about our country, it is in the midst of the corruption, inefficiency and selfish leadership, we Kenyans strongly believe that a better Kenya is possible. We believe, because we remember.

And that’s what the song by Sweet Honey in the Rock, that inspires my speech, is about. The song is about the memory of Africans taken to the Americas by the horror of slavery. We all know that in the sweltering heat of the plantations, slaves knew that the story of Exodus, of going through the wilderness to the promised land, to freedom, was about them. For almost two hundred and fifty years of slavery, Africans in the Americas believed freedom was coming, because they remembered who they were and where they’d been. And so we understand the words of Beatrice Johnson Reagon

I don’t know how my mother walked her trouble down

I don’t know how my father stood his ground

I don’t know how my people survived slavery

I do remember, that’s why I believe.

Like the song says, we may not understand everything that has happened to us. We may not fully grasp what happened in Rwanda in those dark 100 days of 1994. We can only imagine the pain of Rwandans who lost their families, and the shame of Rwandans who were manipulated to wipe them out. But Rwanda makes us believe that recovery, unity and prosperity are possible for Rwandans, for Africa, and for the world, because it has committed itself to remember through the events such as these, of #Kwibuka20. And when we remember, we believe.

Thank you.

[Guest BlogPost - Professor Pius Adesanmi] Caribbean Self, African Selfie

By Professor Pius Adesanmi

Winner, the Penguin Prize for African Writing

Author of  You’re Not a Country, Africa!

Carnegie Diaspora Visiting Professor, University of Ghana, Legon

(Keynote lecture delivered at the inauguration of the Connections Week of the Caribbean and African Association of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, March 10, 2014)

I bring you warm greetings from Accra, Ghana, where I am currently based. I understand that winter has been particularly brutal this year. You could use some of the warmth I brought from Africa in my hand luggage. I am told by the organizers of this event – to whom I owe immense debts of gratitude for inviting me to deliver this keynote lecture – that “loud and proud” is the theme of your Caribbean-Africa Connections week this year. In other words, the Caribbean and African Association of the University of British Columbia has decided to scream the cultures of Africa and the Caribbean from the rooftops this week. You want to proudly highlight what connects Africa and the Caribbean in the arena of culture – and in defiance of the Atlantic Ocean. You want to inscribe your so-called otherness loudly and proudly on this beautiful campus of UBC. When I thought about your theme on receiving the invitation for this lecture, it evoked a sense of drama. How do you proclaim Caribbean and African connections “loud and proud” without being dramatic? I have therefore taken the unusual route of plotting this lecture as a one act play in five scenes. At any rate, on my way here from Accra, I did get into some drama in London…

ACT ONE, SCENE ONE

Date: March 6, 2014. Location: Terminal Three, London Heathrow airport. Mission: awaiting an Air Canada connecting flight to Ottawa en route Vancouver for this lecture. I was coming from back to back keynote lectures in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Accra, and Lagos. Although I was jetlagged and tired, I already had a draft of this lecture in the bag. Nevertheless, there was something I wasn’t quite satisfied about. I was trying to look at the Caribbean-African thing beyond the routine of memory. Must the ties that bind always be about memory? I wasn’t sure that what I had in the first draft had satisfactorily answered that question. I had seven hours to kill at Heathrow. I decided to shell out sixty pounds to rent a room and shower cubicle for three hours in one of the “capitalist” lounges of the airport. I needed that space and time to continue my reflection on what lies – or what ought to lie – beyond the horizon of memory-making and memory-reliving whenever Africa and the Caribbean actuate a handshake across the Atlantic.

In essence, I did not need anything or anybody to remind me of how memory ties the Caribbean and other parts of the black Diaspora to Africa. I wanted to move conceptually beyond that paradigm. As I moved wearily through the familiar mass of fatigued bodies dragging a cornucopia of hand luggage through the malls of Heathrow, making my way to the F Lounge, I bumped into just the one thing I wanted to avoid: memory. It came in the exact body shape, height, skin tone, facial features, and even dressing style of Professor Ato Quayson. I am sure you all know Professor Quayson? If you don’t know him, you have a very urgent problem that only google can help you resolve.

In the engaging business of theorizing Africa and her diaspora in academe, Professor Quayson has been one of my formidable mentors in the last decade and a half. I had not seen him since the African Literature Association’s meeting in Dallas in 2012. I’d been to his University of Toronto base to deliver lectures on occasion but he’d always been out of town. And there he was before me, like an apparition, in a crowded airport lounge in London. I screamed and grabbed him in a hug that certainly wasn’t a bear hug. Loads of back patting. Deft feet movement and shuffling that you could call some kind of esoteric dance. Strings of jazzed up sentences delivered in a mishmash of English, Pidgin, and West African slang intrusions. These happened in seconds.

In other words, I was performing, right there in the open in London, an unscripted and impromptu reunion ritual which I somehow expected Ato Quayson or any other African brother to connect with and respond to appropriately. “I’m not Ato”, screamed the bemused figure in my arms, struggling to set himself free from my black hug while laughing in bemused acknowledgement of the accompanying semi-dance rituals. Remember, all this was happening within seconds, a succession of quick-paced actions and events. I realized to my utter embarrassment that I had grabbed the wrong man! The guy I grabbed and held in such a warm embrace was not Ato Quayson, just his Siamese look-alike!

I was going to start apologizing profusely when my “victim”, very friendly but obviously relieved to be released from my grip, assured me that no apology was necessary. In fact, he was very intrigued by my enactments of recognition and the effusive ritual of warmth I enacted when I thought he was Ato Quayson. According to him, everything about that instinctive, unplanned, impromptu but ritualized performance was also native to him. He would have done exactly the same thing in my shoes, he reassured me.

“And where are you from?” I asked. “Trinidad”, came his swift response. At this point, ladies and gentlemen, I knew I had to offer the brother a beer. I mean, here was my Nigerian self thinking it was engaging Ato Quayson’s Ghanaian self in ritualized modes of African warmth and connection only for those cultural enactments to be claimed by a Trinidadian also seeing himself, his people, his culture, his story, and his memory in those moves. On my way to an airport lounge to think beyond culture and memory in terms of how best to reconceptualize African and Caribbean modes of engagement, culture and memory beckon, saying, “Ogbeni Pius, we’re not done yet!”

 

 

ACT ONE, SCENE TWO

Maybe I should have known that memory and culture wouldn’t lend themselves to the easy glossing over I was going to do at that airport lounge before I received a Trinidadian jolt of reality. After all, another place, another time, memory and culture had served me notice of their power of persistence in any evocation of the linkages between the Caribbean and Africa. That other place is none other than this lovely city of Vancouver in this beautiful Canadian province of British Columbia. That other time was the 1990s when I pursued my doctoral degree right here in this very University.

padesanmi_large-carleton-uBack in those hectic days of doctoral work, some of us needed the occasional escape from the cast of French poststructuralist thinkers who, in the hands of North American academics, had turned postcolonial and postmodernist theory into an obscurantist terror machine. In a good week, your migraine was limited to struggling to blend the impenetrable prose of Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak, and Homi Bhabha into a deconstructive paradigm for the novels and cultures of Africa and the Caribbean. In a bad week, you had to add Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray and so many other usual and unusual French suspects to that mix.

To reinforce that overdose of high theory, you were required on occasion to rent a few names from the Frankfurt school of theory. You completed this theoretical cocktail, which left African and Caribbean novels struggling for oxygen, with Antonio Gramsci and a necessary throwback at Karl Marx. In preparing one’s theoretical paradigm for African and Caribbean fiction, one often felt like Getafix the druid preparing the magic potion for Asterix and Obelix. We threw so many names into the pot of that theoretical magic potion. Trust me, ladies and gentlemen, when you have spent a week trying to foist Foucault’s power/knowledge combo on Chinua Achebe and Mariama Ba or attempting a Derridean deconstruction of Edwige Danticat and Patrick Chamoiseau via différance-speak, you needed to unwind desperately. Ah, the good old days of graduate school!

For those of us in the African and Caribbean communities, unwinding twice a week happened ritually in one watering hole: the Anza Club, close to Main and Broadway here in Vancouver. That night club was not just the place where we went to booze and do all the wild and unmentionable things that students do in their riotous twenties, just before other realities of life set in, it was also for us some sort of pilgrimage to a location of culture and memory. The Anza was the only night club in Vancouver at the time dedicated to African and Caribbean music. We went there to swing to reggae, calypso, zouk, soukouss, makossa, and soca. We went there to subject our waists to rhythms of high life, afrobeat, juju, and the kora and balafon offerings of the sub-Saharan African sahel.

Whatever we danced to, the cut was in how we all danced and what we all recognized. Recognition of source and of origins. When the Caribbean students danced, we, their African cousins, would marvel in recognition of rhythms, styles, and movements that took us all the way back to our respective villages in Africa. And when we, Africans, danced, our Caribbean folks remembered. They just remembered. Like the Trinidadian reacting to my reunion rituals at Heathrow, Caribbean students of my day at UBC watched us, Africans, dance at the Anza club and remembered their respective homes in the black Atlantic. “Ah, we have this dance in Saint Lucia!”, you would hear somebody exclaim if I was enacting variations on the “elele kure” shoulder dance of the Okun people in Kogi state, Nigeria.

Whether it’s in the passenger mall of an international airport or on the dance floor of a Vancouver night club, the Africa-Caribbean nexus, spelt out in terms of encounters between continental Africans and their cousins in the Black Atlantic, has spawned imaginaries of the self rooted in memory and culture since the historical moment of separation. If you are from the continent, you frame narratives of source-culturehood around these issues. If you belong in the black diaspora, you weave imaginaries of cultural survivorhood around the same issues. What lived, what survived, and how you produced newness from the old become, for you, the loom of identity-making in the present. But, mostly, you remember in order to re-member.

ACT ONE, SCENE THREE

The literature and discourses of both sides are rich in constructions of the self rooted in the politics and memory of remembering. For the Caribbean self, return narratives are crucial to the architecture of remembering and re-membering. The business of remembering and re-membering sometimes involves, among other gestures of reconnection, symbolic voyages to Africa to visit the sites of memory. Those voyages to the Atlantic slave coast of Africa, those emotional narratives about returnee sons and daughters breaking down in tears in Gorée, Elmina, Cape Coast, and Badagry, are all part of a multilayered ritual of reconnection. For the Caribbean self and other black diasporic selves, the return narrative, especially its 20th century enactments, was one way of trying to answer the query in Countee Cullen’s famous poem, “Heritage”. The poem speaks for itself and we need not remind ourselves more than its first stanza here:

What is Africa to me:

Copper sun or scarlet sea,

 Jungle star or jungle track,

Strong bronzed men, or regal black

Women from whose loins I sprang

When the birds of Eden sang?

 One three centuries removed

From the scenes his fathers loved,

 Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,

 What is Africa to me?

 

Not all return narratives romanticize Africa like Countee Cullen and our friends in the Negritude movement did. Some, like Henry Louis Gates, belong in the dirty linen school of return narratives. They return to Africa to see the faces of the descendants of the greedy ancestors who sold them to slavery. Their problem is not with the white slaver but with my ancestors who sold their ancestors. One model of return narratives romanticizes Africa and demands reparations from the descendants of the white slaver, another criminalizes Africa and demands an apology from me for the sins of my ancestors who sold their ancestors. However, both models meet at the crossroads of meaning. They share a desire to make Africa mean. The question thus arises: what exactly feeds the impulse of these return narratives on the part of the black Diaspora and their modes of actuation? Why were return narratives so crucial to the making of the Caribbean self in the 20th century?

ACT ONE, SCENE FOUR

The answers are myriad and complex but I think we should focus here on one possible reason why the 20th century offered us the return narrative as one of the major routes to identity-making by the Caribbean self. Despite disagreements on modes of engaging the continent as source-culture – were we stolen by white slavers or were we sold by our heartless African cousins? – there can be no denying the fact that, before the mourning after independence set in,  the 20th century was the moment of Africa’s heroism and African heroism. It was the century which saw Africa successfully challenge, undermine, and overcome some five hundred years of truth claims by modernity; five hundred years of placing a question mark on the humanity of Africans and black people elsewhere. It was the century of political and cultural nationalism, of decolonization, of the anti-apartheid struggle, of coming into peoplehood, of coming into postcolonial statehood.

Indeed, the 20th century was an extremely auspicious time for black people all over the world to plug into this African spectre of global heroism. Your source-culture was heroic. What is more, the making of this grand narrative of heroism – that is, the challenge to and dismantling of colonialism – was not an isolated enterprise undertaken by continental Africans behind the back of their cousins in the black Diaspora. In fact, the intellectual, cultural, and political bases of these forms of African heroism were mostly born in the Diaspora and devolved from an organic collaboration between Africa’s emergent political, nationalist, and intellectual class and their counterparts from the black Diaspora.

Pan-Africanism and Negritude are two good examples of the collective contributions of continental Africans and the Black Diaspora to the making of Africa’s 20th century anti-imperialist heroism. A great deal of the intellectual energy that later went into African nationalism was honed in London and Paris in collaborations between the nascent African nationalist class and their counterparts from the Caribbean and black America. So formidable and far-reaching were these collaborations and joint efforts that two of the most famous theorizers and chroniclers of Africa’s 20th century heroism were from the black Diaspora. I am thinking here of the Frantz Fanon of The Wretched of the Earth and the Walter Rodney of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.

If the pervading sense of having participated in the heroic self-recovery effort of the mother continent was a contributory factor to the flourishing of the return narrative, the principal mode of African heroism in the 20th century greatly enhanced it. The struggle for cultural and political freedom yielded the persona of the nationalist-statesman as a towering African hero. He was that colourful and charismatic character, that brilliant and powerful orator who became a transcendental African moral and ethical figure (before tragically becoming other unmentionable things in a good number of cases). The magic of this figure made association with Africa as home, memory, and source-culture very appealing to the continent’s sons and daughters in the Diaspora.

Think of the magnetic charisma of Kwame Nkrumah and how many Diasporic Africans made their first pilgrimage to Ghana largely or partly because of him – the Ghanaian trajectory of W.E.B du Bois can hardly be discussed outside of the politics, appeal, and charisma of Kwame Nkrumah. Think of the beehive of black diaspora activism that was the Conakry of Sekou Toure. Stokely Carmichael and Harry Belafonte stoked the fires of black cultural and musical internationalism with Mariam Makeba and Hugh Masekela when they were all in Conakry. Think of Leopold Sedar Senghor, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Patrice Lumumba and so many others in their league whose leadership and praxis of heroism made Africa such an appealing proposition to her children in the Diaspora in the 20th century.

This model of African heroism, I believe, found its culmination in the praxis and brand that was Madiba Nelson Mandela. This global icon made return narratives very compelling and irresistible for the black Diasporic self. Ladies and gentlemen, please don’t tell me that you do not know that Oprah Winfrey’s emergency discovery of her Zulu ancestry back in 2006 had a great deal to do with the Mandela magic and appeal. Ms. Winfrey was not alone. We need not run through the list of African American celebrities who discovered their South African ancestry because of Nelson Mandela.

If you look at things closely, the discovery of African ancestry tended to move to wherever the star of a great, transcendental African nationalist hero and statesman was shining. All roads of ancestry discovery once led to Accra before the fall of Kwame Nkrumah; then the roads made a detour and led to Conakry before Sekou Toure became what he became; then the roads migrated to South Africa because of Madiba. If, tomorrow, Nigeria gets her act together and produces a towering global leader of impeccable ethical stock, I wager that many Diasporans will discover their Yoruba, Igbo, or Hausa-Fulani ancestry.

ACT ONE, SCENE FIVE

The passing of Madiba Nelson Mandela to a glorious African ancestorhood has a special significance for our purposes here today. Mandela’s death effectively signals the end of the era of the modes of personal, transcendental nationalist heroism and statesmanship which his generation had held out to Africa and the black Diasporic world. His exit effectively closes the era of those who gave Africa and the black world such affirmative praxes as “African personality”, “black pride”, cultural nationalism, and political nationalism. These were the people who were so instrumental in providing the justification for the Caribbean self to seek psychic and cultural anchorage in a matricial idea of 20th century African heroism. When Countee Cullen and 20th Century black Diasporans asked, “what is Africa to me?”, Africa’s nationalists and statesmen and women provided answers in their words and actions, especially during the era of the anti-colonial struggle. You saw Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere and you had a pretty good idea of what Africa was to you.

But Mandela’s death also came on the cusp of a very significant moment for Africa and the rest of the world. Mandela made his exit at a time when what has been described as “the selfie generation” was taking over the commanding heights of global culture through the formidable power of social media. Charles Blow of the New York Times has appropriately defined the selfie generation as folks between the ages of eighteen and thirty-three. In other words, the selfie generation comprises young people. I am assuming that the members of the Caribbean and African Association of the University of British Columbia who invited me here to deliver this lecture today are all generation selfie. Ladies and gentlemen, is this true? Ok, Mr. Blow asserts, also correctly, that one defining characteristic of the selfie generation is that you are the first generation that has not had to adapt to the internet, to social media and allied technologies. In essence, you are citizens of the internet by birth. You are the original owners of what I suggest we call ‘appsland.’

If you are tempted to think that Mr. Blow is stretching things a bit by saying that members of the selfie generation are the only authentic natives of the internet who have not had to adapt to anything, just think of what happens to you when you are not a member of that generation and you try to do things like them without first learning the rules of engagement. Let’s say your name is Barack Obama. You go and take a selfie with the beautiful Prime Minister of a European country and you get into a load of trouble.

But taking selfies is not all they do in the selfie generation. Members of the generation are driving global culture and agendas in significant new ways. They are asking questions and raising issues. With them, the revolution is televised live in your living room. You saw them in Tunisia, Egypt, and the rest of the Arab world. You saw them in Turkey and Brazil. You saw them all over the streets of America in the Occupy Movement. You saw them live in Ukraine during the orange revolution and more recently. I live in Ottawa. I see them carrying placards in front of Parliament all the time. I saw them in my own country in Occupy Nigeria. One foolish aide of the Nigerian President who has tragically fallen into the wrong column of history even described them as “the collective children of anger.” All over the world, the selfie generation is the new cool.

I think it is unfortunate that the rise of this generation coincides with the collapse of that particular mode heroism that is tied to the praxis of genuine nationalists and statesmen and women in Africa. What is Africa to me? For the Caribbean self in the 20th century, that question was answered significantly by the quality of leadership that the continent had to offer especially in the context of political nationalism and the struggle for freedom. If the selfie generation in the Caribbean and elsewhere in the black Diaspora asked the same question today – what is Africa to me? – what sort of answer would they get? Just what is Africa offering them?

This is a question that has detained me since I delivered the keynote lecture at the International Leadership Platform Conference of the University of Johannesburg and the Africa Institute of South Africa a few weeks ago. Among the many issues raised by the brilliant and generous discussant of my lecture, Professor Peter Vale of the University of Johannesburg, was the question of leadership and role modelship for the youth of Africa after the demise of the continent’s nationalist and statesmen and women generation symbolized by the passing of Mandela. “Where are the leaders and role models that Africa is offering these young people?”, Professor Vale had queried. We kept citing dead African statesmen and women…

As a teacher in the classrooms of North America, I encounter variations on this question all the time from Nigerian students of the selfie generation. These are undergraduate kids born in Canada or the United States. They’ve never been home. When they pronounce their Yoruba or Igbo or Ijaw or Edo names, those names end up looking like mangled victims of a terrorist attack. They are Nigerian kids of the new Diaspora. And they stop you after class and ask: “Professor, tell me, why should I have a stake in Nigeria? Why should I visit Nigeria? What’s in Nigeria for me?” There are selfie generation kids from the fifty-three other countries in Africa torturing their Professors in Canada and the United States with such questions. There are African American and Caribbean kids of the selfie generation asking these questions. Whether they are Africa kids of the old or new Black Diaspora, the selfie generation is not asking – what is Africa to me? – for that is so old school, so Countee Cullen and his generation. Rather, these kids are now asking: what’s in Africa for me?

In essence, the selfie generation of the old and the new African Diaspora asks questions that cannot be answered easily. The nationalist, the statesman, the orator, the charismatic leader, the philosopher king – all that ended with Nelson Mandela. Today, the leadership landscape in Africa is so abysmal that you dare not tell the selfie generation to look up to the current crop of heads of state and heads of government across Africa as credible role models and heroes. To the Caribbean and black Diaspora self, Africa is currently offering a selfie of abysmal, uninspiring, and disgraceful leadership.

You only need to look at the current leadership of the two major states in Africa – Nigeria and South Africa – to appreciate the full extent of the tragedy. In South Africa, the current President is a certified clown, a huge joke. In Nigeria, aides of the current President consider an extraordinary achievement the rare moments in which he successfully places one incoherent sentence after another incoherent sentence in scripted or unscripted speeches. He is a dour, uninspiring, and corruption-friendly man.

Elsewhere, the news is not any better. Omar Bashir of Sudan and Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya are customers of the International Court of Justice; Faure Gnassingbe of Togo and Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon are scions of Presidents for life who may continue that continental tradition; Yayi Boni of Benin and Alassane Ouattara of Cote-d’Ivoire are offsprings of the financial philosophy of Bretton Woods. And we have not even mentioned the Paul Biyas, the Teodoro Obiangs, and the Blaise Compaores of Africa. There is just no leadership worthy of our attention at the moment in Africa. Among the current crop of African Heads of State, I’m afraid there are no transcendental statesmen and role models worthy of recommendation to the youth of Africa and the black Diaspora as worthy role models. Luckily, there are stateswomen in the ranks but their inspirational stories are the rare exception and not the rule.

In essence, in the absence of the Mandelas, Nkrumahs, Senghors, and Nyereres of this world, the selfie generation in Africa and the black diaspora is the first generation to stand in real danger of having to accept Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian, and even George Zimmerman as heroes as Africa fails to offer them credible heroes and genuine role models in the public sphere. The selfie generation is growing up in a celebrity culture powered by American TV. Yesterday, as I prepared to fly here from Ottawa, George Zimmerman was on CNN signing autographs at a gun show somewhere in America. Occasionally, Africa has the good fortune of being able to ward off the danger posed to the selfie generation of Africa and the Caribbean by the globalized reckless celebrity culture of America. Africa tells those kids: don’t look at George Zimmerman, look at Lupita Nyong’o. But, like the female Presidents, these luminous examples don’t come in nearly enough numbers.

What’s in Africa for me? Perhaps the search for an answer is what has led Africans of the new Diaspora in the selfie generation (born in Europe and North America post-1980s) to Afropolitanism, the new cultural fad on the block. This is not the place for me to go into the debate on Afropolitanism. Google it. Beyond Achille Mbembe’s philosophic-discursive take on Afropolitanism, pay attention to what Taiye Selasie and her followers say it is. Pay attention to why Binyavanga Wainaina says he isn’t an Afropolitan. That is your google assignment.

What is of interest to me here is that Afropolitanism seems to be the last refuge of a new African Diasporan selfie generation in search of ways to log on to a continent that is offering very sparse cultural wifi access in terms of credible role models in the public sphere. But at least they’ve got Afropolitanism, those selfies of the new African Diaspora. What about the kids of the old Diaspora in black America and the Caribbean who cannot describe themselves as Afropolitans and who do not belong in the generation of those going to weep at doors of no return in Cape Coast, Goree, and Badagry? What’s in Africa for them?

Perhaps they and their Afropolitan peers ought to look in the direction of the collective cultural heroism of their peers in Africa. Out of nothing, their peers in Africa invented and developed Nollywood into the world’s second largest movie industry. Nollywood to a great extent has broken the monopoly of Western modes of representing Africa for the black diaspora. And out of Ghana, Africa and the black Diaspora is swaying to the rhythm of Azonto. Transcendental nationalism heroism and statesmanship of the Mandela type may be dead in Africa, Nollywood and Azonto, with all their warts, are powerful selfies of cultural heroism that Africa is offering the world as a window into the regenerative power of what Kwame Nkrumah once famously referred to as “the African genius”. The genius of the selfie generation is also taking over the African street and making very loud statements. I know that the Anza nightclub is still open in Vancouver. I know that it is still the place where Africa goes to meet the Caribbean on the dance floor twice a week. Perhaps, after listening to this lecture, some of you are going to make your way there this weekend to sway your hips to Azonto. I expect to see your selfies on Instagram!

I thank you for your time.

[Guest Blog Post - Professor Pius Adesanmi] Igbo Re, Ona Re: The Nigerian Constitution and the Awo Road not Taken

By Professor Pius Adesanmi

Winner, the Penguin Prize for African Writing

Author of  You’re Not a Country, Africa!

Carnegie Diaspora Visiting Professor, University of Ghana, Legon

(Keynote lecture delivered at the Obafemi Awolowo Birthday Anniversary Symposium Convened by the Obafemi Awolowo Foundation. Lagos, March 4, 2014)

I was not a very happy man during my last appearance on a national lecture podium in this country back in October 2013. Pastor TundeBakare, and my good friend, Dr. Joe Okei-Odumakin, had given me the unenviable task of ruining an unsuccessful man’s birthday celebrationby inviting me to deliver a public lecture marking the occasion. What do you tell such a man? How do you celebrate the birthday of a man still wearing diapers in his fifties without telling him to his face that his life has been a colossal failure and an irredeemable calamity?

At the risk of being labelled a spoiler and a party pooper, I knew I had a job to do. So I came to Lagos to rob the nose of that particular birthday celebrant against the cold iron of reality. I told the celebrant that if you are still bedwetting in your fifties, what you need is a sober reflection party and not a birthday party. The celebrant in question, I’m sure you all know by now, is an elder brother of mine whose name I arrived at through a play of metaphors and personification. He is none other than Boda Nigeria.

Today, Dr. MrsOlatokunbo Awolowo-Dosunmu and the Obafemi Awolowo Foundation have given me the task of commemorating another birthday, albeit posthumously, with a lecture. But this time around, the face being the abode of discourse (oju l’oro wa), you should be able to tell just by looking at my face and the cap that I am wearing, that today’s task is one in which I am infinitely well pleased. My pleasure, obviously, derives from the fact that we are gathered here on account of a celebrant of a decidedly different hue.

We are gathered to celebrate and reflect on the momentous passage of our celebrant and his ideas and ideals through the life of this country at extremely significant moments of its history. In other words, we are gathered here on account of a masquerade who, for everyday it pleased his maker to grant him among us between March 6, 1909 and May 9, 1987, danced exceedingly well. Danced well for himself. Danced well for his wife and children. Danced well for his people. Danced well for his country. Danced well for Africa. Danced well for humanity. And when your masquerade dances well, that Yoruba proverb authorizes you to indulge in self-congratulatory chest beating.

Because the masquerade for whom we are gathered here today danced well, we are not going to sing dirges like we did the last time, we are going to celebrate even as we reflect critically and regretfully on “could have beens” and “had we knowns”.  Last time, we did the body count for the celebrant, we looked at the mountains of corpses, a tragic consequence of wholly avoidable errors of the rendering, and we marked that birthday by singing, “oro nla le da”. Today, when we think of the man whose ideas we are here to engage and celebrate, when we think of his dance, and how he danced so well to help us avoid the path of self-destruction onto which we pigheadedly launched ourselves anyway, we are in order if we flagged off these events leading to the 6th of March 2014 by singing: “Happy birthday Papa Awo, Happy birthday to you”.

Now that we have paid our dues to the celebrant, now that we have cleared the path before us by saluting that great and illustrious ancestor of ours, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, if I continued this lecture beyond this point without other salutations, I risk the fate of the goat which entered the homestead without saluting the assembly of elders; I risk the fate of the ram which entered the homestead and did not acknowledge the elders in council. A tight leash around their necks was the last thing the insolent goat and the rude ram saw before they joined their ancestors in the bellies of the elders. I must therefore crave your indulgence to perform a ritual of salutation with which you are already familiar if you have ever attended any of my public lectures in this country:

To Dr. Tokunbo Awolowo-Dosunmu  - iba!
To the ObafemiAwolowo Foundation. – iba!

To Alhaji Tanko Yakassai, Chairman of this occasion – iba!

To Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, Osun State Goveror, present here with us – iba!

To all the Kabiyesis and Chiefs present in this hall – Iba!

To the esteemed discussants of this lecture – Iba!

To you, the audience, whose ears are here in this hall to drink my words – iba!
I pray you all,
Unbind me!

Unleash me!
Let my mouth sway words in this lecture

Like efufulele, the furious wind which

Sways the forest’s crown of foliage

Wherever its heart desires.

Dr. Dosunmu, members of the high table, distinguished audience, having saluted the homestead and the farmstead, do I now have the authority to proceed with this lecture? We should be thankful to the Obafemi Awolowo Foundation for placing the theme of our assignment today within the philosophical purview of paths, of roads, of journeys through space and time, and ultimately, of choices made or not made in the unavoidable human destiny of movement. But to each culture, to each civilization its particulars of framing the philosophy of roads and paths; of framing the cultural underpinnings of choice – the choice which places your feet as an individual or as a people on this road and not that road. Furthermore, whether you must set forth at dawn or not and how you go about propitiatory interventions to avoidending up in the ravenous jaws of the famished road fall within the province of cultural predilections.

padesanmi_large-carleton-uDifferent cultures, different approaches. Thus it was that in 1916, seven years after Chief Obafemi Awolowo was born, a certain culture that is conventionally associated with individuality – call it the imperialism of the singular subject – gave us one of the most famous poems of all times (as far as I’m concerned) in the English language. Almost a hundred years after its publication in 1916, philosophers, philologists, writers and artists, literary critics, and even, cultural dilettantes are still debating and trying to interpret its meaning and intent, with some even claiming that it is the most misread, most misinterpreted, and most misunderstood poem in the history of English poesy. That great poem, ladies and gentlemen, is entitled, “The Road not Taken”, authored by the famous American poet, Robert Frost. Please forgive me one more indulgence. That poem must be read entirely if only to highlightthe particularity of Chief ObafemiAwolowo’s nation-buidling roads and constitution-making paths within the Nigerian equation. Writes Frost:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

This poem gives us the title of today’s proceedings. It is also the unsung and always unreferenced origin of the use of that phrase – the road not taken – in much of our national discourse. Perhaps, the deciders of the theme of this symposium weren’t even aware of the fact that they were drawing a straight line all the way back to this poem. However, for our purposes today, what I want you to pay attention to is the overwhelming evidence of individuality in this poem. There is only one isolated subject speaking of individual choice, destiny, and consequences in this business of taking or not taking a particular road. Notice that thiswayfaring Western persona in the poem describes himself as “one traveler” and treats us to a generous deployment of “I” in three of the four stanzas of the poem.

If only the speaking subject in Frost’s poem had been an African of Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s ethnic stock! He would have been faced with an entirely different, and I daresay, more auspicious proposition. For one, he would not have been alone, for in this business of forked or bifurcated roads, the Yoruba worldview allows for the presupposition of the presence and guidance of either those who have gone before and have therefore acquired the requisite experience to guide he or those who “follow behind”, to borrow a popular Naija-speak; or the presence of those who, even if still here among us, possess such superior intellect and vision as could be deployed for the collective benefit of a people at the critical moment of choice – the choice of roads and paths.

In essence, to the aloneness, singularity, and individualityof Frost’s confused fictional character who stands at that critical bifurcation, saying, “me, myself, and I” must decide which of the two diverging roads to take, the Yoruba world responds with a co-presence which banishes aloneness, a voice of wisdom, prescience, vision, and experience; a superior intellect saying to the lonely traveler: “You are not alone. Igbo re, ona re”. This voice, we must insist, is not an intrusion into the private recesses of individual agency at the moment of choice. Rather, it is evidence of a communalist telos designed to deny the validity of lazy alibis and excuses in the event of sad and stubborn wrong choices and decisions. For the remainder of this lecture, whenever I scream “Igbo re”, your chorus shall be “Ona re”. For none Yoruba speakers, “igbo” is bush, signifying here the wrong way, full of thorns, serpents, and wild animals. “Ona” is way, road or path, signifying here the right way. When a Yoruba elder tells you “igbo re, ona re”, he is saying “here is the bush and here is the road, the choice of which to take is yours”!

Make the appropriate substitutions and that singularly forlorn persona in Frost’s poem, standing splendidly alone at the point of divergence of two roads becomes Nigeria at the parturition point of project nationhood in the first half of the 20th century. But Nigeria was never going to be alone in that long march to the choice of a road to national destiny. The she-goat was never going to be left alone to suffer the pains of parturition. Project Nationhood, that new space of civic and psychic belonging that was going to be forged out of the inchoate desires of different ethnic nationalities yoked together by colonialism, was singularly blessed by the presence of a stellar cast of nationalist heroes and sheroes, of statesmen and women, some destined for demiurgic roles, some destined for vatic roles, some destined to combine both and even more roles as they screamed at that emergent nation at the crossroads: igbo re, ona re!

It is my contention that as far as the constitutional history and trajectory of Nigeria is concerned, Chief Obafemi Awolowo was at once demiurgic (creator, originator) and vatic (visionary) and that, for me, is what makes his own voice the loudest in the assembly of founding fathers who tried to tell Nigeria: igbo re, ona re!But let us pause to probe this “igbo re, ona re” business further before we begin to unpack how Chief Obafemi Awolowo specifically applied it scrupulously to Nigeria’s process of constitutionally becoming and what we may learn from his proposals as we march yet again Abuja for a national dialogue.

The privilege of not being alone at the crossroads, the privilege of enjoying the guidance and co-presence of that cautionary voice of wisdom, does not in any way conduce to intellectual laziness and ethical demission at the moment of choice. The role of that voice is purely advisory. The exercise of choice is still your responsibility. In essence, nothing in the Yoruba world compels that patriarch, that matriarch, that visionary voice which stands beside you at the fork in the road to do more than point out which is the road and which is the deceptive option which hides thorns and thistles, potholes and gullies after the very first sharp bend.

In essence, if Chief Obafemi Awolowo had done nothing more than stand with Nigeria at that critical fork in the road to constitution-making in the 20th century; if he had done nothing more than show her the choices and possibilities, saying, “Nigeria, igbo re, ona re,” before turning his back to return to the warm embrace of his wife and children in Ikenne; if he had done nothing more than this, he would still have more than largely satisfied the imperatives of his culture. He would have done his bit. He would have done his best. Nothing in that culture compels him to tarry perpetually, to linger permanently in the company of a wilfully blind and voluntarily deaf customer like Nigeria, hanging on to the feet of this customer, and trying to place them on the right road.

In other words, as far as the philosophy of “igbo re ona re” is concerned, any gesture, any action beyond the utterance of that caution is an extraordinary privilege enjoyed by the person or entity being advised. It is jara, it is supplementary. No sage is compelled to go that far. Ladies and gentlemen, that is precisely why Chief Obafemi Awolowo stands out in terms of his decades-long commitment to Nigeria’s constitutional development in particular and to the overall envisioning of the country’s destiny in general.

Decade after decade after decade; in book after book after book; in essay after essay after essay; in speech after speech after speech; in action after action after action, what we confront in Chief Awolowo’s extraordinary output, especially with regard to constitution-making, is precisely that extra mile, that extra gesture, that jara after the solemn and repeated utterance of “igbo re,ona re”. I would therefore want us to consider his expansive body of work, an intellectual tour de force, as fulfilling the dual function of showing Nigeria the difference between the right way and the wrong way to constitutional bliss and also going the extra length of painstakingly mapping out strategies for travelling on the right way.

The theme of this symposium, we must remind ourselves, insists that there is an Awo road to the Nigerian constitution that was not taken. The temptation is great to begin any analysis of the nature, character, and prescriptions of that road and why we refused to do any mileage on it by focusing on the statesman’s 1966 book, Thoughts on Nigerian Constitution, because its title bears the most direct resonance not just to our objectives today but also, and perhaps more importantly, to Nigeria’s ongoing quest for constitutional direction at fifty-three. Doing this would be starting the story in medias res for the said book is but a significant culmination of a long maturational process of intellectual rigour and prescience with regard to the articulation of a constitutional path for Nigeria.

A clear hint of the incipience and long evolution of Chief Awolowo’s thought on Nigerian constitutional issues can be found in Awo, his 1960 autobiography. Chapter twelve of the autobiography is entitled “evolution of a federalist”. Here, the thinker declares: “In 1951 when the controversy on the form of Nigeria’s constitution began, I had already been for more than eighteen years a convinced federalist.” The path to this conviction, Chief Awolowo informs us, started as early as 1928 when he encountered the thought and work of Indian nationalists and the the Indian National Congress. And we are informed in the preface to Thought on Nigerian Constitution that our thinker has played “a leading role in the work of constitution-making in Nigeria since 1949.” What these temporal milestones in the origin and evolution of Chief Awolowo’s thought on constitutional federalism confirm is the fact that almost 30 years to independence in 1960 – again, I’m thinking of the hint that the seeds of his convictions on the necessity of constitutional federalism for Nigeria were sown as far back as 1928 – a visionary mind was already rigorously applying itself to the constitutional destiny of this country. From the very womb of the colonial incubus, Chief Awolowo was already telling Nigeria, igbo re, ona re!

When one looks at Chief Awolowo’s extensive oeuvre, one is struck by the recurrence of certain registers, themes, and concepts. He has hardly a book in which a chapter is not dedicated to reiterating the importance of getting Nigeria’s constitutional framework right. We already cited Chapter 12 of his autobiography. The 1947 book, Path to Nigerian Freedom, written in 1945, contains a Chapter, “Towards Federal Union”, which, as usual, makes the case for a federal constitution. In 1968, The People’s Republic, offers two significant constitutional chapters. Chapter 5 is entitled “constitutional basis” and Chapter 10 is entitled “suitable constitution.”

And this is not counting the volume of essays and speeches in which these keywords and registers appear. Indeed, wherever the word, “constitution” appears in the Awolowo opus, you can almost always count on encountering the qualifiers, “suitable”, or, even more frequently, “federal”, which the thinker always poses in a binary opposition to unitary. Wherever or whenever that binary opposition occurs in his work, he resolves the argument, always unambiguously, in favour of federalism, recommending it forcefully and repeatedly to Nigeria as “ona” and always pointing atunitarianism as what – “igbo”. Igbo re, ona re!

We must hasten to point out that Chief Awolowo’s use of the word “federal” or the expression “federal constitution” bears no resemblance with the blasphemous use of that word in Nigeria’s contemporary political discourse and practice. In a reversal of semantics possible only in Nigeria, what we in fact call federalism today is what Awolowo consistently critiques and decries as unitarianism in his work. Not content with launching us onto the path of this asphyxiating unitarianism, the direct heirs of the unitarianscritiqued in Chief Awolowo’s work are in fact those claiming to be the Federalists of our own day, criminalizing dialogue, imposing no-go areas on national discourse, and mouthing constipated clichés about national unity, corporate existence, and indivisibility of nationhood. They take the dog of unitarianism and go to town to present it to the people as the monkey of federalism.

Unlike the political jokers ruling Nigeria today, Chief Awolowo was no victim of conceptual confusion. He was no trafficker in semantic jibiti. Hence, in making true federalism the foundation and the essence of the Awo road to Nigerian constitution and nationhood, he applied himself to a rigorous methodology of definition, explication, exploration, and analysis. This much is evident in Thoughts on Nigerian Constitution, by far his most extended reflection on the subject. What should detain anybody willing to find answers to the contemporary dilemmas and discontents of project nationhood in this book is, however, neither the rigour with which the author identifies some thirty-three accusations leveled against the constitution of the First Republic after it was suspended nor the unimpeachable brio with which he delivers his submissions in favour of a genuine federalist constitution.

After all, given the condition of Nigeria today, given our report card after fifty-three years of this experiment, it should by now be visible to the blind and audible to the deaf (apologies to my good friend, Patrick Obahiagbon) that the author of Thoughts on Nigerian Constitution was right on the money about the factors he identified as weighing heavily in favour of true federalism. Those factors are: ethnic divergence, geographical separateness and diversity, different economic visions and divergent resources, religious differences and, above all, linguistic differences. Identifying these factors which compel federalism is the easy part. How the author arrives at hisunshakable conclusion that any nation in which these factors are assembled but which insists on foraging in constitutional pastures other than federalism is doomed is an entirely different proposition. Let’s hear Chief Obafemi Awolowo in subsection three of Chapter Two of the book under consideration. This is the part where he declares federalism a necessity for Nigeria – and not the unitary beast we currently misname federalism:

“Our own stand in this matter is well known. We belong to the federalist school. Nevertheless, we have elected to adopt a completely objective and scientific approach to our present search and are prepared to abandon our stand if we sound reason for doing so. Accordingly, we have made a much more careful study of the constitutional evolution of all nations of the world with a view to discovering whether any, and if so what, principles and laws govern such evolution. We have found that some countries have satisfactorily solved their constitutional problems, whilst others have so far not. In consequence of our analysis of the two set of countries, we are able to deduce principles or laws which we venture to regard as sound and of universal application… there are altogether six continents in the world… we will take the continents one by one…”

I do hope that the central claim of this passage has not escaped any of you. To arrive at his scientific conclusions about an appropriate constitutional path for Nigeria, the author assures us that he undertook a study of the constitutional evolution of all the nations of the world, of every country in every continent. And if you are tempted to think that he couldn’t possibly have done that, he assures you thus: “we certainly cannot and should not be expected to give full details of our investigation in this discourse. But we can and certainly will state, as briefly as possible,the facts from which the principles or laws are deduced”. And what, we may ask, is the most significant deduction that our thinker makes from this empirical methodology? Hear him:

“…in any country where there are divergences of language and of nationality – particularly of language – a unitary constitution is always a source of bitterness and hostility on the part of linguistic or national minority groups. On the other hand, as soon as a federal constitution is introduced in which each linguistic or national group is recognized and accorded regional autonomy, any bitterness and hostility against the constitutional arrangements as such disappear. If the linguistic or national group concerned are backward or too weak vis-à-vis the majority group or groups, their bitterness or hostility may be dormant or suppressed. But as soon as they become enlightened and politically conscious, and/or courageous leadership emerges amongst them, the bitterness and hostility come into the open, and remain sustained with all possible venom and rancour, until home rule is achieved.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I have questions for you. Does the scenario above sound familiar? If between 1928 – when the seeds of these ideas were sown – and 1966 when Thoughts on Nigerian Constitution was published, the cripple named Nigeria was given repeated forewarnings of war and doom, does this particular cripple have any excuse for being caught up in wars and rumours of war in 2014? What do you call a cripple who gets caught in war even after receiving the benefit of repeated forewarnings and foreknowledge of the impending war? Do you believe that a man who puts decades into a systematic study of the constitutional experiments of every nation in the world, drawing valuable experience, lessons,deductions, and insights therefrom has earned the right to be listened to by his own country when he tells her igbo re, ona re?

Igbo re, ona re. Apart from true federalism and its associated advantages, the minority question constitutes another significant signpost on the Awo road to constitution-making. Indeed, he treats this question with so much empirical minutiae that a detailed outline of his breakdowns and permutations would have to wait until the discussion part of our proceedings. Suffice it to say that he warns that a federal constitution must at all times be sensitive to minorities and sufficiently malleable to take care of their legitimate fears of domination whenever the need arises. Says Chief Awolowo of ethnic minority groups:

“We must not group them or any of them with any of the larger and self-sufficient linguistic groups. If we did, we would be placing the small linguistic group or groups concerned in a state of comparative political and social disability. A minority problem would thereby be created which would demand solution… with great respect, we do not think that it is possible to charm the minorities and their problems out of existence… the truth is that minorities do and will always exist in Nigeria… Vis-a-vis the majorities, these minorities, these minorities have their fears –real or imaginary – which can only be allayed by unequivocal and entrenched constitutional arrangements.”

The minority question can only be handled with unequivocal and entrenched constitutional arrangements! Igbo re, ona re! Ladies and gentlemen, what do you think has been Nigeria’s answer to this particular aspect of the Awo road? You need not look beyond this podium for Nigeria’s answer. Given “igbo re ona re” and other cultural deployments in this lecture, some of you can be forgiven if by now you’ve concluded that I am Yoruba. Well, Nigeria disagrees with you. Nigeria says I’m a northerner. In fact, technically, Nigeria would rather have me silence my Okun-Yoruba identity and blend into some northern lapland in which the beneficence of an umbrella Hausa-Fulani identity would take care of all my problems in the Nigerian family.

Constitutional guarantees of the financial viability of the constituent parts of the federating unit is a key feature of the Awo road. This need not detain us beyond the observation that we have done the exact opposite of this requirement.And I believe that other key areas of Chief Awolowo’s thought such as the importance of separation of powers, secularity of the Nigerian state, and the need for local government autonomy (p.149) can be examined in fuller detail during our discussions.

What I propose to do for the rest of the time that I have is to examine a number of issues which, Chief Awolowo himself admits, may strike the average person as trivia and unworthy of discussion in the context of constitutional considerations. However, the significance of these false trivia can only be measured by the heavy price Nigeria pays today for failing to pay adequate constitutional attention to them. Perhaps the attention that Chief Awolowo pays to such issues as would appear to the ordinary man as trivia is also because he understands that they can combine to vitiate what he calls the social objectives of a federal constitution. It is under these social objectives that he addresses a wide range of issues in consonance with his socialist persuasion, such as education, health, human capital development, employment, poverty. If you are tempted to think that a constitution is not a party manifesto and should not be dabbling into social objectives, Chief Awolowo already anticipates your train of thought and pre-empts you in this passage:

“It may be objected that all we have been saying has nothing to do with constitution-making. Our emphatic answer is that it has a mighty lot to do with it. Our experience during the past six years has shown… that though we are ostensibly free as a nation, yet as a people we remain tightly shackled in the chains of ignorance, disease, want, and native tyranny. It is a duty which we owe to ourselves, and to future generations of Nigerians, to ensure, as far as human ingenuity can contrive it, that the demons which held us in thrall under the old constitution are fought and destroyed under the new constitution.”

Igbo re, ona re! What then are the false trivia that could stand in the way of a constitution achieving its stated social objectives? How many of you in this hall have ever given a thought to the fact that the convoys of our government officials could stand in the way of the constitution and national progress? If you’d never made a connection between the constitution and the convoys which always drive you, Nigerian citizens, off the road whenever an Oga at the Top is passing, here is what Chief Awolowo has to say in making that critical connection:

“In the fourth place, some people may wonder whether it is necessary to make provision in the constitution forbidding the Prime Minister and Premier and their ministers to make use of the services of police orderlies and outriders, and to inspect a guard of honour. The unfortunate thing, however, is that these little and trivial-looking things had contributed in no small measure to tenacity of office on the part of those who held these offices under the First Republic. They had imagined that their individual ego would be deflated almost to the point of political extinction if they were deprived of these empty and vain trappings. They had, therefore, been driven to practise all kinds of chicanery and vice in order to remain in office. We must not allow our public men to develop this type of warped sense of value in the future.”

Poor Chief Awolowo! How could this phenomenal thinker have known that aalmostthree decades after his death, these public men would even allow their constitutionally unrecognized wives to develop a warped sense of value, shut down Lagos, Abuja, and Port Harcourt whenever they come to town, harass elected state governors, and dip their hands into our national treasury at will to fund ephemeral monuments to their ego that the next First Lady will erase entirely! If Chief Awolowo had imagined that the degree of travesty we witness today in the name of First Ladyship would happen even in a million years, my wager is he would have proffered constitutional checks which we would have ignored anyway! Those going to Abuja may want to think seriously about this First Lady business. Chief Awolowo would not have remained constitutionally indifferent to such unspeakable travesty.

There are other issues the discussants may also want to take a look at in the light of Chief Awolowo’s exhortation to his readers to assess is views and proposals with “constructive objectivity”. Chief Awolowo, for instance, was in favour of a bi-cameral federal legislature. Perhaps, the circumstances of his times dictated this conviction. Given the fact that to describe our National Assembly in Abuja today as corrupt and indolent is to be nice to it, do we still need two chambers today and should our lawmakers be working full time?

There is also the question of independent candidacy in elections. Chief Awolowo views this very negatively and proposes its non-recognition in the constitution. Do our circumstances today support this stance? Given the climate of ideological poverty in our contemporary party politics where the two leading parties in the country are currently trading migrating herds of corrupt and ethically-challenged politicians, is it not time to start giving serious constitutional considerations to the question of independent candidacy?

A suitable constitution, Chief Awolowo, declares again and again in Thoughts on Nigerian Constitution, is the bedrock of political stability. But he also recognizes the fact that even the best and most suitable constitution is useless if a country is hostage to corrupt and visionless leadership. And because he is convinced that “the only alternative to Federalism for Nigeria is the wide road to national impotence and ruin”, he presses the question of leadership, qualitative leadership in the service of a suitable constitution. For him, the constitution must somehow find a way to guarantee qualitative leadership and weed off moneychangers from the temple before they get a chance to turn it to a den of robbers. Luckily for those currently ruling Nigeria, they hardly read books! Imagine if they read books and stumbled on Chief Awolowo’s idea of a good leader that could deliver on the promises of a suitable constitution:

“Good leadership involves self-conquest; and self-conquest is attainable only by cultivating, as a first major step, what some applied psychologists have termed ‘the regime of mental magnitude’. In plain language, the regime of mental magnitude is cultivated when we are sexually continent, abstemious in food, abstain totally from alcoholic beverage and tobacco, and completely vanquish the emotions of greed and fear”.

You think this is too severe? Papa Awolowo is not done yet. Listen to this:

“There are those who would regard these prescriptions for leadership to be too stringent. They are welcome to their view; but for the good of the fatherland, such people should steer clear of the affairs of State, and confine their activities to those spheres where their excessive self-indulgence cannot incommode the entire nation, to the point of threatening its very life”.

Igbo re, ona re! Well, much to our misfortune, such people did not listen to Chief Obafemi Awolowo. They did not steer clear of the affairs of state. On the contrary, they dragged the state and her affairs towards “igbo” where Awolowo had prescribed “ona”. When a musician saw the tragic consequences of their preference for “igbo” and hatred for “ona” and began to sing “Nigeria jagajaga, everything scatter scatter, poor man dey suffer suffer”, they clobbered that musician, abused him, said that it was his father and mother who are jaga-jaga, and subsequently went to Abuja to receive Centenary honours in recognition of their illustrious contribution to fifty-three years of national bedwetting and diaper-wearing. Nigeria jaga-jaga…

[Guest Blog Post - Professor Pius Adesanmi] Culture, Development, and Other Annoyances

By Professor Pius Adesanmi

Winner, the Penguin Prize for African Writing

Author of  You’re Not a Country, Africa!

Carnegie Diaspora Visiting Professor, University of Ghana, Legon

This keynote lecture was delivered in Johannesburg at the International Leadership Platform Conference convened jointly by the University of Johannesburg and the Africa Institute of South Africa (AISA) on February 19, 2014. On February 20, 2014, it was presented as a cultural diplomacy seminar at the Diplomatic Academy of South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation, Pretoria, at the instance of Mr. Anesh Maistry, Deputy Director, Foreign Service. On February 28, 2014, a version of it was delivered as a public lecture convened by the Department of English, University of Ghana, Legon.

Sawubona!

Doubtless, when this keynote lecture was advertised and you saw the last keyword, “annoyances”, in the title, some of you wondered why the conveners of this prestigious lecture series decided to settle for an angry Nigerian public intellectual based temporarily in Ghana. Some of you may have wondered still: what’s biting the Nigerian professor? Why is he annoyed? We, South Africans, ought to be the ones screaming out our annoyance, having only been recently eliminated from the early stages of the African Nations Championship by his country – and on our own turf to boot! Fortunately, as I am not used to gloating about Nigeria’s continental football superiority, especially in the presence of our football younger brothers such as Ghanaians, Cameroonians, Egyptians, and South Africans, let me quickly assure you all that I may be annoyed alright, it’s got absolutely nothing to do with continental rivalries in football.

My annoyance – or annoyances, pardon the untidy plural – has also got nothing to do with the fact that I had less than two weeks to prepare and write this lecture, tucking it into the grind of other forthcoming keynote lectures in Nigeria and Canada next week. On the contrary, let me reassure the masquerade behind that punitively short-notice invitation, Dr. Pinkie Megwe, Executive Director of Internationalization, University of Johannesburg, that she taught me a valuable lesson when she sent that invitation in a tone that made it clear to me that she was not going to take no for an answer.

“You must come”, Pinkie had written before describing how prestigious this particular lecture platform is! It then dawned on me that if I was being asked to literally hop on the next flight and come down here to Johannesburg for this lecture, Pinkie was intimating me with the fierce urgency of the business of Africa. She was telling me that there can be no such thing as a short notice in our collective duty as writers, scholars, and intellectuals to write, think, and envision a future for this continent NOW! She was telling me that only the permanently ready thinker is worthy of the privilege of getting his or her hands dirty in the vineyards of Africanist knowledge production. Thanks to Dr. Megwe and how she ambushed me for this lecture, I now know that the famous motto, “Be Prepared”, belongs more to those who are called upon to think and write Africa than it belongs to Baden Powell and his Boy Scouts movement.

I am therefore immensely grateful to Dr. Megwe for the invitation and the epistemological teachable moment that came along with it. I am grateful to the University of Johannesburg’s International Leadership Platform, and co-hosts, the Africa Institute of South Africa (AISA) for the honour and privilege of being asked to come and share my reflections with you – and, alas, my annoyances! Thanks are due to the respondent, Professor Peter Vale, for agreeing to this task even at the risk of not receiving the lecture until a few hours to delivery! Finally, I want to thank you all, distinguished members of the audience, for “taking time out of no time” (as we say in Nigerian English) to attend this lecture. Seeing you all here reminds me of the ties that bind; of why I love visiting your beautiful country for I’ve been here for one and the repeated time since the 1990s.

This great country of yours is the site of the last great African anger and annoyance provoked by the fundamental unjustness of man to man (apologies to Bob Marley). You, South Africans, led your country, Africa, and the global community of conscience against this historical unjustness by articulating a struggle powered not just by the bombs of “Umkhonto we Sizwe”; the global resonance of your uprisings and wars against the apartheid machine (Sharpeville); the spectacular trajectories of your great anti-apartheid heroes and sheroes (Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela, Albert Luthuli, Robert Sobukwe, M.D. Naidoo, Desmond Tutu, Michael Hermal, Winnie Mandela, Ruth First  and countless others); but also, and more importantly, a struggle rooted in and nourished by a deontology of culture.

In essence, your worldview, your way of life, your stories, your memory, what you thought of beauty and ugliness and how you expressed those aesthetic sentiments, how you laughed, how you loved, how and what you ate, how and what you sang, and how you danced all came together to constitute the soul of your struggle. If there is anything to be learnt from the documentary movie, Amandla, it is that you did not just fight apartheid to a standstill, you danced and sang that tragedy to its ignominious end and, in doing so, you taught the rest of us, your admirers around the world, that the unfathomable zone of potential and becoming we commonly refer to as a people’s future cannot be envisaged or envisioned outside of their culture, understood in the broadest, evolving, and most dynamic sense possible.

Precisely because your future as the Rainbow Nation was secured at the price of a long-drawn struggle nurtured by your culture, by who you are; precisely because yours was the last great continental affirmation of the significance of culture – among other things – to the emergence statehood from colonial debris, you are auspiciously positioned to understand the dilemmas and the discontents framing current discussions of the role of culture in shaping the future of a continent whose friends and enemies agree is on the cusp of yet another historical moment. Having now shaken of the last yoke of colonial domination in 1994, the argument goes roughly, Africa must quit the path of blaming outsiders for her numerous challenges and begin to start being responsible for her present and future.

padesanmi_large-carleton-uThe morphology of this future and what exactly it would take to get us there is where the tough cut lies. Often, we get mixed signals from friends and foes alike. After 1994 and at the beginning of the New Millenium in 2000, The Economist, for instance, ushered Africa into the 21st century with the now infamous cover title, “Africa: The Hopeless Continent”. A little over a decade later, this mouthpiece of Western capitalist paternalism changed its tune and declared Africa a hopeful continent. This proclamation came in the context of a world suddenly gone gaga about the prospects of the African continent. The international capital and finance community, the development community, the global NGO and activist community, world governance bodies and their continental appendages in Africa, as well as the institutional and disciplinary world of the social sciences began to crowd the global space of discourse with dizzying statistics and data bearing narratives of growth and sustainable development; of GDP and capital flow; of governance and democracy. Ghana and Botswana were placed in showrooms as examples of Africa rising.

I spoke earlier of mixed signals. Let us not forget that despite this shift from Afro-pessimism to Afro-optimism by the global determiners of growth and progress, when it came to the acronyms they invented to describe who was rising, growing, or emerging in the global south, Africa was accorded little or no space. Thus we got the BRIC countries into which South Africa was admitted as an afterthought, a tag-along, to give us BRICS. And now I hear that we have the MINT countries. My own Nigeria thankfully made the cut this time. I think there has been a deliberate attempt here to put South Africa in BRICS and Nigeria in MINT. Put them in the same room and their rivalry will bring down the roof! There are also the famous Next-11 countries. Here, Egypt makes the cut. In essence, the gale of post New Millennium Afro-optimism from the North will only allow three of fifty four countries into its nirvana of acronyms.

Whatever the signals, clear or mixed, one thing informed these projections into Africa’s future. Whether those making such robust projections loudly are latter-day converts to Afro-optimism of The Economist or neo-Bretton Woods variety, or technocrats and development experts speaking in those familiar growth, democracy, and good governance talkshops from Davos to Addis Ababa; from the board rooms of corporate Africa to the seminar rooms of the continent’s Universities, we are told that Africa’s future is bright because of the boundless energy, genius, and creativity of her youth demographic.

The oldest continent, we are told, presents the ironic scenario of having the greatest number of young people on earth. This youth demographic is said to be opportunity. All that needs to be done now is for the African state to place the millennium development goals within the reach of this vast youth demographic, pursue infrastructural renewal and economic growth and expansion, eradicate the unholy trinity of poverty, ignorance, and disease, deepen democracy and good governance, and all other things shall be added.

Going by the tenor and body language of the African Union, that body certainly believes that the path to Africa’s future lies somewhere in the philosophy of the development community as I have sketched it out above. I should know. The African Union has been working on a vision roadmap for the continent as some of you here probably know. The fiftieth anniversary of the OAU in 2013 inspired the African Union to try to project into the next fifty years and determine what the continent would look like. The AU spent much of 2013 organizing talkshops all over the world. From academia to the corporate world, stakeholders in the future of the continent were asked to reflect on Africa in the next fifty years. The idea was to eventually produce some kind of Africa 2063 document – a roadmap for the continent in the next fifty years. I was privileged to be part of that process, alas, the culmination but not the origin of my annoyances in this onerous business of thinking Africa.

To draft a 2063 agenda for the entire continent, the AU needed to consult very widely. Inevitably, these consultations involved Africans of the old and the new diaspora. The AU wanted both categories of Diaspora Africans to contribute to drafting this all-important document that would have been produced by Africans at home and abroad about the future of our beloved continent. Thus it was that in October 2013, I had the extraordinary privilege of being invited to New York by the African Union to be part of the Diaspora Consultations meeting on the Africa 2063 agenda. Our brief during the said meeting in New York was unambiguous: we were asked to project into the future, as far ahead as 2063, to encounter the Africa of our dreams. We were asked to engage the question: what Africa would you love to see in 2063?

As I contemplated the theme of that meeting in my apartment in Accra, prior to departure for New York, I thought it was dangerous business to gather academics, technocrats, and bureaucrats in New York and asked them to envision Africa fifty years down the road. I thought that the AU was in a way asking us to encroach on the coveted territory of prosperity Pentecostal Pastors who have taken over the entire continent and are assuring Africa’s one billion people that next year, and the year after the next, until we get to 2063, shall be the year of their miracle and abundance. My apprehension was further deepened by certain developments. After being told that I would be addressing a plenary session of the New York meeting from the perspectives of culture and identity, I sat on the patio of my residence on the campus of the University of Ghana, a cup of coffee in hand, and tried to start reflecting on the subject that was taking me to New York.

However, I had difficulty concentrating on that task because just across the road from me, an open air campus-for-Jesus prosperity Pentecostal crusade was rounding up a week of intense miracles and testimonies and the participants in that spiritual revelry were determined that the huge loudspeakers they had deployed for the occasion would cause an earthquake on campus and around Accra, so loud was the noise of the singing, the ministration, and the anointing. As I was blogging about the event on my Facebook Wall, the officiating pastor said something I’m sure all of you in this room have heard before.

It is something I have encountered in country after country as I have crisscrossed the African continent in the last two decades as a writer and a student of the evolving cultures and identities of the youth of Africa. It is something that has made me arrive at the conclusion that prosperity Pentecostalism, along with its cultures, styles, and modes of social inflection, is now the most significant cultural wind blowing across the continent, rivalled perhaps only by the social media revolution. The Pastor in Accra asked his audience to close their eyes. Then he thundered: “next year, Forbes Magazine will release another list of the wealthiest Africans. If you can see yourself in that list, please stand up and scream for Jesus.” The resultant decibel level from his audience shocked awed me. I assure you, you can’t make these things up.

We were in October 2013. The image of nearly one thousand undergraduates of the University of Ghana screaming in Pentecostal jouissance, assured that they would appear in the January 2014 edition of Forbes Magazine as Africa’s newest billionaires, is what I took with me the following day to board the Delta Airways flight which took me to the African Diaspora consultation meeting on the Africa 2063 Agenda of the AU in New York.  On board, I thought about it all. All we need do to have an idea of Africa in 2063 is listen to the continent’s prosperity Pentecostal Pastors as they enrapture hundreds of millions of our citizens from Kenya to Zimbabwe, Nigeria to Tanzania, Ghana to Namibia, Congo to Cameroun, Uganda to South Africa, and our job would be largely done. Africa in 2063 would be littered with Forbes-rated billionaires flying private jets.

Although, I would very much have loved to claim all the promises and miracles of prosperity Pentecostalism for Africa and Africans by the year 2063, I had other agendas in mind as I boarded the plane for New York. I was going to do a plenary on what role culture might play in Africa’s march to 2063. I thought that what I witnessed in Accra would be a good entry point for an auspicious discussion of the power, appeal, and relevance of culture to any discussion of Africa’s future.

Beyond faith, Pentecostalism has morphed into a powerful subculture across the continent, affecting every aspect of life, from governance and democracy, to the diction and worldview of a significant proportion of the continent’s youth. The language of development and post-development, with its long list of sustainable this and that, industry, technology, innovation, economic expansion, science, technology, and all the usual suspects presupposes a citizenry ready to travel along those paths under the guidance of a visionary leadership. What happens when a significant proportion of this citizenry evolves in a mainstreamed subculture of immediate miracles? Can Africa’s planners and policy makers afford to ignore this and allied cultural forces now shaping African identities as they project into the future?

You are notI did not get the chance to make these submissions in New York. Indeed, I had very little time to situate culture as a key plank in the envisioning process being undertaken for the continent. Unlike all the other plenary presenters who were allotted fifteen-minutes individually for their presentations, I discovered at the venue of the event that two of us had been lined up for the segment on reflections on culture. Worse, we had to cram our respective presentations into a fifteen-minute slot, a fact we both found out only at the very moment of presentation. Evidently, the African Union, like the continent’s technocrats, bureaucrats, planners, policy makers, and political leaders, is persuaded by the thinking that the hardware language of growth and development, of macro and micro-economics, of cutting-edge technology and industry, of GDP and other dizzying data from the IMF, the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and relevant agencies of the UN, is more germane to the continent’s advancement than the software language of culture.

It dawned on me painfully in New York that whenever two or three development experts are gathered in the name of Africa’s future, culture is always invited as a sideshow, as entertainment. The development experts and data wielders in New York would have been content if I had made a presentation on Nollywood as momentary diversion from their very serious business of thinking Africa and her future as statistical numbers to be crunched. For them, GDP, growth data and development statistics were the path to that future. No need to understand the cultures, subcultures, and countercultures informing the imaginaries and identities of that much-touted youth demographic and how such cultures might shape destination 2063.

If I was annoyed by the peripheral space allotted to the possible role of culture in Africa’s future and development during the New York plenary sessions, more annoyance(s) awaited me on my return to Accra. This time the event was a book launch attended by the usual suspects: diplomats, technocrats, bureaucrats, academics, and the like. As it happens, discussions were lively and engaged. Then I asked a question about history and culture. A diplomat responded that we’ve had enough of “this history and culture stuff” and what we need now are science, technology, and accelerated development. We were in the Institute of African Studies where that response ought to have struck everyone as odd. As no one flagged it, I did not want to be forward, being a visitor. I let it pass but filed it in my memory as one of those instances where culture is seen as an obstacle to development. My ilk and I often feel a sense of alienation in such development gatherings.

My ilk? I am talking about those of us working as writers, scholars, and activists in the continent’s arts and culture establishment, lone voices screaming in the wilderness, struggling to persuade Africa’s bureaucrats, technocrats, planners, state officials, and policy makers that they labour in vain if they continue to give a short shrift to culture as they map Africa’s path to her future and destiny. I am sure you understand that there were other annoyances before my own recent histories of annoyance at being constantly invited to meetings and development talkshops in Africa and outside of the continent where culture is meant to entertain neoliberal thinktank types trafficking all day long in GDP data and statistics funded largely by our friends in Bretton Woods. I am sure you all remember Ngugi wa Thiong’o and his lifelong frustration and annoyance over the language question in Africa. Ngugi’s case is too familiar to bear repeating here.

But we must mention the less familiar case of Chinua Achebe. He too was down that road in the 1980s and he reminds us in the essay, “Africa is People”. Like my humble self in New York, Chinua Achebe had the misfortune of being among development experts in one of those meetings where Africa is somehow expected to develop outside of her cultures. Says Achebe:

I believe it was in the first weeks of 1989 that I received an invitation to an anniversary meeting—the twenty-fifth year, or something like that—of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in Paris. I accepted without quite figuring out what I could possibly contribute to such a meeting/celebration. My initial puzzlement continued right into the meeting itself. In fact it grew as the proceedings got underway. Here was I, an African novelist among predominantly western bankers and economists; a guest, as it were, from the world’s poverty-stricken provinces to a gathering of the rich and powerful in the metropolis. As I listened to them—Europeans, Americans, Canadians, Australians—I was left in no doubt, by the assurance they displayed, that these were the masters of our world, savouring the benefits of their success. They read and discussed papers on economic and development matters in different regions of the world. They talked in particular about the magic bullet of the 1980s, structural adjustment, specially designed for those parts of the world where economies had gone completely haywire.”

Eventually, Chinua Achebe did have his eureka moment:

“Suddenly I received something like a stab of insight and it became clear to me why I had been invited, what I was doing there in that strange assembly. I signalled my desire to speak and was given the floor. I told them what I had just recognized. I said that what was going on before me was a fiction workshop, no more and no less! Here you are, spinning your fine theories, to be tried out in your imaginary laboratories. You are developing new drugs and feeding them to a bunch of laboratory guinea pigs and hoping for the best. I have news for you. Africa is not fiction. Africa is people, real people. Have you thought of that? You are brilliant people, world experts. You may even have the very best intentions. But have you thought, really thought, of Africa as people?”

Out of annoyance, Ngugi wa Thiong’o screams that Africa is language. Out of annoyance, Chinua Achebe screams that Africa is people. Language. People. Culture. You begin to wonder why those experts and technocrats who insist that Africa’s youth bulge is an opportunity also insist on not seeing the nexus between youth cultures and the future of the continent. You wonder why political leaders across the continent insist on the false dichotomy between science and technology on the one hand and culture on the other hand. In my own country, Nigeria, for instance, the scramble for science and technology (alias accelerated development) attained such a maddening frenzy that policies were put in place to discourage arts subjects which came to be seen as obstacles to development. Politicians began to openly denigrate the teaching of African history, cultures, and languages in our schools.

This is what renowned Nigerian historian, Professor Toyin Falola, refers to as “the persecution of the arts and humanities” in African educational systems by bureaucrats and officials of state keen on the teaching of science and technology and development-oriented subjects. By doing this, the state creates a dichotomy and a false hierarchy between science and technology on the one hand and arts and culture on the other hand. Says Falola: “here comes the bad news for the persecutors. Creating, managing, and solving underdevelopment is a human cultural concern. And this is where the humanities come to the fore as they generate greater imagination, thereby creating more intellectual creativity, encouraging broader reflection on the future of society.”

The University in my own part of Africa is of course not left out of this persecution business. If you look at recent vision documents by some leading Universities on the continent, you will detect the underhand privileging of certain disciplines in response to the funding priorities of the World Bank. I believe I don’t need to tell you which disciplines are being de-emphasized and which ones are being privileged and narrativized as being more germane to Africa’s growth and development by the concerned Universities.

The complicity of the African University with this scenario is one frustrating source of annoyance for this is the site where the critical connections between culture, science, and technology ought to be made. The gown ought to make these connections and persuade the town to see them. I don’t know how much of Kwame Nkrumah’s great essay, “The African Genius”, you all remember. That essay was the keynote address he delivered at the founding of the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana on October 25, 1963. While giving the new Institute a mandate to tie culture to development (and not separate them as is annoyingly done today), Nkrumah indicates that the premium that he and his generation of African leaders placed on culture stems from their understanding of the fact that growth, development, science and technology all depend on a people’s creative genius which, in turn, depends on taste.

Taste is a function of culture. Taste is a matter of aesthetics. What a people consume and how they consume it depend entirely on their cultural life-world. Innovation, science and technology respond to taste as shaped by culture. Twitter was invented because somebody somewhere understood America’s cultural obsession with information that could be packaged and consumed quickly like fast food. Innovations in the automobile industry are entirely driven by years of field surveys into taste as driven by culture. This is the meeting point of technology, development, and culture. Africa’s science and technology in the future will be driven by the cultural tastes and predilections of the peoples of Africa.

If Nkrumah could see these connections in 1963, why have things become so hazy in 2014? If these connections are not being made today by the African University, if certain disciplines and fields are being privileged while others are “persecuted” in response to the funding stimulus of the World Bank and such other bodies and agencies in the global North, is there any wiggle room for strategic critique and remedial actions? Is there any agential location from which one could resist the ideological preferments of those who pour millions into the preservation of the cultures, tastes, and ways of life of the global North, preserving culture and the arts, funding museums and other locations of culture and memory, only to turn around and tell you that your own culture is antithetical to science, technology, and development? As our friend, Binyavanga Wainaina, recently puts it, how does one imagine “the new” or “newness” in Africa when the very paradigms of imagining are de-funded, discouraged, and stigmatized as inimical to progress, growth, and development?

The problematic of newness, of imagining the new in Africa, brings us back to the question of the youth bulge and what that demographic phenomenon portends for the future of the continent. As I stated earlier, policy makers, bureaucrats, and experts in the development community bandy data and statistical figures ranging from 60% – 70% youth demographic for many African countries, with youth sometimes defined as persons thirty-years-old and below. Whichever way one looks at it, the majority of Africa’s one billion people fall within the youth demographic. Using conventional language and its assorted registers – GDP, growth, development agendas, plans, etc – Africa’s bureaucrats and development experts pay attention to everything about this particular demographic except for their cultural predilections and predicament.

Yet we forget that their peers in America have invented Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest in response to specific cultural imperatives and stimuli; we forget that their peers in China, Japan, South Korea, and other parts of Asia are in a daily competition to invent apps informed by the cultural circumstances of those places. In essence, the youth of other continents are meeting the world, unleashing their genius and creativity on the rest of the world from the platform of their respective cultures. On what cultural platform are the youth of Africa expected to meet the world and compete with their peers when, as stated earlier, the teaching of African history, cultures, and languages is treated largely as an impediment to science and technology disciplines in many an African school system? Lack of sufficient attention to the power of culture can sometimes mean the difference between being the next Mark Zuckerberg or just another burden on Africa, eating grass in sheepish obedience to the instruction of your Pastor while awaiting the immediate miracle of your millions tomorrow. I’m sure you all know a thing or two about this grass eating business here in South Africa.

Something is awfully funny and I dare not conclude this lecture without mentioning it. Whether we are dealing with the politicians, technocrats, or bureaucrats in Africa, those who are loudest in disavowing the organic linkages between culture and science and technology; those who file criminal charges against culture, accusing her of being an enemy of progress and an obstacle to sustainable development are the first to run for cover under the umbrella of culture the moment their comfortable prejudices are threatened. Think of the anti-gay legislations in Nigeria and Uganda and how the politics of it all has played out as a culture war between Africa and the West. All of a sudden, those who would have Africa shake off the shackles of culture and backwardness in order to embrace progress, science, and technology became custodians of “our culture”. They spoke authoritatively in the name of culture, defined it, protected it, determined what it must include and exclude, and framed Africa as a puritanical cultural entity in opposition to the corroding influences of the West.

Culture was suddenly back in business! Beyond prejudice, beyond the tragedy of the politics of exclusion on account of a person’s sexual orientation, there is a crucial point that has been overlooked in the back and forth between the protagonists and the antagonists of the gay laws in Nigeria and Uganda. Through slavery, through colonialism, through every manner of historical tragedy, the humanity of the African was questioned on the basis of his culture. The responses to these historical tragedies – Negritude, cultural nationalism, etc – were mostly gestures of cultural affirmation. Today, the gay controversy reminds us that culture is still the site where Africa is being asked to provide evidence of her membership of the human family. Culture is also the site where Africa is pushing back, claiming rightly or wrongly to be resisting foreign imposition.

As 2014 came upon us, many technocrats and development experts across Africa momentarily dropped their GDPs, their data, their statistics, their micro and macro-economic indicators, hoisted culture on their heads and went to war against the West in the name of culture! Now, ain’t it amazing, as my favourite country music crooner, Don Williams, would put it?

I thank you for your time.

Tobore Ovuorie’s story: Premium Times of Nigeria responds to Ikhide

Dear Ikhide:

I notice you have been doing quite some heavy lifting in the library, drilling holes in the recent PREMIUM TIMES coverage of the nefarious human trafficking trade, another blight on our problematic national image profile.

I have been on a drenching road fatigue for a while and just got some wiggle room to respond to you. First let me say that this is something important to do. If we insist that a decent democracy cannot exist without a decent press, it goes without saying that we who work on this side of the aisle must be ready to subject our practice to attentive scrutiny.

At any rate, because PREMIUM TIMES defines its practice strictly in the ambience of investigative reporting, it will be hypocritical to expect that its work will not attract strict inquiry from friends and foes.  We welcome this.

After your review, I notice also that a number of comments have followed in its tow, some insightful, and a whole lot flippant.  I shall try to offer insight and responses to some of your now famous seven questions in the hope that those who share vision with the issues you raised will find some retort here too.

Many of the concerns about our report, in so far as they deal exclusively with the form rather than the content of the article, announces for me the moral texture and internal coherence of a new generation of Nigerian citizenry, and the challenge this poses for us in building a society of justice, where the human rights and dignity of the Nigerian are paramount.

Quite frankly, one cannot but feel mystified, that such massive real estate of print space, and time, was lavishly devoted to when, how, where, and why a cell phone got used or was not used in a story that speaks essentially to the moral decay of a nation where the best of our youth have no future outside a new wave of slave trade.

This immediately recalls for me the dilemma of Robert Jordan in Hemingway’s masterpiece For Whom The Bell Tolls, when the idealistic republican, at that great moment in history where the larger human community faces its greatest existential threat, suddenly comes to awareness that in the campaign against the radical evil of fascism, there is an uneven level of preparedness among the anti-Falangist forces.

In amusement, I notice the ambivalence in your review as you tried to challenge the veracity of the story.  This is how you put it: “How sophisticated can this syndicate be if they allow the girls keep their cell phones and presumably let them continue to chat with the outside world? There are so many tracking devices on a cell phone, you wonder if and why the game plan of the reporter did not include these free tools.”

Let’s cut to the chase. The logic in your question is erected on the assumption of the implausibility of infiltrating a syndicate and still use a cell phone.  Thus, on account of your logic, if one gets to operate a cell phone in the environment of the syndicate, then the story automatically becomes false. Seriously? Sorry, this is either empty or dubious.

Perhaps you understand the operations of syndicates better, but we had no one to share the operating manual of syndicates with us while we were planning this investigation. So this construction of the watertight processes of the syndicate is your own construction, which cannot be imposed on the story. When Tobore was to report to boot camp, all they asked her to bring was “a lot of clothes” but when she got to camp she found to her surprise that some of them came with no more than a few days wardrobe.  What do you make of this?

One reasonable conclusion is that there are no standard rules. Would this explain the use of phones and other facilities? Would Tobore who is undercover, a fact unknown to all but her, act logically in every instance?

Since this is the basis of your logic of believability let me comment a little further on the question regarding the sophisticated level of the syndicate, and the ease of entry and growth within the gang.

Why is it difficult for you to understand that any syndicate in the world can be penetrated, and that ones growth path within the syndicate ultimately depends on ones ability to assimilate its orientation and, so to say, to domesticate that new environment?

Are the pleasures of exile hindering an appreciation of a simple puzzle? Certainly this can’t be too difficult for any serious reporter, and Tobore, a 33-year old doctoral candidate in psychology, who, by the way, you relentlessly, and paternalistically, characterize as a baby that cannot take responsibility for her choices, is the last person in the class who does not know how to domesticate her environment.

Let me refer you to something in your adopted country when talking of breaching sophisticated syndicates. Perhaps you have read how, eighteen months ago, [July 28, 2012], the walls of the United States Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility (HEUMF), where more than 10,000 nuclear bombs are stored, were breached, at Oak Ridge, in the State of Tennessee.

As it turned out, this breach of the world’s most secured facility was not the work of terrorists, but that of a group of three elderly peace activists, including an 82-year old nun, armed only with flashlights, binoculars, bolt cutters, bread, flowers, Bible, and who, by the way scaled three perimeter fences, including an eight-foot fence. There is a lesson here not to mystify reality.  Please search and read the details of this story in motherjones.com.

At Premium Times, the central core of our mission is seeking and reporting the truth, and in doing this we insist on acting independently. Which is why I will ask that you direct your other questions to the appropriate law enforcement or statutory agencies. We have done our work and others will interpret where their own mandate starts.

One thing is sure, no one can fault this story on the grounds of truth, accuracy, and the principle of fairness that form the normative frame of our work. There are those who, genuinely, seek completeness beyond what we have offered here. Our response is simple. Investigative reporting takes time, it’s expensive, it’s risky, and it’s continuous.

I am however amused when you claimed that the article built “skepticism” in some Nigerians. As evidence, you even hyperlinked the drivel of the gentleman [obviously some school boy ineptly memorizing his lecture notes backward] who describes the article as “trash, full of fictions and poorly constructed…[and that] it lacks basic pragmatic and discourse qualities (i.e cohesion, coherent, intertextuality, acceptability, intentionality and informativeness).”

I think this is taking literary theory too trivial. What really was the gentleman saying in those lines? Are you sure you understood him?

Tobore’s report, for instance, was commissioned in May last year, taking her through five states in the country, a country in far Asia, and a neighbouring West African country. It was only completed in November.  What is included or excluded in the final report is a matter of pure editorial judgment.

We salute her staying power, incredible courage, and resolute will and those of our partners and staff who played different roles in bringing this important story to light. We pay tribute to the motivation that drove Tobore to the assignment, the expression of genuine humanity through which we get to appreciate the deficiency of compassion, and the depth of horror of what man can do to another man for the sake of money in our country today. Nigerian journalism is the richer for her sacrifices.

Our challenge to those who think that infiltrating and reporting about this sex slavery mafia, or any mafia for that matter, is a simple mouthing con game, the type you said your son tried to play with his Galaxy cell phone is, give it a shot. Nigerian journalism, after all, can only be the better for this.

Those who are familiar with our work know that we have never, and shall never take our readers for granted.  Recall that when you embarked on a campaign to rubbish one of our investigative reports last year, our editor counseled you to tread carefully and not side with peddlers of falsehoods and haters of good journalism. How do you feel now that the story remains substantially unchallenged till date?

Thus, those who think they have holes to drill in the human trafficking story and our other reports are warmly welcome provided they are ready to deal beyond the mere form of the stories and engage the substantive contents.

We have no appetite to deal with the range of cheap gossip that leads to no progress for our much-abused country, and the elevation of the highest ideals of the profession of journalism.

I hope you can accommodate this response in your justly famous blog.

Be well, my brother.

Dapo Olorunyomi

Editor-in-chief/Managing Director, Premium Times, Nigeria

Tobore Ovuorie’s story: Fact or fiction?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

La Vonda R. Staples: A tribute by Professor Toyin Falola

Professor Toyin Falola is the Frances Higginbotham Nalle Centennial Professor in History at the University of Texas at Austin. Falola is also the founder and moderator of the list-serve USA Africa Dialogue, an academic watering hole for scholars and professionals interested in issues pertaining to Africa.

Falola has written a profound and moving tribute to La Vonda R. Staples, writer and scholar,  a robust presence on Twitter and Facebook, who was a beloved member of the USA Africa Dialogue forum, having gained stature, admiration and respect for her no-nonsense but warm and incisive views on pretty much everything that had to do with this life. On January 24, 2014, La Vonda  succumbed to the ravages of cancer, but in her inimitable style, she sent out on her Facebook page, a farewell note:

lavonda 3

Dear Family & Friends,

If you are reading this, I have successfully made my transition to be with my Heavenly Father. I have Lived, Laughed, and Loved. I have shared most of my life experiences & lessons with everyone I know with the intention to help those without a voice. I am overjoyed that I was able to touch as many lives as I have.Believe me when I tell you that I suffer no more, and I am in a much better place. My ancestors and I have a LOT of catching up to do…

Always remember, life is what you make it. Make it your best…you only live once.

I love you all forever,

La Vonda R. Staples

The forum was expecting the end. La Vonda had tried painstakingly to prepare members for the end; she would send regular updates on her condition and she had everything planned, down to the details of her funeral. Yet, when the end came, no one was prepared for the searing, cold, heat of the stab wounds. The village square of mostly scholars used to the vicissitudes of life was desolate, filled only with despair at the loss of a friend gone too soon.

Many will remember La Vonda’s fiery and robust presence on social media, especially on Facebook, but few know of her scholarly side (read her brainy riff on the origins of Rap music here). She was relentlessly inquisitive and generous in sharing her views and feelings to all of  those privileged to be in her company. Falola’s tribute speaks for all grieving on USA-Africa Dialogue,  that playground of gentle but fiery eggheads, .

Here is Professor Falola’s tribute. There is nothing to add, says the sage, nothing:

La Vonda R. Staples: A tribute

“As if we hadn’t completed an embrace,

that is how we are left. 

As if with a pregnant silence…

do you hear it?”

The mid-afternoon was dark, with an unusual snow and cold tormenting the semi-desert land of heat.  The afternoon was faking a departure, for the night was still far away. The news, through warm words communicated by Ikhide’s coldness, became the broken branch in the still night of the Nigerian April.  Ikhide is a master of interference, yesterday and today, and he brewed yet another interference, the hot coffee that burnt our tongues.

The words silenced us for a moment. A moment was dead. At that very moment, the dead moment, a pregnancy was terminated: La Vonda is gone. But the voice told us that La Vonda lives. The miscarriage was fake?Or is this not how they told us, the joy of living and the melancholia of unliving? That is how they told you and I that Sister La Vonda is gone, with an incantation on the endurance of memory. So she is still with us?  It might be so, as the dead assures the living. The dead can speak?

Many never met her. They knew her by words, encouraging, discouraging, elevating, sweet, hurtful, sincere, “hit and run”. We first knew her, and then later we met her. Her words are melted into a big mirror, now hanging on a wall as a text written on an Islamic tablet, fading but legible, script of time, only decodable with patience.  We must unmask, we must reveal ourselves for that wall wants to show itself, with the text before us touching our hearts.

La Vonda’s words turned into images, visible symbols, sometimes still, looking at us, gazing, shaking her head as in the always moving neck of Bolaji Aluko that comes with each declaration, minor and major. The images acquire multiple eyes, fixed. We stand still, unable to move forward, and our bodies become the lodging rooms of pain and agony. Our hearts bleed. La Vonda then begins to laugh at us, mockingly. Why?

Her history remains. You and I have a problem: we do not know where we are headed. La Vonda has a home, we have hearts. In that home lies joy and happiness, and in your hearts lodge pain. La Vonda’s home tells stories, about you and I. We are welcome to listen, in our rainbow coalition.

But the roof of her home has collapsed. Or may be not, but this is what my heart reveals to me. If so, we can no longer go through the door, front or back. There are no longer chairs in the room and the table, too, is gone. Death has killed the moonlight stories and the talebearer. Or may be the roof can be restored, so that La Vonda lives. And then there is a corner which she occupies, sympathizing with our own sorrows and tumult that we add up and subtract from, to make up life.

“The simple truth is that I do not know whether or not she died, but I do know that her history, her time, is here, with us, with those of us who enter her home because she opened the door to us, and she did it because yes, because she wanted to.  Because there are hearts that are so large they only beat when they are with others.”

 La Vonda, Rest in Perfect Peace. Disguise and enter the womb of a pregnant woman, so that in nine month’s time, we have an Iyabo.

O dabo na.        By for now

O di arin na ko      We may meet by accident on the road side

O do ju ala         We may meet in dreams.

 

 

La Vonda 1

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

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

         – Foreign Gods, Inc. Okey Ndibe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

adichieAmericanah

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “Kotma of the ash buttocks,

He is fit to be a slave.

The white man has no sense,

He is fit to be a slave.”

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

I have said my own.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Molara Wood’s Indigo: Enchanting Seasons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are my favorite lines:

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

And:

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

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

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

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

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

Night market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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