Culture, Thoughts on Things

Who is Ifeoma Fafunwa’s ‘Hear Word!’ indicting?

Hear Word! is a play that provokes, and that is a good thing.

Hear Word! is a play that provokes, and that is a good thing.


Over the weekend, hundreds of theatre lovers streamed into Abuja’s Transcorp Hilton for the staging of the much talked-about play, Hear Word! It ended up saying far more than the producers intended. Daily Trust reviews the performance.

‘Hear Word! Naija Women Talk True’ is a feminist play. That would be the impression of most people who have seen it. That was my first impression when I saw it at the Ake Arts and Book Festival in Abeokuta last November. And it will be the impression most people would leave Abuja’s Transcorp Hilton with after the performance debuted in the capital. But is it really?
Core feminists will argue and have argued that it’s not, or at the very least, it is not feminist enough, or it distorts feminism, and they would have reasons for saying so. After all, it is really a matter of perspective.
Some people will even argue that it is not even a play, but a performance, a social commentary delivered with the accompanying theatrical aplomb and spectacle.
Directed by the brilliant Ifeoma Fafunwa, ‘Hear Word,’ unlike a typical play, does not have a single plotline running through. It doesn’t even have conventional scenes; say like in Soyinka’s ‘The Lion and the Jewel’. What it has is 23 sequences, opening with “Chibok Girls” and closing with “A Community Fails.” Each sequence addresses different women issues, from parental expectations, the expectations of conservative mother in-laws on their sons’ wives, to the treatment of widows in society. As would be expected, child marriage and VVF featured.
Fafunwa’s brilliance behind the scenes is showcased on stage by the brilliance of her 10 actors, all of them women of artistic pedigree. Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, Joke Silva, Bimbo Akintola, Elvina Ibru, Omonor, Ufuoma Mcdermott, Zara Udofia Ejoh, Rita Edward, Odenike and Debora Ohiri. The women oozed passion and discipline on stage and through their performances and lines spoke to the audience, captivating them all the way through.
Which brings us to the question of who this play is really directed at? Who is it speaking to? Well, those who expected a play dealing with women issues and featuring an all-woman cast would be disappointed by the dosage of men-bashing. It is fantastically underwhelming.
Fafunwa did not set out to denigrate men and condemn them as the root of all issues plaguing women. The play for the most part, addressed the women themselves; the women who expect their sons’ wives to be as malleable as the fufu they make captured by Omonor in the sequence ‘Dis My Pikin Wife’ or the parents who are never emotionally present for their daughters, brought succinctly to the forefront by the baby-faced Odenike in ‘Dodo’ or the pressures mothers place on their daughters, brilliantly captured in Elvina Ibru and Joke Silva’s monologues in ‘Azuka and Temilola’
In these sequences, and in many more, what is clear is that the play is an indictment on women. The subjugation of women is only possibly with the active agency of other women and their liberation will only be possible with the active participation of women themselves.
But beyond a series of lamentations, ‘Hear Word!’ is also a war cry. This was amply demonstrated by Debbie Ohiri’s Yoruba chant, which ushered in the second segment of the play, the upbeat part, the part where the women stood up and fought against oppression and subjugation.
Cue in Joke Silva’s performance as the title character in the ‘Iyaloja’ sequence. A successful business woman losing her property to her husband’s relative is nothing new, but Iyaloja didn’t take it lying down, she fought back with gusto and intellect and she won, not only the fight for her wealth but the audiences’ euphoric approval as well.
In the sequence, ‘Woman Trafficking’ Zarah Udofia-Ejoh’s character discovered she is trafficked to be a sex slave in Europe. She did not give in but took a militant stand. A bold and encouraging statement, one that should go a long way in encouraging the girls who find themselves enslaved for sex in foreign countries, only if it were that easy, to say ‘I am not doing this, I am not taking this’, as her character did. The reality is different though but what Hear Word! does is to encourage these victims to know that they form the first line of defence, or defiance, in the face of this monumental scourge and national shame.
Expectedly, the men are not spared, even if they are not tongue-lashed to the extent that some would have expected. In ‘Family Meeting’ Omonor brings her brilliance to the role of the battered house wife who defended herself by grabbing her husband’s privates, something the community queried, but not the fact that she was battered.
“…but what you did is not natural,” the husband’s relatives said, after explaining why a man beating his woman is natural.
The battered woman, who refused to roll over and die, threatened to do it again should her husband beat her again, finally eliciting the needed reaction from the family members who finally agreed to talk to their son.
But beyond the stage, the play indicted many. The fact that a play as fascinating as this was staged at the Transcorp’s Congress Hall is an indictment on the culture sector. The Congress Hall is not a theatre. And the fact that Abuja, Nigeria’s shiny new capital, does not have a befitting theatre to host a play like this is a slap in the face of the city’s developers. Frankly, every city in the world worth its salt has a theatre, if not a bevy of them. How else do you have a cultured people?
The lack of a theatre manifested in the lack of theatre decorum exhibited by some members of the audience. From the moment Debbie Ohiri appeared on stage to render the National Anthem, the reaction of a section of the audience suggested there might be a problem.
This lack of decorum peaked when a section of the audience, for whatever reason, found the Sequence ‘Dodo’, where a teenager is recounting how she was sexually abused by her sister’s fiancé, funny. How? The occasional snickers during the play as a whole may be tolerable (I mean the play is serious but it is also really funny) but anyone capable of finding amusement in such a sequence – and yes, most of them were women; I did look – is uncultured and has questionable human values. And to think this of the usually posh Abuja dwellers is just sad.
But nothing topped the Gothic behaviour of the security attachés of the political figures, or the wives of political figures, who came to watch the play, or perhaps just to make their presence known. When security personnel stand in the aisles, preventing people with genuine interest in the play from seeing what they came to see, having paid really good money for it, for that matter, is an indictment. The fact that they impeded the free flow of the production, getting in the way of the production crew, fiddling over sitting arrangement was simply appalling.
The fact that a corporate body, like Etisalat, took it upon itself to bankroll the play and travel with it around the country is an encouragement for the creative sector. Hopefully, Nigeria’s theatre will not die the death of a stray dog.
But despite the rowdiness at the onset, with regards to admission into the venue, and the technical hitches with the lights being miscued well into the play, something I don’t recall happening with the production at Ake, in the end, the art triumphed. ‘Hear Word!’ is a scintillating and evocative performance, one that gives you a reason why you should act and the courage to do so. One that you should see again and again!
(First published in Daily Trust, May 15, 2016)



Madonna del Parto: The Art of Faith

A work of art that draws not only tourists and art lovers from all over the world, but also pregnant women and those hoping to have children

Page 37 (2)

I find this fresco really curious

Monterchi, is a small Italian municipality nestled on the hills not far from Arezzo. At the heart of this sleepy hill town is a famous artwork that straddles the divide between art and faith and has drawn millions of people from around the world.
In the 15th century, early renaissance artist, Piero della Francesca travelled to his mother’s village, Monterchi, to be by her side as she died. In a period of seven days, he worked on a mural on a church wall which has become the most significant cultural attraction of the town and remains so till date.
Piero’s fresco titled Madonna del Parto was unusual even then because it featured a depiction of a pregnant Virgin Mary flanked by two angels. Such depictions were unheard of. The Virgin was often depicted with a child, not pregnant.
The fresco was completed, (possibly around 1460) using blu olteremare drawn from lapis lazuli imported all the way from Afghanistan and 500 years later, despite exposure to the elements and surviving a devastating earthquake, it retains its original colours.
The Virgin Mary, donning in a blue maternity gown, posing modestly with her face cast down is thought by some experts to be bearing the expression of a woman who is contemplating her pregnancy. Others see the face of a belaboured woman entrusted with a burden she wasn’t prepared for. Whatever it was, her face tells its own story, one that may be far from the acceptable narrative that has been fostered and handed down over the centuries.
By her side, there are two winged angels, obviously drawn from the same cartoon flipped over, holding aloft the curtains of a tent featuring arabesque looking directly at the spectator.
For centuries, the fresco stood on the wall it was painted on, in the Santa Maria di Momentana, until the little church was destroyed in an earthquake in 1785. The upper part of the fresco was affected, but the rest of it survived and was detached and moved to the new cemetery chapel. And in the intervening years, the shroud of time covered the painting and its origins in mystery.
It was not until 1889 that Piero was identified as the painter of the work. To date no one knows exactly why he chose to paint it in that little church or why he chose to portray a pregnant Madonna and no one knows who commissioned the work.
In 1992 the fresco, now only a fragment of a wall, was moved to Museo della Madonna del Parto, a musuem in Monterchi dedicated solely to the fresco.
In the museum’s reception, Sara Boncompagni directed proceedings from her place behind a counter. She ushered people into the souvenir shop where key holders, mugs and other memorabilia bearing marks of the fresco are sold.
“We receive about 35 thousand visitors annually,” Sara said.
Many of the visitors are pregnant women or women hoping to conceive. For these women, visiting the museum is not just tourism or even art appreciation, it is a pilgrimage.
“Many of them come here to offer prayers to the Madonna to bless them and help them with their pregnancy,” Sara said.

Page 37 (3)

Sara Boncompagni

In the main exhibition room, the Madonna del Parto was installed on a wall and well lighted. The temperature and humidity is controlled to preserve the fresco. Against a wall there was a lone bench where visitors can sit down and enjoy the artwork.
A cardboard box was placed just beside the painting. It was almost filled with scraps of papers, mostly handwritten notes in Italian. They were special prayers and wishes by the women seeking the intervention of the Madonna in their quests to have children.
A woman came in and knelt before the fresco. She bowed her head in sullen devotion, and muttered prayers under her breath. Finally she crossed herself and left.
“They believe the Madonna can intervene for them,” Sara explained. “It is a matter of faith and has been going on for years and years.”
Every now and then the notes in the box are collected and incinerated. No one reads them.
“They are meant for the Madonna,” Sara said “We would love to keep them but we get so many of them that we don’t have the space to keep them.”
In the other room of the museum, there is the extensive souvenir shop where postcards, pencils, T-Shirts and more souvenir branded with the Madonna are sold. In another room, there were other artefacts connected with the fresco. One was another fresco of a dome commissioned much, much later to replace what was lost in the earthquake when the original suffered some damages. The difference in the quality of the two works and the materials used is quite clear even to an untrained eye. The later fresco has faded while the original retains its more regal hues.
As popular as the fresco is, much of its history has gone largely undocumented and even today, no one can tell why Piero decided to paint a pregnant Madonna. Experts have hazarded that it may have something to do with the old pre-Christian fertility tradition in Monterchi. In the old days, women climbed up the hill and bathed in a spring thought to possess some miraculous fertility powers.
When Christianity came, that practice was replaced with a devotion to a wooden figure of the Virgin Mary. Whether Piero’s fresco draws from this tradition remains unclear.
What is certain however is that this painting, in this little museum has made Monterchi a haven for people who seek the face of the Madonna, whether for arts, culture or pregnancy.

Page 37

Tourists appreciating the fresco


First published in Daily Trust, January 3, 2016




There is so much more that films can do – Stephanie Okereke-Linus


Stephanie Linus

Stephanie Linus

Nollywood star actress, Stephanie Okereke-Linus just premiered her heart-wrenching movie DRY in Abuja, which tells a powerful story about vesico Vaginal Fistula. In this interview, the director and lead actress in the movie talks about her cause, the joy of producing the movie and her pregnancy.

(First published in Daily Trust of August 30, 2015)




You just premiered your latest movie, Dry, in Abuja. It is a powerful movie. Why did you want to make this movie?


I made the movie because I just had to. There is this strong desire in everyone to use his or her talents and resources to drive forward a strong passion. And that’s what happened with DRY. The plight of women living with Vesico Vaginal Fistula is something I’ve been drawn to for several years. Since I first heard about the condition while studying at the university, I’ve had a yearning to raise awareness about this condition and educate as many people as possible on how it can be prevented. I’ve also been passionate about informing those who are ignorant that repair surgeries can be used to correct this while offering as many free surgeries as I can through my charity foundation. Making the movie is one of the many ways I’ve used to lend my voice to this cause.


A lot of people in the audience shed a tear or two. Was this something you aimed for with the movie?


DRY has a deep message and I’m glad that it resonated deeply within the audience. The characters in the movie expressed different emotions. Sometimes they made you laugh, sometimes they made you cry. I guess most people were shocked to see themselves cry, especially the men. They weren’t expecting it. I wanted the message to hit home and hit hard, and if people had to shed tears for this to happen, then I’d say my work is done.


You spoke passionately about the plight of women with VVF and you have set up a foundation to help. At what point did you realise it was important for you to do something about this situation rather than just lament about it?


Nothing gets solved by just talking about it. I realised this a long time ago. When I first started doing some research about VVF, I met and interacted with lots of girls and women who had this condition and there was one thing I saw clearly in their eyes – a strong desire to be DRY again. They had been shamed, ridiculed, separated from the society and wanted to feel whole again. You don’t achieve this by just lamenting; you achieve this by carrying out the repair surgeries that would fix the condition. I knew early enough that I had to do something to help as many women as I could, and thankfully, some corporate organisations (like SNEPCO & Diamond Bank) that I approached for support shared my passion and donated towards our medical pool efforts at the Extended Hands Foundation.


You also used the movie premiere to launch an appeal for donations to the Extended Hands foundation. How do you intend to use these donations to reach people with this condition?

At the Extended Hands Foundation, we have a robust plan to cover the six geo-political zones in the country with our awareness programs and free repair surgeries for women with VVF in the coming year. Already, we have carried out free repair surgeries for over 80 women in Ibadan, Kwara and Ogoja. We want to do more as there are still hundreds of thousands of girls and women living with VVF in Nigeria. We will partner with VVF Centers and Teaching Hospitals across the country where the surgeries will be carried out. We will also donate medical and surgical equipment to these hospitals for the care of the women.

Another major thing we are going to focus on is education. We want to educate as many people as we can in the rural communities about how people actually get VVF and how they can protect themselves from falling victims.

Page 36 (6)

What were the challenges of making the movie?

First, I must say that every challenge encountered was a stepping stone to success as nothing good comes easy. From the challenge of getting adequate funding, to finding the right location and then getting the best world-class team to work with. We often had to shoot under harsh weather conditions and in an environment that had some adverse effect on some of our team members from the USA. But at the end of the day, everyone gave it their best shot and we were able to overcome the challenges with kind support from several well-meaning people and organisations.


One of the most interesting things about the movie is that it features Liz Benson-Ameye. How did you convince her to star in the movie and what was the experience of working with her?


While I was writing the script, I was also thinking about people who could play the different roles and make the characters come alive. One person that stood out to me for the role of The Matron was Liz Benson-Ameye. At that time, she had not been on a movie set for several years and I thought it was going to be tough to convince her. But thankfully, the strong message of the script and her role did the convincing. Coincidentally, she had been thinking of returning to acting but hadn’t come across the right kind of script. When she read DRY, she knew this was the script she had been looking for.


She did look great in the movie. What roles did donor agencies play in making this movie possible?


I am very grateful to the several organisations that lent their time and resources to making this movie a success. This film was supported by the Office of the Special Adviser to the President on MDGs Nigeria, Aberystwyth University Wales, Diamond Bank, Ford Foundation, Project Act Nollywood, USAID Acquired Fistula Project, Vlisco and more.


Zubaidat Ibrahim Fagge delivered some powerful performances in the movie. Were you surprised by what she brought to the screen considering this was her first role in the big screen?

Page 36 (4)

Oh, yes I was! She is a very talented girl who is going to go places and it was so beautiful and rewarding to be the one to unveil her to the world. I also have to thank Hauwa Maina, the lady who played the role of her mother in the movie. She was the one that brought her and I knew I could direct and get her into character because it’s her first time acting. Zubaidat is a natural, and she brought life to her character in the movie.


Interestingly, this movie also highlights the collaboration between Nollywood and Kannywood. What was it like working with these actors?


It was very rewarding working with every actor in DRY. I personally don’t like putting a distinction in the names by using Nollywood and Kannywood. We are all actors and everyone played their roles passionately. DRY had a very healthy mix of talented actors from different parts of Nigeria and abroad.


Wasn’t it ironic that in the movie, the mother and the daughter suffered the same fate? Was this something you aimed at?


It is not uncommon to see mother and child suffering from the same medical condition. When barbaric cultural practices and no access to quality maternal health care are suffered by both mother and child, the consequences are very similar. In the movie, both mother and child got pregnant at very young ages and were forced to endure agonizing labour pains at home without access to proper health care. The distinction here is that one got repaired successfully and it was too late for the other. Sadly, this is the true story of thousands of women today.


In a scene in the movie, Dr Zara confronts a government official who assures her that the government is dealing with the situation. To what extent do you think this attitude has contributed to the prevalence of this condition?


There is no doubt about it, the government needs to do more in several ways. From facilitating education and enlightenment programmes to curb the situation as well as providing affordable health care for those already affected, enabling laws – there are loop holes everywhere. But DRY seeks to do much more than just telling the government to do more. It tells everyone in the family unit and the larger society that we all have roles to play. In DRY, we can see the shortcomings of several members of the society; it tells us where the parents, aunties, friends, sisters and others have gone wrong. So it’s not just the government that needs to deal with the situation, everyone has a role to play.


Clearly you want this movie to be seen by as many people as possible. What next after the cinema release? How do you plan to get this movie to the people in the rural areas where these situations are prevalent?


We will be taking our mobile cinemas to several local governments across the country, especially the rural areas where people need more education about the importance of quality maternal health care for pregnant women. We will also be visiting schools and organising enlightening workshops in communities where such information is most needed.


It must be tough promoting this movie considering that you are expecting. How are you coping?


Well, it is quite challenging, especially when I have to be in certain places physically, (Hey! I’m not complaining because I thank God for this amazing gift), but my team is very much active in the promotion. DRY was screened at the Bentonville Film Festival in the USA some months back and the Editor and Co-producer, Jane Lawalata, was there to represent us and pick up an award on my behalf. Also, thanks to technology, I can participate in several conversations without being there physically. I’d definitely do more next year. We will be embarking on an African tour with film next year.


Would you say this is the most meaningful movie you have made to date?


Every movie I have been a part of has had a strong meaning and has helped shaped my career to where it is now. I do not take any project for granted. DRY is very dear to my heart and would always remain so. But people should go to the cinema and see DRY-support this movie.


Nollywood has undergone a lot of changes and we have what some people term the “New Nollywood”. What are your thoughts on these developments?


Change is the only constant thing in life and when that change is positive, it gives room for growth and development. We are seeing better quality movies in the industry because some people have dared to raise the norm. Some years back, we didn’t have our movies showing in the cinemas, but now things are different in a better way. It’s a good development.


Is it right to assume that after this movie, you will take time off for motherhood. How much are you looking forward to it?


I’m so excited about it and I’m very grateful to God for this opportunity. My child and my family Page 36are very dear to me and would always have my full attention. It doesn’t matter where I am or what I’m doing, they will always come first.




Arojah Theatre breathes life into Ben Tomoloju’s wilted flower

Arojah Theatre breathes life into Ben Tomolojun’s wilted flower

Ikpomwonsa Gold (Gbotaye), Tunde Ijadunola(Dingi) and Ebichi Promise (Motowun) in "Flowers' Introspect". The play was directed by Adesewo Fayaman Bay.

Ikpomwonsa Gold (Gbotaye), Tunde Ijadunola(Dingi) and Ebichi Promise (Motowun) in “Flowers’ Introspect”. The play was directed by Adesewo Fayaman Bay.


Few gladiators have kept the flame of the theatre burning in Abuja, the city without a functional purpose-built theatre. Fewer have done it with the persistence and consistency that Arojah Theatre has over the last few years.

And in keeping with this, the Jerry Adesewo-led theatre group staged Ben Tomoloju’s “Flower’s Introspect”. The show ran from Wednesday to Friday at the rather small stage of the Korean Cultural Centre, which was certainly not designed to host plays of that magnitude.

For theatre lover’s, it was a rare treat. For critical members of the audience, it was an opportunity to introspect, to borrow from the title, on our perceptions about gender relations and our humanity.

The play is focused on three young men, Gbotaye, Dingi and Motowun, who like typical young men, are trying to navigate the minefield that is relationship and dating.

Poor and with stunted dreams, they obsess over the women in their lives and their frustration and a series of unfortunate events make for an interesting comedy.

Gbotaye is infatuated with the flirtatious Mosun, Dingi is in love with the very pious Christianah who offers him the Bible each time he reaches for her hand, and Motowun is driven to the point of insanity by his love for Teniola, daughter of a tycoon, who does not approve of the relationship.

In the end, none of them wins as, after suffering beatings and other misfortunes, they all lose out on the girls, none worse than Dingi, whose pious girlfriend commits suicide after she is raped by a priest.

The playwright’s attempt to win sympathy for the characters at the end falls flat on its face and the reason is quite clear.

The play opens with the three men gloating over a girl who has been raped. They laugh at her misfortune and justify the act because the girl is not favourably disposed to the men who approach her.

This does not engendeer goodwill for the characters in the minds of the audience and somehow, one hopes that they should suffer for their gloating. This is worsened by the fact that there was no further attempt by the playwright to address this issue and it makes one wonder what really the point of it is in the first place.

So when Gbotaye, played by Ikpomwonsa Gold, in his stupidity to see his girlfriend at 4 am is brutalized by the police and then sees the girl being dropped off by a rich lover, one can only gloat at him in return.

The same thing applies when Motowun, played by Ebichi Promise, is horsewhipped by his girlfriend’s father for venturing to see her.

And ultimately when Dingi, played by the impressive Tunde Ijadunola, discovers that his Christianah had committed suicide a year before, just after she had been raped, the potential tear-jerking moment just doesn’t quite happen and the audience ended up laughing, perhaps at Dingi’s comical way of way mourning his beloved.

“He ruined her make-up,” he laments about what the priest had done to her.

For this play, the make-up was ruined right from the onset and one is not surprised to learn that since the play was written in 1976, it had only been staged during the playwrights school days at the University of Ibadan, then in the mid-80s and then recently by Arojah under the direction of Adesewo Fayaman Bay.

Aristotle implied that for a tragedy to be successful, the characters should be noble. There is really nothing noble about Tomoloju’s characters, men who gloat over something as inhumane as rape. And this ultimately ruined the tragedy of Christianah’s death. But there was something commendable about the acting of this cast and kudos should be given to Director Bay for it.

Arojah put on a great performance, even with the limited resources available to them. But this is not a great story. Far from it.




Eli Wallach as Tuco Ramirez in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

“When you want to shoot, shoot, shoot, don’t talk.”

That is perhaps one of the most memorable line from a movie delivered in the 1966 Spaghetti Western The Good, The Bad and the Ugly by the ebullient bandit Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez, simply known as The Ugly.

Few actors engrave themselves in the minds of generations of film lovers like Eli Wallach managed to do without being so noisy about it. Not many people will remember his actual name, but most would remember his character.

After a long life on and off screen and in theathres, Wallach died June 24, 2014 in New York at the grand old age of 94. His acting career stretched from 1945 to 2010 when he featured in his last major role in the film Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps alongside Michael Douglas and Shia Labeouf.

Though his career stretched almost interminably, he was never nominated for the Oscars despite outstanding roles as perhaps one of the stand out character actors in Hollywood and great performances in movies like Baby Doll (1956) The Godfather III (1990), and The Misfits (1961), The Magnificent Seven (1960) and of course as Tuco in The God, The Bad and The Ugly (1966).

He however got the Bafta for his breakout role in Baby Doll. He also received a Tony Award and an Emmy for his works and in 2010 he was given an honorary Oscar for his contribution to the film industry at the age of 94.

In Nigeria, Wallach is best remembered as the Mexican bandit Tuco and generations of Nigerians, reveled in the lines he delivered with his care free philosophy of a bandit who is determined to survive despite the odds.

Wallach was however not crazy about being on set, often preferring roles in the theatre, especially in early on in his career.

He was once quoted as saying, “What do I need a movie for? The stage is on a higher level in every way, and a more satisfying medium. Movies, by comparison, are like calendar art next to great paintings. You can’t really do very much in movies or in television, but the stage is such an anarchistic medium.”

He often appeared on stage alongside his wife for 66 years, Anne Jackson with whom he had three children.

Eli Wallach lives on.


Memorable Lines from Tuco Ramirez

  • I like big fat men like you. When they fall they make more noise and sometimes they never get up!
  • [To his brother Pablo] You think you’re better than I am? Where we came from, if one did not want to die of poverty, one became a priest or a bandit! You chose your way, I chose mine. Mine was harder. You talk of our mother and father. You remember when you left to become a priest? I stayed behind! I must have been ten, twelve. I don’t remember which, but I stayed. I tried, but it was no good. Now I am going to tell you something. You became a priest because you were… too much of a coward to do what I do!
  • There are two kinds of people in the world, my friend. Those who have a rope around their neck and those who have the job of doing the cutting.


Remembering Tuco

Book Talk, Culture

Achebe’s Long Journey Home

There was nothing more striking about Chinua Achebe’s funeral than the ambiance  for how does one mourn a man who had become an ancestor while still very much alive? And perhaps caught in this conundrum, events to mark the funeral, euphemistically dubbed ‘transition’, were tinged with an ambiance of a celebratory sense of loss.


Rt. Rv Owen Nwokolo receiving Achebe’s casket at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport, Abuja

He had accomplished more than he had envisaged, perhaps, more than was envisaged for him. And had, by all his accomplishments, risen to the point where the Archbishop of Aba Anglican Province, Ikechi Nwachucku Nwosu said of him: “There are some people who cannot be buried.”

The mortal remains of Achebe were lowered into his grave at a mausoleum built within the walls of his house in his native Ogidi, Anambra State. That was where he was born in 1930. The little town was graced by Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan and his Ghanaian counterpart John Mahama, several state governors and top politician and writers and cultural leaders.

Achebe was famed for his criticism of politicians starting from his third novel Man of the People (1966), which predicted the incursion of the military into the administration of Nigeria following the colossal failure of the political class. He followed this satire with his 1982 seminal piece, The Trouble with Nigeria.

Ironically, it was this same book that President Jonathan held up in front of mourners at the St. Philip Anglican Church, Ogidi and echoed Achebe’s conclusion about the failure of leadership as the bane of Nigeria.

“He was making references to what was happening in the 1950s and 1960s,” the president said, “for those of us holding political office, we should ask ourselves: Have we changed?”

The mourners were unanimous in shouting back, “No!”

Achebe knew, before he died, that there had been little or no change in the quality of leadership in the country, prompting him to turn down two national honours, the last under president Jonathan, (in 2011) citing then the complicity of the presidency in the political chaos in his native Anambra State. Angrily, the presidency had lashed out at Achebe. But at Ogidi, before Achebe’s mournful family, President Jonathan spoke for 12 minutes, lauding the qualities of the late literary icon.

It was a national burial. Achebe deserved no less, being a global figure and as Emeka Anyaoku, former Secretary General of the Commonwealth described him as the man who “gave Africa its confidence” but it was unsurprisingly in his native Anambra that the ovation was loudest.

The burial programme was elaborate, arrived at after some serious deliberations. It is never easy burying a man of Achebe’s calibre as all and sundry would lay claims to his remains.

There was a national day of prayers at the Ecumenical Centre in Abuja Sunday May 19th, followed by a symposium on the life and times of Chinua Achebe at the International Conference Centre, Abuja.

The controversy surrounding his last book There Was a Country, published just months before his death played subtly in the minds of those who spoke at the event.

Chairman of the occasion, Governor Mu’azu Babangida Aliyu of Niger State, speaking through his commissioner of Information and Integration, Muhammad Yahya Kuta, said, “Achebe, till the end of his life, believed that Nigeria will be great if we do the right thing.”

That evening, more tributes poured in. Speeches were made, poems were read and even a drama adaptation of Achebe’s works was staged. American novelist and essayist, Michael Thelwell, said in a moving and colourful keynote address, “Achebe is not lamenting the loss of the Biafran dream but the abuse of the heritage of Africa by its leadership.”

And perhaps that was why some of those in leadership, who on many occasions have had to put up with Achebe’s blunt criticism, didn’t show up for that event prompting Senator Ken Nnamani to look at the half-filled hall and lament, “If we were launching a brand new beer here, the hall would have been filled.”

And the next morning, when Achebe’s corpse arrived Abuja’s Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport, Governor Peter Obi of Anambra State explained, in the absence of his colleagues, that he was representing governors from the South East.

The corpse arrived in a coffee-coloured mahogany casket draped in the national colours of green and white accompanied by his widow, Prof. Christie Achebe. She sat grim-faced alongside her four children, and other relatives, dressed in black and gold head gears as the officiating priest, Rt. Rev. Owen Nwokolo prayed for the repose of Achebe’s soul.

As the casket was loaded into the a smaller airplane that would take it to Enugu, outside the domestic lounge of the airport, long closed down for renovations but reopened to receive the remains of the literary icon, members of a cultural troupe stood uncertainly, not sure if to commence dancing or act appropriately sombre. They never got the chance to showcase their moves.

Sadly though, the South East governors were not in Enugu either to receive Achebe’s corpse and the little reception planned for it had to be cancelled, as was the Ohanaeze night of mourning and ikoro salute. No explanation was given. But a procession by staff and students of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where Achebe taught and eventually founded the Association of Nigerian Authors, held, as well as a senate sitting in honour of the writer.

At the border of Enugu and Anambra states, Governor Peter Obi, who had been travelling with the corpse all along, formally received the casket as it entered into his states and was promptly moved to the Alex Ekweume Square where hundreds had gathered to pay homage to Achebe.

The casket was laid in the middle of the square and an ambiance of awe and wonder, and the uncertainty of how to mourn or celebrate the life of Chinua Achebe resurfaced again. But the president of the Association of Nigerian Authors, Professor Remi Raji put it in context when he said, “We are here to celebrate the mortality and immortality of Achebe.”

Around the square, copies of Achebe’s books, especially his last, There was a Country, was being hawked by book vendors. Some of the copies were clearly pirated. But beyond that fact, it was evident that Achebe had contrived to achieve immortality ala William Shakespeare and other literary greats.

And perhaps in recognition of his greatness Prof. Fidelis Nwankwo of the Anambra State University in his tribute declared Achebe as “the field marshal of African literature” in the battle to disabuse the minds of those corrupted by false notions of Africans perpetuated in literature prior to the publication of Things Fall Apart.

Interestingly, that book alone has sold over 12 million copies and has been translated into over 50 languages, and perhaps one more. Copies of the Igbo version of the book suddenly surfaced at the square and were distributed to dignitaries. It was poorly produced but there is no other Igbo translation of the book available. The controversies around this persist, even after Achebe’s death.

And there too, there were no tears, apart from that of former minister of education Obiageli Ezekwesili. To her, Achebe’s character brought into sharp relief that of the people driven by the hunger of worldly acquisition. “Achebe is not a man of things but a man of values,” she said.

Her teary homage culminated with her quoting Aristotle’s saying that the best of men is the one who bears the accidents of life with dignity and grace. “Achebe did not bear his circumstances, he defined them,” she said.


Ike Achebe performing the dust to dust rite.

In Ogidi, Achebe’s birth home, his remains was received by a sea of red-capped chiefs at the town hall, where another set of tributes followed while the Achebe family sat and listened, again in matching attires. At the same time, work on the author’s country house was still ongoing. The mausoleum where his body will be laid to rest was still being constructed.

It was here, in that new structure with glass walls that the remains of the simple Chinua, whose words touched the minds of children and adults and simpletons and presidents that he was indeed interred. A casket, a tomb of glass and concrete walls and the relative obscurity of Ogidi cannot repress the legacies of one of Africa’s biggest literary exports.

(This article was first published in Sunday Trust of May 26, 2013)


Barmani Choge: The last of the strong ones

The death of Hajiya Sa’adatu Aliyu popularly known as Barmani Choge was a phenomenal loss to women and to traditional Hausa Music.

The death recent of iconic Hausa singer Barmani Choge perhaps marks the end of an era. Not only was her brand of Amada music peculiar, sung in her sultry voice to the accompaniment of calabashes, sometimes inverted in water, but her lyrics were defining.

Since her death in Funtua was announced by her son, Alhaji Hamza Aliyu Monday March 4, eulogies have continued to pour in for a woman considered both iconic and in part deviant.

For a part of the country shackled in tradition and hemmed in by patriarchy, Barmani’s rise to prominence with her daring music that can be defined as feminist in every sense of the word, and sometimes very racy is a remarkable feat.

Often parents would shield their children from listening to her music when she was aired on TV or on radio, especially when she crooned out those salacious lines that women hailed with ululations and cheers and sometimes with bowed heads due to the brazenness of her words and their delivery. But this often increased the young ones’ desire to hear this woman the more.

Born in 1943 or 1945, (that has not been definitively established) in the town of Funtua, Barmani soaked up the cosmopolitan nature of that place that produced the legendary Mamman Shata, and she picked up what had hitherto been a pastime for women in the confines of their houses (the beating of calabashes) and made a successful music career out of it. And all these, while having a dozen children or so along the way. A feat she celebrated in her song “Gwanne Ikon Allah”. She reportedly married at 15.

Hajiya Barmani Choge in her element

Hajiya Barmani Choge in her element

The Funtua in which Barmani and Shata grew was teeming with brothels and a joire de vivre approach to life and was perhaps ripe for the lewd lyrics of her hit song “Wakar Duwai wai”, which in contemporary Nigerian music would have taken a fitting title like “The bum bum song”. In it, Barmani praises the female physiognomy and its inherent powers, how a woman can wiggle her backside and have a man do her bidding. Women loved it, and men smiled a silent acknowledgement. And Barmani’s place as a social deviant was firmly established.

Some of her lyrics focus on the emancipation of women, economically and otherwise. She is sometimes brutish in her criticism off women who refuse to do anything to improve their economic stations in life. Consider her lyrics in “Ku Kama Sana’a, Mata” (Women, take up a trade) or her unreserved bashing of women who are not as smart as they ought to be and prefer to be reliant on others such as in “Sakarai Bata da Wayo”, (Fool, she’s not smart).

But Barmani was not a total rebel and did not encourage social disorder despite the unconventional slant of her lyrics. This despite her opposition to polygamy in her song “Dare Allah Magani”. She sang about childbirth and bragged about her dozen children, split equally between the genders. Of this dozen, she was survived by six and some 60 grandchildren.

Her successful career spanned over four decades from when she started singing at 27 and in the tradition of Hausaland acquired a number of wealthy patrons who sponsored her on trips, showered her with gifts of cars, money and other luxury items.

She was, for a long while, the sole proprietress of the Amada brand of music, having been preceded by Hajiya Uwaliyo mai Amada, whom Barmani had since outclassed and surpassed in accomplishments.

But her star had been in decline for a while, no thanks to the changes in time, globalisation of music, and the influence of contemporary forms of Hausa music a la Kannywood. And at the time of her death, Barmani was not in very good financial standing.

She had been ill for some time, reportedly on and off over the last five years, until she was struck down by hypertension that left her paralysed some two months before her death. That according to her son Hamza, who had the grave task of announcing her demise, saying one part of her body had been totally immobile in the last few weeks.

With Barmani gone, it would seem the curtain has fallen on an era of traditional Hausa music particularly among women, which she epitomised in all its glory and brazenness and which now yearns for an heir.