Book Talk, Thoughts on Things

Soyinka, Achebe and the Irreverent Generation

2016 is the year Nigeria’s “irreverent generation” have taken on literary giants. Wole Soyinka has been infuriated and heckled by social media critics over his vow to tear up his American Green Card should Donald Trump with the US elections. Chinua Achebe has had his place in the literary temple questioned and the year is closing with debates about who is a better writer between Achebe and Adichie.

Soyinka, Achebe. In the Nigerian and African literary arenas, these names have been sacrosanct, revered and ascribed the status of demigods. This is no doubt as a result of their hardwork which has placed Nigeria and Africa in global literary reckoning. One is a Nobel laureate. The other should have been. (After all, Bob Dylan did get it)

But in the last few weeks of 2016, there has been an increasing irreverence, if one may use that word, in the veneration of these literary deities. It started with Soyinka, not for his literature but for something as banal as comments he made vowing to tear up his American Green Card should Donald Trump win the US elections. Mr. Trump won and young Nigerians on social media were eager to see Soyinka keep his words. He dallied. The consequence was that Soyinka has been heckled by hordes of what he himself, in his characteristic candour, described as “imbecile and morons.”

What was shocking about this episode was that some of these Nigerians on social media, mostly young people, some not even born when Soyinka won his Nobel in 1986, questioned Soyinka’s literary credentials. They queried if he won the Nobel for his literary prowess or for his political activism. It goes without saying that Soyinka isn’t as widely read amongst this generation, and perhaps among many Nigerians who have come to revere the myth that Soyinka has become but have been in awe of his political heroism. And when that one thing they have venerated him for, if they ever have, is questioned by his refusal to tear up his Green Card, the issue of his literary merit will come up naturally.

“I should not be exiting the United States but Nigeria because the people on behalf of whom one has struggled all one’s life can be so slavish in mentality as to start querying the right of their champion to free speech,” an angry Soyinka said.

The fact that these young people managed to infuriate a man in his 80s, who has played a huge role in shaping the history and perception of Nigeria in the world is to say the least unfortunate, that they have managed to drag him to the public arena to showcase this infuriation is something that takes some guts, not of the good kind.

And if Achebe thought by dying he had escaped the clawing fingers of this irreverent generation, he might have another think coming. Since he is not as celebrated for his activism as Soyinka has been, the one thing that has given him credit across generations (since ‘Things Fall Apart’ was published in 1958), his literary integrity has been splayed by the road side and the mortals of social media have taken pot shots at it.

Most people think ‘Things Fall Apart’ is the next best thing after the holy books, and questioning the ‘masterpieceness’ of the work is akin to blasphemy in the literary realm, those with contrary opinion about the work have been forced underground, to launch isolated verbal attacks in small private conversations amongst trusted friends, where they can express their bafflement at the greatness of the book. Any public discourse claiming that TFA is not as great a book as is being projected is met with a virtual mob justice, as the writer Onyeka Nwelue, discovered. In an interview with Premium Times he had said, “I think ‘Things Fall Apart’ should be buried and never made to resurrect.

“If you’ve read ‘Things Fall Apart’ and have read what young people write these days… you would know that Achebe’s writing of Things Fall Apart at that age was not intelligent; he was not exposed.”

Naturally, for questioning the merits of a literary deity, Onyeka unwittingly submitted himself to a barrage of insults and his own credentials as a writer were questioned in return. Not to mention the many unprintables he was called.

Of recent, social media has been awash with discussions over comparisons being made between Achebe and the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The bases for this comparison are as baffling as the comparison itself. That Adichie might be a better writer than Achebe should not even be the subject of intellectual engagements (this does not preclude readers’ rights to preferences). It is almost as if saying mayonnaise is better than butter. The two are infinitely not the same. The parameters for comparison between Achebe and Adichie simply do not exist. It was Plato after all who said that the bases for any disagreement and comparison should be the parameters.

There are, of course, no bases to say that Achebe’s literary credentials should not be weighed and measured, (that is what critics are devoted to doing and something readers are entitled to do) but weighing it against the works of another writer like Adichie is inherently unfair on both writers.

Is Achebe the greatest writer ever? Is ‘Things Fall Apart’ the best book ever written by an African? These questions are inherently faulty because there is no universal parameter to adjudicate and determine an answer to them.

Incidentally, Achebe himself did not necessarily think that ‘Things Fall Apart’ was his best work. He is on record as favouring ‘Arrow of God’. If Achebe wrote ‘Things Fall Apart’ in 2016, I hardly think he would find a publisher. There are issues of literary aesthetics, among others, to be considered. This is in no way questioning the greatness of the book (which has almost been made sacrosanct by African and other intellectuals). But he wrote the book in the 1950s, with scant exposure, in a period where there are no precedence to fall back on.

The greatness of ‘Things Fall Apart’ therefore rests in the period it was written and in response to what it was written. Achebe might not have been exposed when he wrote that book but that is not a minus but a plus, that with the scarce exposure he had he was able to churn out something with this much staying power, a book that has influenced generations of writers and intellectuals worldwide is a testament to its glory, whether earned or ascribed (debates about the originality of the work will not be a focus of this piece).

Whereas a critical mind should never shy away from questioning the essence of the literary deities, that is after all what it means to be discerning and not be bound by dogma. We must not forget that they have suffered to earn their place in the sun, among the oracles. There are ways to critically engage with them and their works with some decorum. Some comparisons have no place in the arena of the discerning.

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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)

 

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Book Talk, Thoughts on Things

Mutiny at Oxford

The 16th Caine Prize for African Writing was awarded to Zambia’s Namwali Serpell. In an unusual gesture, Serpell decided to “share the prize” with her fellow shortlistees. What does this gesture mean for the prize?

 

Namwali Serpell winner of the Caine Prize

Namwali Serpell winner of the Caine Prize

The annual Caine Prize Dinner had moved. A change of venue from the old Bodleian Library built in the elegant English Gothic style in 1602, where the award ceremony for Africa’s most prestigious literary prize has held over the last 15 years. The new venue is the New Bodleian, just across the street from the old one, a sprawling modern building with glass walls and electronic displays.

Perhaps it was indicative of the shift that would happen that night, 16 years after the Caine Prize came into being when the winner of the ₤10, 000 prize for short story led what was in effect a mutiny against the establishment.

Zambian Namwali Serpell, with her cherubic looks and innocent eyes, which belly an enormous self-assuredness, does not strike one as the rebellious type. And when she was announced as the winner of the prize by the enchanting Zoe Wicomb, Chair of Judges, one immediately thinks, that would be the perfect poster girl for African literature.

But on mounting the podium, overwhelmed at first by her triumph, Namwali took little time to make an impression. She did something that had never been done before. She invited the other writers who had been shortlisted alongside her to join her on the podium and declared that she wanted to “share the prize with them.”

“None of us wants to compete against each other,” she said, “we just want to be honoured.”

This she said was as a result of a pact she had made with the other writers; Elnathan John and Segun Afolabi from Nigeria and FT Kola and Masande Ntshanga from South Africa. The pact that whoever won would call up the others and share the prize with them was not unanimous among the writers but it was still a powerful statement.

Namwali said she hoped it would “restructure the prize”, an ambitious statement if ever there was one.

In the last 16 years the prize has always been structured like this: Five shortlistees emerge, the five go to London, read their stories, engage in promotional activities, eat and wine and in the end, one person goes home with ₤10, 000. This year, there have been changes. The other shortlisted writers, who in previous years would have gone home without a dime, are leaving with 500 pounds as consolation. Apparently this was not enough for the shortlistees this year and they decided to take things into their hands.

The choice of Oxford as the setting for this mutiny, if you like, is telling. After all, it is here, not too far from where Namwali, made a statement that Zimbabwe’s greatest writer to date, Dambudzo Marechera made a name for himself as a self-destructive genius. He made an even more violent statement when being awarded the 1979 Gaurdian Fiction Prize when he started to launch dinner plates at a chandelier in protest over perceived wrong. It was from this same Oxford that his anarchist conduct led to his expulsion after threatening to set the school ablaze.

Namwali is by no means an anarchist. She is an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley English Department and is on the prestigious Africa39 list of the most promising African writers under 40 (And I am not just saying it is prestigious because I am also on that list), and there is a method to her mutiny.

She will share the prize money with her fellow shortlisted writers but to what extent will she “share the prize” with them?

It was only Namwali that posed beside the bust of Michael Caine, along with Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, not the other writers. The media have announced Namwali winner of the prize, despite this grand stand. It will most likely be only Namwali going to  take up a month’s residence at Georgetown University as Writer-in-Residence at the Lannan Centre for Poetics and Social Practice, as well as get an invite to the Open Book Festival in Cape Town, the Storymoja Festival in Nairobi and the Ake Festival in Abeokuta, Nigeria. Those are some of the perks associated with winning the Caine Prize.

In reality, as some would argue, were the shortlisted writers competing against each other? Technically, not really. The prize is awarded at the discretion of the judges; the writers have nothing to do to affect the outcome of the prize, they can’t improve or enhance their chances of winning it, neither will any misconduct cost them the prize. The days of reading and public engagement in London do not in any way give extra points to the shortlistees. The judges and the shortlistees are not even allowed to interact or engage the same space in a way that could influence the outcome of the award.

When I was shortlisted for the prize in 2013, an unforeseen situation occurred. By some coincedence, the shortlisted writers and one of the judges ended up attending the same event, a public lunch that included a tour of the gallery of the British Museum. The instructions came in thick and fast. No conversation. No eye contact with the judge. No moving close to her. No gestures to draw attention. Nothing. She is expected to do likewise.

And so we spent the awkward evening wandering the gallery of the British Museum suddenly changing direction each time this judge was sighted. And she spent the evening doing the same. A beautiful woman had suddenly been made a Medusa to us.

So in reality, it is hardly a contest. The judges sit, read the stories and decide which of the stories will be awarded the prize.

As Zoe Wicomb, chair of this year’s judges said while announcing the prize, “From a very strong shortlist we have picked an extraordinary story about the aftermath of revolution with its liberatory promises shattered. It makes demands on the reader and challenges conventions of the genre. It yields fresh meaning with every reading.  Formally innovative, stylistically stunning, haunting and enigmatic in its effects. ‘The Sack’ is a truly luminous winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing.”

But even she admits that the story is a difficult read saying they had to re-read it to get it, and she knew readers would have to reread it again. Not everyone will agree with the decision but almost everyone ought to respect it.

Alongside Zoë on the panel of judges are Neel Mukherjee, author of the award-winning debut novel, A Life Apart (2010) and the Man Booker Prize shortlisted The Lives of Others (2014); Brian Chikwava, author and former winner of the Caine Prize (2004); Zeinab Badawi, the prominent broadcaster and Chair of the Royal African Society; and Cóilín Parsons, Assistant Professor of English at Georgetown University who has written on Irish, South African and Indian literature.

Namwali winning the prize is also a huge validation for the Africa39 list, which has identified a number of talented writers on the continent, among them several past winners and shortlisted writers for the prize as the future of writing from the continent. Namwali’s winning story ‘The Sack’ is from the Africa39 Anthology and one could see the obvious pride on the face of the anthology editor, Ellah Allfrey, who got emotional after Namwali’s triumph and unusual gesture.

How this statement will shape the prize remains to be seen, but no one should underestimate the power of idea. And with this act, Namwali has embodied an idea that some writers may have nurtured over the years.

 

This article was first published in Daily Trust newspaper of July 11, 2015

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Thoughts on Things, Uncategorized

So Long, Gabo

Colombian Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, affectionately called Gabo, passed away in Mexico City Thursday April 17, 2014. Sunday Trust’s Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, who is also a 2013 Gabriel Garcia Marquez Fellow, writes about his visit to Gabo’s village, the man and his legacy.

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Sometimes, some people contrive to attain immortality by their accomplishments and become living ancestors. But when such immortals pass into the night, it is always stunning for the generations that have been bred on their legends.

I never met Gabo but I felt I knew him intimately. I first encountered his work in 2008 when a friend, who thought there were the faintest hints of similarities between my budding writing and Gabo’s, offered me his novel, Love in the Time of Cholera. I read it and discovered the literary father I didn’t realise I was looking for. I gobbled up everything I could find that Gabo had written thereafter and felt such a connection I had never felt with any other writer before.

This connection was reinforced when in January, 2013, as part of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez fellowship, I walked through the streets of Aracataca, the small Colombian village where he was born and felt as if I have been there before, seen the people before. I felt I knew their stories already.

Walking those streets was like walking into one of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s enchanting novels. On the familiar railway platform, an all too recurrent feature in Gabo’s stories, one would expect to see the Colonel, protagonist of his novella No One Writes to the Colonel, sitting on the platform waiting a mail that never comes. What you will eventually see though is the ice house that inspired Gabo to send Jose Arcadio Beundia on a mission to build a city with mirror walls that later became Macondo, perhaps the most famous fictional city in the world, in his most famous novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.

You will also see Buendia’s wife, Ursula, sitting, looking into the distance, like one lost in a century of solitude. This Ursula, made of metal, reclines in a little museum dedicated to Gabo in Aracataca. It is a small affair, a disused telegraph office where Gabo’s father used to work. His father too seems like a familiar old friend, and hearing his stories of unsanctioned love for Gabo’s mother, one realises that one had met him through Florentino Ariza, that character who in Love in the Time of Cholera waited 50 years for a woman’s husband to die so he could rekindle his relationship with her.

The museum has personal relics that had belonged to the family – a charcoal iron, old personal effects like typewriters, family photos, including those of his father and mother and other household items and of course, the metallic Ursula that Gabo had created with his words. Most of these things the curator told us were thrown out when the Colombian government decided to rebuild the Marquez family house into a museum to honour the Nobel laureate in 2010. The villagers salvaged the discarded items and set up their own museum, which they maintain at their own expenses.

The new museum is just on the corner from the old telegraph office. Incidentally Gabo himself never got to visit it. He had been living in Mexico the last 30 years and when he had visited Aracataca, the crowd had been so huge he couldn’t get through.

The white walls of the museum bear plaques with excerpts from Gabo’s works. And it is here that one sees the rooms where Gabo’s grandfather, a Colonel, used to sit with his friends and recount their war stories. The curator would show you the window Gabo used to hide behind to listen to these stories, stories that he eventually retold in his own fashion. Even the famous gold fish his grandfather the colonel used to make (those appeared in Chronicles of a Death Foretold) and the room in which he made them are exhibited, as well as the bed in which he was born.

The curator would also show you the drawings Gabo had made on the walls and tell you how tolerant his grandmother had been (Gabo himself had said if she had stopped him from drawing, perhaps he would never have become a writer). It is from her that Gabo would learn one of the most important lessons in his life. You see, his grandmother was a great story teller herself, and in the evenings, Gabo would sit at her feet to listen to her tell the most fantastic stories, some of them so outrageous as to be outright unbelievable. But as Gabo told the Paris Review in an interview, his grandmother told her stories with utmost sincerity that one can’t help believe them.

“For example, if you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants flying in the sky, people will probably believe you. One Hundred Years of Solitude is full of that sort of thing. That’s exactly the technique my grandmother used. I remember particularly the story about the character who is surrounded by yellow butterflies. When I was very small there was an electrician who came to the house. I became very curious because he carried a belt with which he used to suspend himself from the electrical posts. My grandmother used to say that every time this man came around, he would leave the house full of butterflies. But when I was writing this, I discovered that if I didn’t say the butterflies were yellow, people would not believe it,” he told the Paris Review.

It is this trick of adding details to the most fantastical things that would serve Gabo well in his literary career and all through his writing he admitted he tried to recapture the tone with which his grandmother told her stories.

Her stories and tales of The Arabian Night, the copy he had read as a child is an exhibit in the museum, and of course his grandfather’s war stories sowed the seed of what would later become the most successful literary career the Spanish speaking world had ever seen.

The whole of Aracataca has anecdotes about Gabo. The little corner where his father, the telegraph man used to sneak into to court Gabo’s mother, against the will of his grandfather, the church were baby Gabo was baptised and had his first communion.

Everything seems familiar here because Gabo had already introduced you to them. Like a true magician, he put his village in the minds of millions across the world. One realises from this experience that Gabo’s stories, fantastical as they may seem, are loosely based on actual events and actual people and perhaps that was why he had succeeded, outselling everything ever written in Spanish, apart from the Bible. A Hundred Years of Solitude alone has sold over 50 million copies.

And though Gabo has never claimed to be the father of magical realism, he defined the genre and no mention can be made of the genre without a reference to Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Perhaps this would not have been possible. From the beginning, Gabo struggled to make headway as a writer, even though as a journalist he was carving a niche with his literary journalism. Until he met Franz Kafka.

“One night a friend lent me a book of short stories by Franz Kafka. I went back to the pension where I was staying and began to read The Metamorphosis. The first line almost knocked me off the bed. I was so surprised. The first line reads, “As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. . . .” When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing short stories,” Gabo said in his Paris Review interview.

That was the defining moment in Gabo’s literary career.

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At Gabo’s family house in Aracataca during the GGM Fellowship

In the Shadow of Immortals

For men like Gabo, and even Chinua Achebe, who have attained the status of living ancestors, their deaths come with a resignation and an immeasurable sense of loss. Achebe’s death last year taught us that much.

In their shadows, destinies have been forged, and other have perished. While Gabo can boast of a Nobel Prize, (the prize money he forgot he had in a bank account for 16 years, until his wife reminded him about it and he used it to buy a newspaper house) he had at least two museums bearing his name and a whole section dedicated to him at the Museo del Caribe (Musuem of the Caribean) in Barranquilla, where he spent the other half of his childhood.

Such men cast long shadows on their generations and those that come after them. Gabo’s shadow was so huge that a whole generation of Colombian writers were lost in it.

Quite unlike Achebe, in whose shadows many thrived, Achebe never enjoyed the honour Marquez did. At the time of his death, the one thing that bore Achebe’s name in his village Ogidi was a small, dusty library, which incidentally had only two pirated copies of Achebe’s novels.

Gabo was a man who enjoyed the goodwill of his people and his country, and other countries too, truly appreciated him. This was once more demonstrated on his 87th birthday, on March 6th , when a crowd gathered outside his house in Mexico City to sing him Happy Birthday. He appeared in high spirit, dressed in a suit with a yellow rose, (another recurrent motif in his stories)tucked into his breast pocket and thereafter his secretary handed out yellow paper butterflies to the crowd. Incidentally, that seems now to have been his farewell to the world. Finally, an immortal has slipped into the land of the silent ones.

 

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Thoughts on Things

Always

Mother's Day

By Abubakar Adam Ibrahim
(For Hauwa Adam)
I wonder how I,
so tall now, grew in the warmth of your womb,
how you nursed and loved, cleaned and scrubbed
and made me safe, made us safe.

How I love you, I have not said enough,
cannot say enough,
because you give without reserve,
love without restraint.

We laugh, sometimes, taste our tears, sometimes.
We fall out sometimes.
But always, we loved. Always we will love.
Always. Always.

And because your love spreads like infinite nightsky
speckled with galaxies of adoration,
whenever I’m lost, I know you will be there.
Always. Always.

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Thoughts on Things

We Do Not Know Their Names

The first I heard of it was from the BBC website. Twenty-nine, they said. Twenty nine school children had been killed in a dawn raid in Mamudo village somewhere in Yobe State. Twenty-nine and one school teacher. I had just returned to my hotel room from a long day of engagements at the British Library and a very late dinner and was eager for some news from home. And that was what I found. I sat before my laptop and fought back the tinge of tears in my eyes as an invisible desperate hand yanked my heart homewards.

I shut down the laptop and spent the night drifting, in my thoughts, in my aimless motions, held in place only by the weight of my heart. It occurred to me then that there are challenges to mourning home away from home. It is worse when you are in a place where things work and are mourning a country where nothing does. It is occasioned by the helplessness you feel because you are faraway from it all and this helplessness takes an even deeper shade when you realise there is nothing you could have done even if you had been at home. Absolutely nothing.

The next time I checked the news, the casualty figure had escalated to 42. The students were roused from their beds by gunmen who stormed their boarding school. The gunmen rounded them up and threw grenades into their midst, blowing them and their dreams to bits and shooting down anything else that moved. School children. All young. Their crime? They dreamed, they coveted knowledge, they went to school because they wanted to improve their chances in life, they wanted to improve lives in their own small ways. They wanted perhaps to improve their country somehow by being better educated citizens. But where, I am tempted to ask, was their country when they needed her the most?

I was shocked and numbed. And that has to be news in a clime were being shocked and numbed by such quotidian atrocities has become the norm. Perhaps because I was away from it all when it happened, I did not see the habitual social media angst that had characterised our recent agitations against injustices, against bumbling idiots who torment us with bad governance and make away, quite brazenly, with public funds, against laws that are socially retrogressive such as our overpaid lawmakers are fond of making.

When I got back, the tragedy in Mamudo had escaped, by and large, from our social reality into the convenient place of forgetting; that alcove were we tuck away the sad realities of our existence, were we put away those things that we tire of talking about without any change coming out if it. That was helped, I suppose, by the fact that half-away across the world, George Zimmerman had been acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin.

Now Trayvon Martin: that is a name with a face to it, that boy in a hoodie who certainly did not deserve what Mr. Zimmerman did to him. We raved and ranted, as usual on social media, we shook our fists at the Americans and the system that allowed a murderer escape with a heinous crime—we still do in fact. But of the 42 children of Mamudo, we only sighed and shrugged and moved on to the next trending news. We don’t have their faces staring back at us from newspaper pages demanding justice, not one single image to make our DP or Profile Picture. We don’t know their names. Not many of us even remember the name Mamudo, where this terrible thing happened. Some just remember the figure, 42. That is all those ornate dreams and gilded ambitions nurtured for years by those children and their parents have been reduced to. A number that will soon blur in the midst of other numbers.

The usual inane rhetoric followed. President Goodluck Jonathan, tired of making the same statement over and over again, sent his mouthpiece Rueben Abati to “condemn” the crime. But there is no talk of justice for the massacred. No arrest has been made of the perpetrators, those people who deserve to be hounded relentlessly by the apparatus of the law and made to face the severest punishment the law provides for such unspeakable crimes.

There are no flowers for the 42, no memorial, no monument to tell future generations that once there were children who dared to dream and died for it, to remind us that something like this happened, gruesome as it is, there is no record of their names, in the papers, online, no record of their parents who are grieving, no record of what their dreams were, what they wanted to do with their lives.

Is it even valid to ask if being overexposed to such violence on TV and social media, and in our realities hasn’t caught up with us? For how else can we explain this apathy for the atrocities that we are being forced to endure daily, these series of unspeakable murders and barbarity, one coming too quickly on the heels of another? Are we growing numb to our own pains and turning instead to share in those of people elsewhere, to places where when you talk, someone listens, where attempts are made, even if unsuccessful, to bring the Zimmermans of this world to justice while the Shekaus of this other world gloat at such atrocious massacres and dare to vindicate it in the name of God?

The media here seem to have tired of such news. Or are they just too lazy, too sloppy to put names to this numbers, to put faces to these names, to humanise these students blown to bits by animals in human form? Are we, the journalists, too preoccupied with the pursuit of the little demeaning brown envelopes, running after politicians for meaningless interviews and feed off the crumbs they throw at us to make them look good in the public eye? Or is it too disturbing to put names to this figures or are we just comfortable with random numbers. “40 killed in Kano Bombings!” “32 Killed in Borno”, “FG Condemns killings of 42 students!” Numbers. Just numbers.

It hasn’t been a pleasant few months for children in the world. You read about men like Spaniard Daniel Galvan who was convicted of raping 11 Moroccan children, all between the age of four and 15 and the King of Morocco thinks that crime is pardonable and sends off Galvan to his native Spain to lounge by the poolside and sip his martinis while those little girls nurse their physical and emotional scars and their parents wave angry fists in the air. I will not pretend to be civil about such things. If I were the King of Morocco, I know who my first eunuch will be. Male animals like Galvan don’t deserve the balls they carry, wallahi.

And you think of those poor children of India, 23 of them wasted because they were hungry, because they wanted to eat up and go back to classes, because they wanted to improve their lot and you ask yourself: what if one of them had been your child? What if one of them had been you when you were their age?

I grieve for the children of the world; those who wander the streets scrounging for a living, those who are fed poisons because some people want to cut corners, those who are cut down in violent orgies because they dream. I grieve for those children whose names we do not know, and may never know. Whose killers may never face justice for stealing the innumerable scented dreams these children nursed.

Rest in peace, children of the absent country.

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Thoughts on Things

Kingdom of Goons

It is amazing that the fate of a country like Nigeria is being determined by those who have the biggest guns. From the suicidal Boko Haram, whose ideology and demands are as tenuous as they are untenable, to the bigots called the Niger Delta Militants, whose vision does not advance beyond their noses and have been feted by the powers that be, to the armed, uniformed brigands called the Nigerian security operatives, led by the army, that is at best as barbaric in its approach to fighting these other groups of brigands as they all are in their continued massacre of Nigerians.
To add to the Boko Haram killings, the army’s occasional mass slaughter of the people it is sworn to protect and the lawlessness of the Niger Delta Militants, (criminalities for which no one has been brought to book), the fact that Asari Dokubo actually called a press conference in Abuja and issued Nigerians the ultimatum to re-elect President Goodluck Jonathan in 2015 or face total annihilation is a brazen display of impunity.
The fact that an election is open to be contested and that Nigerians, under the guise of democracy, have the right to choose (not that their choices really matter) who their leaders would be does not seem to register with Mr. Dokubo. That he presumes to be able to take away the franchise of Nigerians, whose only comfort remains the illusions of going through the motions of elections, is, at best, an insult on the collective sensibilities of Nigerians, and the constitution of the federal republic.
His bravado is as astonishing as the fact that the man is still walking free and had not, at any point in time, been quizzed by security operatives. Well, it would have been astonishing in others climes where logic prevails. But this is Nigeria.
If the president’s henchman and Special Adviser on Amnesty, Mr. Kingsley Kuku, speaking in the US, actually said that there would be total chaos if Jonathan is not re-elected and his boss did not bother to call him to order, then the implication would be that the president is assenting to these blatant threats against Nigerians whose worth, in the first instance, does not amount to much in the eyes of their leaders.
For how else would one explain the wanton killings of Nigerians and the often lame condemnations of such atrocities by the government, condemnations that are not worth more than the paper on which the press statements are issued? The tragedies of Baga and Boston are pointers enough. Where the American government vowed to bring the murderers of three of its citizens to justice, and did so within a short time, the Nigerian government in its usual manner ‘condemned’ the massacre of about 200 of its citizens and has proceeded to protect the perpetrators of this barbarity.
While it is unfair to make comparisons between the two countries considering the huge difference in resources between them, one cannot help but ponder the obvious lack of political will to address these issues in Nigeria. Our approach to acts of terror targeted at the ordinary citizens is to mount inexplicable checkpoints that inconvenience the victims of terror or ultimately obliterate entire communities besieged by terrorists; or have the government acting as a mouthpiece to terror groups, exonerating them from crimes they have publicly admitted to; or at best, in moves that will shock the entirety of the nation, hire Isreali spies to spy on Nigerians. It is indeed baffling that when other sane countries expend resources and commit men to keep away foreign spies, Nigeria is actually inviting them in and paying them tax payers’ money to come. Only in Nigeria!
And now we have arrived the point where this illusion that operates under the guise of democracy in Nigeria has reached the abominable level of who has the biggest dog. While the militants are threatening everyone else with President Jonathan, whose gilded accomplishments in office seem obvious only to them, Boko Haram is busy trying to dictate how Nigerians live and breathe and what God they should worship, and in precisely what fashion. The police seem preoccupied with mounting indiscriminate checkpoints and barricading public roads, accepting tokens and waving on motorists, whose trunks might just be laden with explosives. And then, of course, on nights when soldiers decide to go on rampage, God help you that your neighbourhood is not the target.
And where exactly does all this leave the average Nigerian whose earnest desire is to escape the vicious jaws of poverty, have shelter over his head from the ravages of the elements, and do other things that other normal human beings in normal climes do?
Disenfranchised. By those who, because they have guns, presume they can take away the one illusion we cherish, even though it is killing us, the illusion of being able to elect our leaders and hold them to account, the illusion of running one of the most expensive governments in the entire world that, ironically, doesn’t give a damn whether we are killed by thugs chanting god’s name or that of some marine spirits, or glorified Goths in uniforms.
When the CIA made its 2015 breakup theory, what did the Nigerian government do? Issue condemnations and call the Americans names. Now it would seem that Nigerians, not minding the help of Gaddafi in training and planting Dokubo and his likes, and Alqaeeda and certain Nigerian politicians for generously contributing BH to the mix, are working very hard to bring this prediction to pass.
There must be a reason for all this. The succession of ineptitude that has been our leadership; the massive corruption that has characterised our administrations without exception, and our daily lives as ordinary citizens; the total disregard for the worth of each other, all these have contributed in no small measure to making Nigeria a kingdom of bloodthirsty goons.
But regardless, I believe that whatever change we want to see, will have to start with us, as individuals, then as communities, then as a nation. Only then can we tell goons like Shekau and Dokubo and Kuku, and whoever else, that you can’t presume to dictate how we live or what choices we make.

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