Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Will We Better Off in MTVBase Was Available Around the World?

Africa’s image problem, I submit, is more of an issue of Western media’s trouble with nuance than any real malice. It is hard, it turns out, to portray that people can be more than one thing at the same time -- that one can wear fancy Italian shoes with traditional garb; that there can exist in the same country a place where people drive SUVs to the supermarket and a place where some people have to walk miles for clean water in the same damn city. If one must be true, it seems, surely the other cannot. And relatively few consumers of media will really go to African countries themselves. And the few high-profiles ones that do go (looking at you, Kristof) tend to go to confirm their own biases, not challenge them.

And that’s where MTV Base comes in.

MTV Base’s shows an Africa that does not see itself as a problem, but as a party. We are young and sexy. We have style. We go to clubs and drink and laugh and rap and sing along with the best of them. This is us: Our Advertised Version. The "Monkey sweats but you can't tell from its fur" version. In terms of reality, it is not much different from the advertised version of what we are told that we are: overly-reliant on Western generosity, potential atrophying from lack of initiative or care, clay resting too comfortably within the grubby hands of greedy autocrats. In a sense, MTV Base's Africa is as mono-dimensional as the Africa that we see in Western media. It’s just a different dimension, a dimension that we would rather see.

It is not that music video Africa is any more “real” than the West’s version of Africa. Reality, in fact, is beside the point. It’s just another representation as simple as the one that is currently all the rage. The genius of indulging this fantasy of an MTV Base Africa all over the world – I’m fully aware this will never happen – is that it recognizes the need for simple narratives of Africa, and delivers on this. And by countering one simple narrative with another, it adds shade and color to the already-existing simple narrative. In so doing, It brings simplicity and nuance. And what is more African than that?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Those 'Top 20 Africans' Lists

Thanks to the not-so-mini hiatus and having third world internet issues, I'm only just getting around to posting on these awesome ladies who made Forbes of 20 Young and Influential African women.

Someone on Twitter pointed out the difference in the composition of these lists in the US, for example, versus when the roster is drawn up for African countries. These list in the US and in other Western countries tend to be chockful of entertainers, whereas for Africa they're full of intellectuals.

This was brought up a bit boastfully, but I think the reasoning for this may not necessarily be something folks from African countries should welcome. Indeed, if you took up the 20 Young Americans lists, especially based on poll respondents, it won't feature many intellectuals. That's because it'll be honest. Its also worth pointing out that these Western news outlets are, well, Western, and therefore are more likely to show things as they are in Western countries, not projections of what they'd wish them to be. Forbes, Newsweek, etc, can't know of who really does hold sway in countries like Nigeria, for example. If they did, I doubt they'd put the words 'influential' and 'young' in the same sentence.

But this is all by-the-way. I do love that these remarkable women get such coverage. I'm familiar with the work of women like Funmi Iyanda and Ory Okolloh, and they certainly deserve this recognition, and tons more. I just wish it were people like these that actually controlled our political and cultural discourse. A real list of people with real sway over our cultural imagination will probably be overrun half-witted imams, and megachurch pastors.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Thank You, Mr. VJ, for Playing My Song

It's been a long time, shouldn't have left you without a dope beat to step to. So here's some dope beats.

I really like this playful one from Kenya by Stella Mwangi. I'm a sucker for anything with house music influence, especially if it comes from anywhere on the continent.

South African house machine Liquideep with "Settle for Less".

I think this girl is Kenyan or Zambian or something, but I honest-to-goodness am not sure (which I actually like). Cool song, and the video is really nice and quirky. Side note: She has a song called Big Nyash. Does that mean what I think it means? In Nigeria, "nyash" often refers to one's ... well.... assets.

Here's one from a favorite, South African rapper AKA. He's one of the best on the continent in my opinion, and this new song is crazy nice. If he keeps this up, I might turn into a stan.

Last but not least - @okayafrica put out a blast today on South African singer Lira's new EP. Stream it in full here.

Friday, July 29, 2011

How Illegitimate Is the Informal Economy?

This over at NigeriansTalk and this piece at The Economist's Baobab Africa blog on how expensive Angola is have me thinking about the informal sector in most African countries.

Chad's N'Djamena and Gabon's Libreville are second and third, respectively, on the Expensive African Cities list (you can see the world list here). On Luanda, The Daily Maverick puts quite succinctly why the trouble of expensive African cities is such a problem:

As foreign expatriates and the money which underpins them push prices of top end goods and services, so the local elites – who eat in the same restaurants and compete for the same properties – are forced to spend more and more. And to spend, they must earn. As elite salaries rise, so the inequality gap between the vast majority of the country and the few who have made it to the top gets wider and wider. In Luanda, it’s not unusual to see Porsche’s whiz through sprawling shanty towns, their drivers on their way to a top hotel for a R1,000 meal while onlookers ponder how to feed their families on the R10 they earned that day. Not exactly a recipe for social cohesion, or development.

What is scary about the high cost of living in many an African city is not just the effect it has on Africa's rising middle class, but also the fact that most Africans find employment in the informal sector.

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), the informal sector makes up about 80% of employment in Sub-Saharan Africa, and is also the realm in which most women in the developing world find work, whether we're talking prostitution or selling food on the side of the road (This is in the document below). The number isn't at all far-fetched to me - anyone that has ever walked or driven on a road in an African city can tell that there are far more wooden shacks selling cigarettes and sweets and street hawkers selling recharge cards than there are, say, skyscrapers and shopping malls with banks or salons or boutiques.

An interesting observation: the more developed the economy, the lesser the percentage of people who work outside the margins. 33% of South Africans and 44% of Namibians work in the informal economy, for example, compared to 74% of Madagascans and 82% of Malians). This observation, though, makes one wonder to what extent the state is complicit in creating an informal economy. To what extent is the pervasiveness of informal economies and the resigned acceptance thereof an admission of failed economic policies on the part of African governments? This, from the African Association of Planning Schools, frames it interestingly from a planning perspective:

Ananya Roy (2009:10), in an analysis of the Indian context, argues that planning cannot solve the crisis of Indian urbanisation since ‘planning itself is implicated in the very production of this crisis’. She continues,
Informality then is not a set of unregulated activities that lies beyond the reach of planning; rather it is planning that inscribes the informal by designating some activities as authorized and others as unauthorized.
This view is echoed in Oren Yiftachel’s (2009:88) analysis of the political geography of informality.
He posits the notion of ‘gray spaces’ positioned between the ‘whiteness’ of legality/approval/safety, and the ‘blackness’ of eviction/destruction/death. He goes onto argue that planning is always deeply implicated in ‘whitening’ (condoning, approving) and ‘blackening’ (criminalizing, destroying) different types of informality. Yiftachel states bluntly that the ‘informality of the powerful’ is often authorised by the state whilst alternative forms of informality remain indefinitely gray or are officially ‘blackened’.
Urban planning – that is, the combination of relevant spatial policies – is often behind both the existence and criminalization of gray space. Urban plans design the city’s ‘white’ spaces which usually create little or no opening for inclusion/recognition of most informal localities and population, while their discourse continuously condemns them as a chaotic danger to the city (2009:94).
Roy pushes this point further, arguing that ‘informal spaces’ are produced by the state, and that ‘to deal with informality therefore partly means confronting how the apparatus of planning produces the unplanned and unplannable’ (2005:156).
Wilson (1991) echoes these sentiments pointing out that historically, even the most benevolent projects and traditions of state planning have emphasized control and confinement. Although she stops short of advocating the abandonment of planning, she argues,
There is a sense in which all town planning contains both a utopian and a heroic, yet authoritarian, element. Although its purpose may seem purely practical, it does claim to offer, like the utopian work, a permanent solution to the flux and flow of the ever changing city. The plan is always intended to fix the usage of space; the aim the state regulation of urban populations.
This would suggest that informality demands a critical analysis of traditional planning tools and techniques.

I've included the document here. Check it out.

Informal Economy Toolkit 1

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Poem for Sunday

Ogaga Ifowodo is criminally slept-on. Something that jumps out at you at every poem of his (my favorite is Homeland) is his use of imagery. He makes you want feel it all, like tiny earthquakes in your head. If you must rhyme a poem, this is how it must be done.

And those final lines "Unmarked days quench their suns, black into nights/ and dreams enact weighted hearts in free flights".... the music of that. Goodness.

This one's a favorite from his wonderfully-titled collection God Punish You, Lord Lugard.

Unmarked Hours Beat their Hands Against the Wall

Unmarked hours beat their hands against the wall

grieve for wings plunged in a waterfall.

Outside the window, a woman's shoulders

quake in tribute to a scene of soldiers:

teeth, fragments of flesh in warm blood painted

the picture she sees of those that fainted.

A single call to prayer, amplified

to all of Sin Town, brings mortified

legions to banal rites of righteousness.

As the minister swears his piousness

birds blessed with greater freedom flee our skies

abandoning us to death and muted cries.

Philosophies of suffering dress the walls

of this cell, make the fate of dead seagulls

happier than of failed hearts that bled and wept:

"If men were God!" that mocked the cliff and leapt,

crying out their grief: "Let Nigeria end now!"

No one will inquire who, why or how,

an old or new decree has sanctified

all wrongs in duty personified.

Unmarked days quench their suns, black into nights

and dreams enact weighted hearts in free flights.

Ogaga Ifowodo

November 1997

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Limits to NGOs' Effectiveness

Over at the Boston Review, Pranab Bardhan is eloquent in making the case against NGOs and their effectiveness and goals. The point that looms in Badhan's argument is that NGOs cannot "dismiss the complexity of issues involved in the problems they hope to remedy or the democratic mechanisms and experiments necessary for finding the best way forward for all parties." When it comes to NGOs working on economic development, though, this gets right to the heart of it for me:
The social activists share with left-wing unions a preoccupation with redistribution, and a lack of concern for generating enough surplus to enable it. There are obvious trade-offs here between incentives for private enterprise and the need for social justice. Faced with these issues, just as the Left might refer to the great things the state can do, social activists refer us to the great things small producers and community-based organizations can do. The small-is-beautiful communitarians often ignore the many cases of local communities tyrannizing minority groups (Forms of lynching reminiscent of the U.S. South continue today in the ethnic villages of Africa and India.) And small local producers often cannot benefit from economies of scale and technological upgrades or invest in high-risk-high-return projects, which require risk pooling with non-local entities. As a result, they remain on the margins, mired in low productivity. While there are scattered examples of dynamic small producers, they don’t represent a viable systemic alternative. When real capacity to create wealth is missing, social activism is often reduced to mere populism, which in the long run can be wasteful and counterproductive.

This takes me back to the early 2000s when coffee farmers and social justice was the sexy issue of the day, and we still see the same thing rearing its head in the push-and-pull between small farms and commercial agriculture. Read the whole thing.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Trouble With the Caine Prize

The Caine Prize has a new winner. From the press release at the Caine website.
Zimbabwe’s NoViolet Bulawayo has won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing, described as Africa’s leading literary award, for her short story entitled ‘Hitting Budapest’, from The Boston Review, Vol 35, no. 6 - Nov/Dec 2010.

The Chair of Judges, award-winning author Hisham Matar, announced NoViolet Bulawayo as the winner of the £10,000 prize at a dinner held this evening (Monday 11 July) at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

Hisham Matar said: "The language of ‘Hitting Budapest’ crackles. Here we encounter Darling, Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Stina and Sbho, a gang reminiscent of Clockwork Orange. But these are children, poor and violated and hungry. This is a story with moral power and weight, it has the artistry to refrain from moral commentary. NoViolet Bulawayo is a writer who takes delight in language."

Hisham Mattar, writer of the amazing In the Country of Men that I just finished last week, said that? Well, that's another story. You can read my review of the story here.

One of the most depressing things about being from an African country, and I suspect it is the same for being from any post-colonial society, is the need to seek validation abroad or by Western standards. You can be the best writer ever, but if a bunch of white guys in academies don't see it, you're not. This applies to disciplines outside of literature as well. It's really as simple as that.

That is what is so extraordinary about the Caine Prize. Folks call it the "African Booker Prize", and with the mantle of premier African literary award comes the weight that The Booker, The Pushcart, The Pen or any other literary award doesn't have - the burden of representation, of validation, of choosing by dint of one's position the face of and state of African literary scene.

If you so much as scroll through the blog, you would see my reviews of each of the five stories that made up the shortlist for the prize. I tried not to absolutely skewer things in reviews (unless, of course, it's really that abominably bad), but as a whole I'm agree with Ikhide Ikheloa from 234Next on the quality of this year's shortlist:
The good news is that the Caine Prize is here to stay. The bad news is that someone is going to win the Caine Prize this year. This is a shame; having read the stories on the shortlist, I conclude that a successful African writer must be clinically depressed, chronicling in excruciating detail every open sore of Africa. Apologies to Wole Soyinka. The creation of a prize for “African writing” may have created the unintended effect of breeding writers willing to stereotype Africa for glory.

The mostly lazy, predictable stories that made the 2011 shortlist celebrate orthodoxy and mediocrity. They are a riot of exhausted clich├ęs even as ancient conflicts and anxieties fade into the past tense: huts, moons, rapes, wars, and poverty. The monotony of misery simply overwhelms the reader. Fiammetta Rocco, the Economist’s literary editor who chaired last year’s judges, crows that the stories are “uniquely powerful.” The stories are uniquely wretched. The chair of this year’s judges Hisham Matar declares presumptuously that the stories “represent a portrait of today’s African short story: its wit and intelligence, its concerns and preoccupations.” Really? Is this the sum total of our experience, this humourless, tasteless canvas of shiftless Stepin Fetchit suffering?

I hope to goodness that this applies only to this years, but judging from Olufemi Terry's Stickfighting Days, pathetic stories seem to be their thing. Emmanuel Iduma, publisher of Saraba Magazine, responded to Ikheloa's comments, which seemed to cause quite the firestorm on the internet and, I hear from someone present, was even talked about in the discussion part of a Caine Prize event that happened in London today:

I believe what is more important is the objective of the story. I assume it is unhelpful to draw a line on what a writer’s process/objective is by his story. Granted, critics do this continuously – yet in the final analysis if we can define a “grand” objective of “the story” we can go past these questions of stories that dance to a Western tune. And what is the West, anyway? And what is even human? So our grand objective must transcend western lines, become human, and take a more particularized stance. Can this grand objective be grasped? I propose that memory, fraternity and essence are merged, so that every writer, of whatever African descent, plugs his narrative into this fusion. Hopefully.

Knowing my own writing process and how much is involved, I'm wont to agree with Iduma. I'm not willing to be cynical enough to say that these writers are, as Ikheloa says, "willing to stereotype [Africa] for glory". I have no idea what led NoViolet Bulawayo to write the story she did, chockful of such familiar tropes on woe-is-me African literature (IMF street? Really??) And I should say here that this is what annoys me the most about the counter-argument to this brand of literature. Writing about Africa does not absolve one from writing well, and bringing complex characters to life, and, indeed, having a plot and creating a believable world for a reader from which (s)he can take away something of value. It really does not.

Writers write. Readers have opinions. It's really that simple. One has a right to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and churn out just whatever (s)he pleases. I certainly did not like Hitting Budapest, a plotless story that does not seem to have a point beyond "these kids are poor and live squalidly and you should pity them", but I do not really care about Bulawayo; she can write whatever she wants. I'm madder at the Caine Prize for seeming to favor stories of a particular strain, the ones that are less about characters and the network of trip-wires that make up their humanity and more about flattening characters to render them tools to make a political point, and absolving them from the basic responsibilities that come with writing a good story. I'm madder at them for not asking for complexity, and buying into an oversimplified narrative of Africa - poverty, war, disease, starving/fighting children -- just like most Western media does. I'm madder at the Caine for saying that this collection of stories is the best they could get out of Africa. I'm mad because I and so many people out there know that that is not true.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Al-Jazeera Being Awesome

Al-Jazeera's Inside Story has a great piece on famine and conflict in the Horn of Africa. It'll never stop being annoying how you can't embed a video from AJE, but the video is Africa's Drought: Is War or Weather to Blame? and the link is here.

I like the effort they go into to get at the question of why the situation is so intractable. If you have all these reports predicting a riot in the Horn of Africa, then why don't you use your knowledge to get at some more sustainable solution (Ugh, I just used the world "sustainable)? How is the long-term vulnerability of NGOs' funding affecting the situation? What do we do about the overflowing refugee camps? How is this all affecting Kenya? It's a good examination on the issues at hand in a way I don't see in most other media, and acknowledges the complexity of the situation.

I have no answers, but this put voice to a lot of questions that I have/had.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Is the AU too Respectful to Gaddafi?

Can't say I didn't see this coming -- the AU has decided not to honor the ICC arrest warrant, meaning that Gaddafi is still free to travel around Africa as he likes. From News24:

The decision passed late on Friday states that the warrant against Gaddafi "seriously complicates" efforts by the African Union to find a political solution to the crisis in Libya.

AU chairperson Jean Ping told reporters that the ICC is "discriminatory" and only goes after crimes committed in Africa while ignoring those committed by Western powers including in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"With this in mind, we recommend that the member states do not co-operate with the execution of this arrest warrant," said the motion which was shown to The Associated Press and whose passage was confirmed by Daniel Adugna, a spokesperson in the AU commissioner's office.

If the AU's 53 member states abide by the decision, it opens the possibility that Gaddafi could avoid prosecution by seeking refuge on the soil of neighbouring nations.

In light of this news, Elizabeth Ohene has a piece at the Royal African Society pointing out the black African leaders' relative distance to what's happening in Libya, and positing that the AU may just be being too respectful in their dealings with the Libyan dictator. Not that they were that far up his ladder of priorities anyway:
The black Africans, the sub-saharan Africans, the Africans treated this stranger with care and respect. They nodded and said yes knowing fully well they had no intention of doing what he was saying. Of course it helped that he had money and could pick up some of the bills for the organization, but nobody felt squeamish about that.

Prestigious world universities were taking his money. Important world figures were all beating a path to his tent or rolling out the red carpet for him in their capitals. Condoleeza Rice, Tony Blair, Nicholas Sarkozy Silvio Berlusconi, to name a few and they don't come any more important and the deals that come out of those meetings would show his generosity in African countries to be peanuts.

Unfortunately the AU has not learnt that “Obunfura” does not work with the western powers. Saying yes because you do not want to offend does not work in the world of realpolitik. Saying yes in the fond hope that when push came to shove there would be no unpleasantness as dictated by “Obunfura” has landed the AU in a mess. They knew that Gaddafi's time ought to be up after forty years in power, but since you have to treat strangers with care and respect, they couldn't bring themselves to tell him as much and once the uprising started and the rebels made Gaddafi's exit from office their main demand, the AU could not be an honest broker.

They voted for and supported Security Council Resolution 1973 in the hope the enforcement of a no-fly zone would bring peace, and they chose to ignore the gathering war clouds. Not surprisingly their current protests have been drowned in the bombs over Tripoli.

This seems a bit incomplete to me, though. I'm not convinced that the AU is averse to unpleasantness in the Gaddafi situation because he's from North Africa. If AU's were just a North Africa problem, Mugabe and Obiang wouldn't be in power, some heavy focus would be on Museveni with his crackdowns on the population, and there would be pressure on Wade to peacefully cede power instead on trying to going for another term. As we saw in Niger and Cote d'Ivoire, there are certainly situations that the AU would speak up forcefully. I just don't think geography has anything to do with it.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Caine Prize for African Literature - Story Blogging Week V

In an initiative hosted by Aaron Bady (ZunguZungu), I am joining a coterie of awesome bloggers in reading and reviewing entrants for the Caine Prize for African Literature this year. You can read along with us -- all the stories are available online in PDFs and linked from the Caine Prize website. The fifth and last story on the shortlist is South African writer David Medalie's "Mistress's Dog". Here is my post on the first, second, third, and fourth stories.

Like In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata, this is another story that ostensibly not about any politics, but about the characters and the relationships between them. Here, though, the real story is about power and resentment.

I very much liked the way the story was told, the pacing of it. We see a lot of Nola's bitterness coming through, but the constant calling of her Nola's husband "the powerful man" is an excellent choice, as it tells us so much about their relationship without going into too much detail. The power imbalance in the relationship is driven home by how we do not even know they are married until about half-way through the story.

The Mistress's Dog
is very much like What Molly Knew in its themes, albeit less dark and less political. I hate to compare both just because their South African and written by white men (and I did compare Keegan's story to J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace in my review), but they bought struck a similar chord in that one moment when the oppressed figure in the story had one chance at making their own decision, and the self-defeated stance each woman took. Molly did not take the letter to the police in the face of evidence that Rollo may have killed her daughter. Nola chose to roll over and accept a situation she did not want, even when she had a choice to say no. This looks to me a definite point of view regarding power relations in the country, but I'm trying not to make too much of it.

Even as Nola obviously derives pleasure from seeing the mistress's efforts at fitting in, from the interior decorator to the dinners and wine, you get the sense that Nola felt a certain kinship to the mistress through what she sees as their mutual oppression. This passage, in particular, illustrates this:

Nola saw in the mistress the hesitation that the hearty laugh could not hide, the timorousness that was silent but present all the time, like a heart murmur. It was evident to her that the mistress had become a snob largely because she dreaded the judgement of snobs.
In everything she did and said, the mistress declared her determination to be free. She was, she believed, making and remaking herself. It was very hard work. It was expensive too. But it would be worth it if, by chipping away at herself, she could set herself free forever: a complete metamorphosis.
Nola knew, however, that the mistress had not even begun to emancipate herself. And she suspected that she never would. For she, Nola, was not free either, except from anxieties about money. She knew what the mistress had not yet discovered, which was that nothing grew in the shadow cast by the powerful man.

And you get confirmation of that notion as the story draws to a close:

We are the survivors, she thought, the two of us. The powerful man had died in a Cape Town hospital after weeks on a ventilator. The mistress had died in the frail-care section of the retirement village in Johannesburg. The mistress’s dog had outlived them both. And so had she."

The mistress, then, is a fellow traveler in a sense. Nola hates the mistress not so much for daring to have an affair with her husband, but for reminding her so much of herself. The dog Nola is now saddled with, then, is a ticking time-bomb that threatens her with the possibility of power, a decision waiting to be made that will lead to her emancipation.

Of all the Caine Prize shortlisted stories, I'd call this the most subtle in the delicate way it handles its themes. I like that delicateness, but I wonder if it does not have too soft a touch. It was not a very vivid story, and the character herself does not really come into her own at all in the story. Perhaps that was on purpose -- a woman who has spent so much time being suppressed could come across as flat -- but I do not think this needs to have been the case. For one thing, this character hides her lack of esteem well behind resentment. I would have liked to see some more of that anger come across, however seething. Her reaction to the lady in the supermarket rang false to me, because Nola is not a woman unaware of her privilege. I expected her to be apologetic but curt, not to hover and make excuses.

At the end of the story, Nola asks questions we wish Molly had asked herself.
Had she chosen him? Or had she ended up with him by default because she had not, during her life, made the wise, the adroit choices? If we are our choices, then what did it say about her that the mistress’s dog was her last companion?

One finds oneself relieved at the soul-searching and hoping she does indeed hold on to the strength to take her life into her own hands.

A big shout-out to ZunguZungu for being so awesome and hosting the awesome reading session. Go to his blog for links to the posts from the other bloggers reviewing this story.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Caution: Highly Quotable -- Ben Okri

Ben Okri is as eloquent as ever when he talks about his work on the latest edition of CNN's African Voices.

On Africa:
When I see Africa, I see a medley of richness and possibility, a confusion of past and present, a dance of too many voices, cries of suffering and injustice, a dominant melody of tyranny. I see many different periods in one. The strange thing about Africa is how past, present and future come together in a kind of rough jazz, if you like.

In the midst of so much blood and wars and tribal divisions and confusion and famines and all of that -- that is what I see. It's a rich, complex, confusing music in which a new melody, a new note, is slowly emerging, slowly sounding through.

On his work:
My job in many of my books is to show the impact of perception on reality, why we have the politics we have, the failures we have in society, it all comes down to consciousness, to what we see, to what we consider to be real. And that's the place to do the work in transforming and changing.

On reality:
The longer I live, the longer I look, the more I see that things are strongly connected. I often hear what many consider to be odd synchronicities. someone the other day said to me that they had a dream of someone that they hadn't seen for fifteen years. Then they turned a corner that day and there that person was. What do you make of that? Do you just say, "oh, it's just pure coincidence"? Then I say to them that coincidence is part of reality. You can't chop it up and say that's not part of reality". These things in the midst of life that things are stranger than they appear to be, they're part of reality, we have to let them in and acknowledge them.

On whether he's opening the window for us to his worldview:
Yes, but it's a window that you look into and what you see are aspects of yourself, if I'm any good. The writing, the best writing, is not about the writer. The best writing is about us, about the reader.

Reading is an act of civilization; it's one of the greatest acts of civilization because it takes the free raw material of the mind and builds castles of possibilities. And in the building of those castles of possibilities it frees the creative matrix of men and women. When you can imagine you begin to create and when you begin to create you realize that you can create a world that you prefer to live in, rather than a world that you're suffering in.

Oh, for the gift of being able to drop such gems in regular conversation! Seriously, I wonder if people like this practice in the mirror, measure their words for lyricism and have them scribbled at the ready on notecards. I've joked about this ever since I saw the youtube video of Drake dropping a freestyle on a radio station by reading lyrics off his Blackberry.

Okri really captured the essence of the thing when he talked about Africa, but I find what he says about writing to be so true. The best stuff I read always makes me think of myself and my own reaction to what I am reading. You're not supposed leave a great piece of work with the same thoughts you entered it with.

Check out an edited version of the interview on CNN's page here; there's also video of the interview. Needless to say, I'll be checking out his new book A Time for New Dreams as soon as I can get to it.

Photo credit: PoetryInternational.org

Friday, June 24, 2011

Caine Prize for African Literature - Story Blogging Week IV

In an initiative hosted by Aaron Bady (ZunguZungu), I am joining a coterie of awesome bloggers in reading and reviewing entrants for the Caine Prize for African Literature this year. You can read along with us -- all the stories are available online in PDFs and linked from the Caine Prize website. This week's story is Botswanan writer Lauri Kubutsile's In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata. Here is my post on the first, second, and third stories.

I’ll begin by saying that I really enjoyed reading this. It is great to see a fun, lively story from the African continent that is not terribly profound. The story was written to make you laugh, and it does. The story is written with a cock of the eyebrow in the reader’s direction, and I love that.

That is not to say that there are not major holes in the story for me. I really want to know how these men could have wives cheat on them so brazenly and do nothing but shrug. I know that the men felt threatened by McPhineas Lata, but it is not clear to me why the men did not react with anger, but with this need to one-up the man, or to please him better. I wanted something, anything, to show that these women were in a position of control enough that if they could cheat on their husbands they could manipulate them enough to feel threatened by this other man’s ability to please them.

On the other hand, I really appreciated how sexuality was not burdened by guilt or shame, nor was it studied or typed into datasets for analysis on population growth data and the like. Like everywhere in the world, sex just is, and I like how it is allowed here to just be. Sex does not feature much in African literature, and it is such a change to see it talked about and lamented over, all in such a humorous manner.

I have a gripe with the story's preoccupation with, well, itself. I’d have liked for the writer to zoom out a bit and show us some imagery, some backstory into how McPhineas Lata became the ladies’ man, or even how these men were beaten into complacency with this man going after their wives. The writer probably meant for the story to stay a funny piece, and probably feared sapping from the comedy with too much background, but I don’t think this need be the case. Zadie Smith’s White Teeth -- and On Beauty to a lesser extent -– was excellent for using background to make the story even more comical, and to really tease out what makes the scene so hilarious.

In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata is very different from all the other shortlisted stories in that it is the least topical. It is the one most about people and less about any profound issue. We definitely need good fiction on profound takes on the human experience in African countries and how they're shaped by socio-political happenings, but it is nice that stories like this can get the attention of international prize juries.

Check out ZunguZungu for updates on what other bloggers had to say about the story as they come.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Hey, Mr. VJ.....

I haven't put up a jam session in awhile, so here's some songs from South Africa I love right now.

I've loved a lot of what I've heard coming out of South Africa's house scene, but DJ Oskido and Black Coffee really stand out. This particular Black Coffee song is a bit old, but I'm partial to Zakes Bantwini and I just love the feel of this, so laid-back. I liked Oskido's older song Jezebel, but this one is even better. I've said this before, but I really love how South African music takes its influences from outside hip-hop; Nigeria would do well to learn that. As we can see from Siji's Ijo, we can make some pretty good house-inspired music, too, if we tried.

Also, this rapper Khuli Chana is really cool. I prefer AKA as a rapper -- check out his song Victory Lap if you haven't heard it, because it's awesome -- but this is pretty sick as well.


Thursday, June 16, 2011

Caine Prize for African Literature - Story Blogging Week III

In an initiative hosted by Aaron Bady (ZunguZungu), I am joining a coterie of awesome bloggers in reading and reviewing entrants for the Caine Prize for African Literature this year. You can read along with us -- all the stories are available online in PDFs and linked from the Caine Prize website. This week's story is South African Tim Keegan's "What Molly Knew". Here is my post on the first story and the second.

This is another story that slow-drips on detail - you don't know immediately that Tommie is "more black than white" and that he's an ANC member. You don't get a full picture of dead Sarah Nobrega and why she left until pretty much the end of the story. While Molly pretty much tells you early on that she's with Rollo because, well, where else is she to go, nothing in the beginning prepares you for what happens in the end. I wish the story was more vivid, that the imagery was "painted" as opposed to having the surroundings reeled off like lists, but this seems to be Keegan's style: you're told only what you need to know at this moment. You will know more when the time is right, and it works.

I like the characterization of this very much. The voices are very distinct, and Molly is very well-drawn. You know, right from the onset, her fears of being alone and her regrets, the single-mindedness with which she carries on her tasks about the house, and even feel some pity when watching her maneuver the minefield that is living Rollo. And we are told everything we need to know about Rollo, except that one important thing -- I'd hate to spoil it for whoever hasn't read the piece yet -- but you can almost hear the gruffness of his tone, and the reason for the self-righteousness with which he talks about Sarah in the beginning becomes all to clear at the end of the story.

For outsiders to South Africa's post-apartheid society like me, it is nice to have the scene at the hairdressers where one gets some insight into what the big deal was about Tommie being black and an ANC person. He is colored, but he's picked a side, and the parallel is made quite clear that Tommie bringing his black-power ANC life into the neighborhood is not unlike Tommie bringing his, well, blackness into Sarah’s family. I like how the race issue is layered with resentment for his apparent role in Molly losing her daughter (we think this until the end of the story) and Rollo not getting along with Sarah. Race here reminds me of what we are seeing in parts of the U.S. polity in the Obama era: while not the sole cause for animus, race acts as a sort of amplifier of difference that further sours discourse and deepens resentment. In the case of this story, race makes more stark the differences between the kind of the life she led in her marriage, and the life she left behind with her mother.

It is very difficult to not think of J.M. Coetzee's Booker Prize-winning Disgrace when you read this story, and compare the way race is handled in both. Both paint grim pictures on race relations in South Africa, and the tension that follows when black and white "worlds" collide. The collision in this story, at the funeral service at the church hall with Tommie's black ANC friends, is much less violent than the rape in Disgrace, but still hostile and the discomfort of the two whites, Rollo and Molly, was very telling.

Below is the major quote of the story, and it comes early on:

He knows that all citizens are equal in the new South Africa, but he can’t help but feel some people’s pain more than others’. That’s just the way he is, and the newspapers and television people seem to think the same way, to judge by the posse of reporters and cameras outside Sarah Nobrega’s flat in Goodwood when he left.

There is a certain, for lack of a better word, selfishness in this quote that permeates the entire story. Molly is more concerned about her sense of normalcy than putting her daughter’s killer to justice. Rollo is more concerned about himself than anyone else and, as is hinted, even killed Molly’s daughter out of this selfishness. Sarah didn’t much care about how Tommie would received in her family; she went ahead and married him anyway. It is not for nothing that the only one who made a move that would affect the lives of everyone else in the most positive way was shot dead. It’s an insightful, quietly damning portrait of the people depicted in the story, and perhaps of South Africa's new society at large.

Check out ZunguZungu for updates on what other bloggers had to say about the story as they come.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Mainstreaming Hausa

I had a conversation earlier today with a few friends about Hausa representation in Dare Art-Alade's new video for "Ba Ni Kidi."

My friend took issue with Dare's "weird" Hausa (the title is grammatically incorrect, he thinks), but I'm more concerned about the circus, the monkey, the magic... it just felt a bit too Aladdin's Genie for me. It is almost like the singer forgot the song was in Hausa, and decided to go Arabian Nights route instead.

I only mean to make an observation -- and not pick on Dare Art-Alade -- when I say that this video has me thinking about Hausa people and their place in Nigeria's mainstream culture. The only thing even remotely Hausa about me is my name, but it's worth lending a thought to the representation of the Hausa -- or lack thereof -- in Nigerian pop culture. And no, I don't mean somebody saying "Nagode Jesu" in church songs, or Style Plus singing a hook to a song in the language.

In addition to being, according to some observers, the least likely to be educated in Nigeria, Hausas have been left behind in Nigeria's popular culture. The artist Zaaki never did get other Hausas to come to the fore in Nigerian music. I am not aware of any major Hausa actresses in Nigerian films who identifies with being Hausa the way Funke Akindele and Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde do with being Yoruba, or Genevieve Nnaji, Patience Ozorkwor (sorry if I'm butchering it), Stephanie Okereke and Rita Dominic are so obviously Igbo. Hausa films are much younger an industry than Yoruba and Igbo ones, but I wonder about their distribution in Lagos; if they only get around in Kano and Kaduna, it will only strengthen Hausa's isolation from Nigeria's mainstream. I am Yoruba, and the people and culture are so thoroughly a part of pop culture that one cannot but notice Hausas' absence when one compares. Couple this with the power Hausa elites have in Nigeria's polity, you get a lot of room for resentment and misrepresentation aided by silence of the group in the mainstream.

And then there's this video.

What makes the video so repellent to me is the near voicelessness of the people whose language and image is used in this song. I know Dare probably just means to put together a fun, interesting music video, but I know that if someone put together a not-so-flattering/ even slightly mocking video on Yorubas, there'd be more of a reaction across followers of Nigerian music. I wonder what a Hausa person would think seeing this, and how they will feel about their inability to affect the way they are being depicted in the popular culture of their own country.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Caine Prize for African Literature - Story Blogging Week II

This is round two of the one in which I join a gang of awesome bloggers in reading and blogging on the entrants for the Caine Prize for African Literature this year, in an initiative hosted by Aaron Brady (ZunguZungu). You can read along with us -- all the stories are available online in PDFs and linked from the Caine Prize website. This week's story is Beatrice Lamwaka's "Butterfly Dreams." My post on the first story is here.

There was a nice minimalism to Butterfly Dreams that I liked. As in Hitting Budapest one sees the desire to withhold, to not say things outright. We're not told from the outset, for example, that they live in a refugee camp. We're not told, though we can gather, that, though they were probably not rich, they were definitely far from poor before "it" happened.

The point of view Lamwaka chose for the story is also worth praising. Butterfly Dreams is told by someone in the middle of the story who remains unnamed -- a family member, perhaps -- and this gives the appropriate mix of sadness towards Lamunu, a touch of defiance (like when the person was talking about the father and the food they now eat), quietly adamant denial, and mournfulness that permeates the entire story.

Unlike Hitting Budapest, though, I can see why this was written. There would be no story without the return of Lamunu, and she brings the people to which she returns into confront their own violent history. It is a history that no one will want to live through again, and one wonders why they are so welcoming of Lamunu, why they sought her out, listening for her name on the radio every day for five years. Yes, she is family, but no one should be forced to want something simply because it is theirs.

The story’s background is grim, but not without some subtle attempts at hope. The burying of the tipu served as foreshadowing of a new life for the family, a new future. The dream of the return of Lamunu is a butterfly dream. And Lamunu is the butterfly about the house that they watch in somber awe. Calling the story Butterfly Dreams, though, calls to question what the writer is trying to say. Are the characters mad for thinking that Lamunu’s return is necessarily the salvo they think it is? Can a figure of a horrible, violent past coexist in the house of a nation of people who survived its past? We end with Lamunu attempting to live a normal life, go to school like a girl her age, albeit with other children scarred from the same experience that she has had. But it’s an attempt at normalcy nonetheless. It will have to do.

You could probably tell that I quite liked the story, but I am not unaware of sensitivity towards stories of its kind. I’m generally in the camp that says we capped on the need of child soldier stories around the time when Ahmadou Kourouma wrote Allah N’est Pas Oblige, not because these stories are untrue and I don't trust a Western audience to read these stories and nothing else (OK, it's part of it). And even as I can discern clearly what the writer is trying to say about this family and, much broader, about the situation in the country, I'm actually quite ready to forgive that for the subtlety with which I think the story was told. There were no headless bodies on the streets, no raped girls and drugged up children with uzis, no gratuitous appeals for pity. Most of the all, there was a story. Perhaps I'm setting the bar a bit low, but I appreciate all these things.

It does bear repeating that we need more stories of contemporary, heavily-urbanized, not-a-giraffe-in-sight Africa. It's probably fair to say that African countries' citizens are not the same people as they were 50, 25, even 10 years ago. We deserve a literature that reflects our dynamism. While recognizing this, I don’t have a political point to make on the story, because whatever one may think, the story has a point, it has a reason that it was written, and it was indeed written very well. I am consciously staying away from the counterargument that effectively puts down literature like this, because I cannot deny its validity. Hell, I even agree to it myself. I will, however, put this forward: stories like this need being told, and I think this is actually a good way to do it.

Check out ZunguZungu for reviews by the rest of the bloggers.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

In Which I Aspire to Questionable Heights of Shameless Self-Promotion

I debated putting this up here, but I figure I may as well.

An essay of mine on moving back to Nigeria got published in the awesome blog-magazine called This Recording. Here's a bit of it:
Back in Lagos now, I have an older pair of eyes. Nigeria is no longer a place of childhood imagination and birthday parties. Though I do not see this as where I came of age, the fact that it is my home has become more true than at any other time in my life.

It is always understood when you leave Nigeria as a Nigerian that you will return at some point. There is family, after all, probably weddings or, worse still, funerals. And it's not like every minute you are away you aren't wondering what new club has opened, what new slang people are using, what new artist is making waves. Diaspora Nigerians fresh from weeks of partying in Lagos return to regale you with stories of change and mobile phones, of parties that could make Fitzgerald dizzy with jetsetters and entrepreneurs. Nigeria is an escalator of a country, forever moving upwards towards another level that is shinier, more luxurious than the one we left behind. We are a people in transit, living our lives as though forever stuck in the London-to-Lagos terminal in Heathrow. We always seem to be going somewhere, always seem to be moving.

Read it all here. It was also featured in Longform.org, which is every shade of awesome.

There's really no reason why there's the music video of Siji's awesome song "Ijo" below. Almost no reason - Black Looks recommended it to me a long while ago, and I fell hard for the song. Consider this a good use at my Machiavellian powers.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Caine Prize for African Literature - Story Blogging Week I

In an initiative hosted by Aaron Bady (ZunguZungu), I'm joining a gang of awesome bloggers in reading and blogging on the entrants for the Caine Prize for African Literature this year. You can read along with us -- all the stories are available online in PDFs and linked from the Caine Prize website. There's five stories on the shortlist, and a review will be going up every Friday. This is the first one.

The first story the group will be reviewing is “Hitting Budapest”, a story by Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo. What I liked most about the story is the dialogue between the characters, how real it was. I liked the hard-edged innocence of aspiring to be better thieves coupled with not seeing there is something really wrong when a girl is impregnated by her grandfather, scarcely even knowing where babies even come from. I liked how it's not exactly drilled into you that these kids are not the wealthiest. The first thing you learn about them is not their poverty, but that they are kids. And truly, that's all you need to know.

What I didn't like, however, was how I was not sure why there was any need for this story at all. One bothers to write a story, I believe, to point out a moment where things change, either the moments leading up to the change, or the fall-out of the change itself. Basically, I think that a piece of fiction is best when it chronicles a momentous time in a character's life, and the fall-out from such an occasion. Stories can stop and start a narrative so we can zoom in and out like a camera at details and skip backwards and forwards in time, showing to the point of stark nudity particular instances in a character's life in a way that film or any other medium may not be able to. I can't say that this story really does that here.

Perhaps the point she was getting at was that they got to see themselves through the eyes of this random woman in this really upscale neighborhood, but that particular thread wasn't dragged through the story. We get no sense of how the kids were affected by this meeting, save for feeling indignant at her taking a picture of when without so much as offering them food. Maybe the coupling of meeting someone they thought as strange and insensitive with the confronting of a suicide was meant to hint the reader at something about their not knowing how miserable their circumstances are. But they do. They know enough about their situation to want to escape it. Their entire day in the story, they talked about escaping, to Budapest, to America, to South Africa. At the end of the story, I don't know why Bulawayo chose this particular time in the characters' lives, or get any sense how this particular trip to Budapest warranted telling. In sum, I don't know why she wrote the story at all. I don't always think stories ought to have some sort of moral lesson or even a “point” as such; I just like knowing, after I read a story, why it was written in the first place.

In spite of what I've said, and the ending (I found it a bit rushed), I liked reading the story, and I probably will check out more of the writer's work. One of the most gratifying things about this juncture in African literature is how urban some of the stories are, how current, and how younger folks are willing to talk about social issues without moralizing. I'm sure I've said this in this blog before, but I really hate how almost necessary it is as an artist in an African country to feel the need to be topical and have something to say about whatever burning issue there is in our polity. We can't always write about HIV/Aids or poverty, after all, and even if we do, we can't, for the sake of creating art, forget that reality is all about telling stories about people and the very flawed, ver fascinating lives they lead. Even when writers talk about poor people, the best art puts it at the forefront of our minds that we are dealing first and foremost with people, celebrates that humanity before it decries the situation that it lives in, and quietly when it does so. This story does that, as does so many stories people are coming with these days, and that should be applauded.

To see how the other bloggers liked (or not) this story, check ZunguZungu for updates with more blog reactions.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Poems for Sunday

I couldn't decide on which of these two to put up, so I'm just going to throw them both on here.

One Art gets the most press out of Elizabeth Bishop's work, but this one is one of my favorites. It's an untitled poem for her lover Lilli, a woman who only had lesbian relationships after her husband's death, and their time in together in a small village in Brazil called Ouro Preto. I know less about the history of You Are Happy, but I love the imagery in both. You Are Happy especially makes you want to get out a sweater. Bishop's has an intimacy to it that suggests it had only one person in mind to ever read it, even though it was published in the New Yorker.

And, yes, I love a poem with a subtle innuendo.


Dear, my compass
Still points north
to wooden houses
and blue eyes

fairytales where
younger sons
bring home the goose

Love in hay-lofts,
Protestants, and
heavy drinkers
Springs are backward

But crab-apples
ripen to rubies,
cranberries to
drops of blood

and swans can paddle
icy water,
so hot the blood
in those webbed feet

-- Cold as it is,
we'd go to bed, dear,
early, but never to keep warm.

You Are Happy

The water turns
a long way down over the raw stone,
ice crusts around it

We walk separately
along the hill to the open
beach, unused
picnic tables, wind
shoving the brown waves, erosion, gravel
rasping on gravel.

In the ditch a deer
carcass, no head. Bird
running across the glaring
road against the low pink sun.

When you are this
cold you can think about
nothing but the cold, the images

hitting into your eyes
like needles, crystals, you are happy.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Is Art a Desirable Goal?

Over at Bombastic Element, a really cool piece up on music in the work of African cinematic masters like Sissako and Absa. Of course, the term "African Cinema" is loosely applied here. Nothing of this applies to Nigerian film. From the piece he linked to from Beatriz Leal Riesco at Buala:

Since the early days of African cinema, music has formed part of a (self) conscious discourse concerning the problematic realities of Africa. Its use has rarely been gratuitous and goes far beyond the traditional—and much less experimental—Western customs of dramatic punctuation, of evocation of place, of establishing an emotional relationship with the spectator in which the image is almost always predominant, or as accompaniment to the never-ceasing rush of action that hardly leaves one time to think… In African cinema, music is stressed in terms of its cultural, poetic, and artistic functions in relation to oral tradition, with reference to such figures as the griot; it is used to critique the reductive commonplace of tradition versus modernity employed by partisans of a fabricated, purist, and ultimately nefarious—in its insistence on the notion of an “unadulterated essence”— “return to the roots”; it is blended into narration as an essential component and as a marker for critical moments; it works to evoke spaces where time slackens and opens up, giving way for ambiguity and reflection; and it mirrors the continuing urbanization of every aspect of African life, its constant contact with a West for which music is often a tool of domestication, of modernization, and of cultural imperialism.

This post got me thinking about the goals of art, if there need to goals at all, or even if art is a desirable end in itself. Music in Nigerian film, of course, is mostly a hodge-podge of often pop ballads, even jingles, that do little to heighten the mood, if not worsening the scene with sickening heights of melodrama. No high-mindedness preoccupies the filmmakers, and this often is enough for their audience.

It's not like Nigerian films cannot be studied; far from it. They tell you a lot about the collective mindset of country today, but one cannot study Nigerian cinema as a unique way that Nigerian filmmakers approach film in itself. To study an approach to film would imply that the idea of making a film was to produce art, not a product. Yes, there is a thin line between art and product (Art is often sold for profit, after all), but for my money, an art form is qualified as such because what drives the artist something beyond the material gain. An artist makes money, yes, but that's not entirely the point.

I was into books and creative writing long before I started watching film, so maybe my lenses are a bit tainted here and a "good" film should not be defined the same way "good" literature often is. Still, I wonder what it says about Nigerian film that we cannot study aspects of the filmmaking by many Nigerian directors the way we can work by Ousmane Sembene and the like, particularly since our industry is so huge and so well-received. I think the ability of a culture to create and present art, and for it to be appreciated and even find an audience from where it can make money is healthy, even desirable, in any society. I think a society should have a healthy appreciation for artistic expression, and have individuals capable of thinking outside their wallets. I don't even think that there needs to be a split between entertainment and art -- I have read a lot of books lately that blur that line (Lola Shoneyin's "The Secret Lives of Baba Segy's Wives" comes highly recommended). Increasingly, though, I wonder if this line of thinking just shows my own bias and nothing more.

I don't know for sure that "art" is the best goal, if it's even the most desirable goal. I think it is, but I can't give any cogent reason for that. All I know is that in Nigeria only a handful of our films can qualify as art, and precious few of our filmmakers are interested in making good art. I wish I had more than my knee-jerk aversion to this fact, but all I know is that I don't like it one bit.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Back in the Day, When I Was Young, I'm Not a Kid Anymore...

I have entirely too much time on my hands today, so I'm going old school Nigerian music on you guys.

I was going to do old school African music and throw in some Judith Sephuma, Miriam Makeba, etc, but I think I'll keep this narrow. There's some classic cuts here, but lots of awesome songs are being left out. There's no Oyeka, no Daddy Shokey, no Majek Fashek, no Zubi Enebeli. Maybe this post will have a sequel, but I'm not sure there needs to be a definitive list, do you?

Looking at Nigerian music then and Nigerian music now, there's some key differences. For one thing, raggae's influence on Nigerian music has definitely died down considerably. I wonder why that is. For another, there's been a marked change in theme. The preoccupation of such songs as "Obaro" (move forward, or something -- I don't speak the language) and "Ota Dehin Lehin Mi" (Enemy, get behind me), and "Walakolombo" (a promiscuous woman) are very Nigerian, but I'll argue that one sees them a lot less in music now than they do in Nigerian films. Even though it has not completely abandoned its political streak, Nigerian music nowadays is more preoccupied with themes one sees in American music: getting the girl, veiled sexual references, and rappers' braggadocio. Nigerian films, I think, are more derivative of Nigerian society, and therefore much closer to the Nigerian psyche than Nigerian music.

I wonder what will happen once we lose legends like King Sunny Ade, Lagbaja, and Obey. Today, one sees few people taking up high-life or high-life inspired music, all music derived from Nigeria, to be honest. I'd hate to see it die off in favor of this infatuation with all things American.


Saturday, May 7, 2011

Wonga Coups and E-Revolutions

At the blog Africa Unchained (again, which probably means you should have it on your RSS feed!) is spotlighted S.O.S. Malabo, the web-based effort at a long-needed revolution to oust Theodore Obiang. This guy, mind you, is one of the least talked-about dictators on the continent who somehow manages to keep a country with the highest GDP per capita on the continent in poverty.

I remember taking an African Studies class in college and reading Wonga Coup. It's a book about some Brits' (including Margaret Thatcher's son) failed attempt at a coup in the oil-rich country, but more broadly about the miserable situation the country found itself in with former dictator and Obiang's uncle Macias Nguema. The chapter on him isn't titled “Mad Uncle Macias” for nothing – so virulent was he against standard education or health-care for fear that it was too “Western”, that he let his people go without either. The citizens are also now without access to basics like water and a sewage system, never mind human rights and a free press, according to the S.O.S. Malabo website.

This post was going to be about the role of Twitter and Facebook in revolutions (Suffice it to say that I think the success of revolutions usually rely on more analog factors), but I decided to make it about this book instead. I've been looking for a reason to put something on Wonga Coup at the blog. The story is a bit surreal; it sounds like something that couldn't actually happen in real life (Frederick Forsythe recognized this, no doubt, when he adapted it for a novel). But it did. I recommend you read it.

Image from acmamail.com

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Irritated Sigh Turned Blogpost on Lagos

I saw poster of “I See Lagos” a few weeks ago when I was visiting family, but, thanks to Emeka Okafor's blog Africa Unchained, I now know what it is.


It's weird how you can always tell when a government is doing something that bears paying attention to, and when they're not. When INEC sent out its BB Pin and Twitter handle, they also put out billboard and radio jingles with SMS numbers to report election irregularities across the country. That's how you know that they were serious. While governors put up websites to showcase the work they've done in the states, they also take out ads on TV in pidgin and the local language. With this kind of forum that I See Lagos has, where's the analog equivalent? There's a reason why, when folks have important things to say in Nigeria, they don't necessarily go on Facebook to say it. And it is that reason that makes things like this look unserious.

There's nothing wrong with a bunch of diaspora folks and their internet-ready friends with strongly-held opinions batting back and forth on how best to help Lagos in and of itself, but this should not be the sum of what we can expect from our government and other people within relatively-easy reach of the resources that can make a difference in people's lives. This has less to do with getting people talking about how to move the most populous state in the most populous countries in Africa, and more to do with Fashola getting “cool points” with upwardly mobile middle-class Nigerians and the Nigerian diaspora. Nothing wrong with that, let's call it what it is, shall we?

I'm probably being harder on this than I absolutely need to be, but this points to a larger trend I see among more-monied, London-for-Summer-hols Nigerians like myself, where we band together in our little bubbles and beat our Proudly Nigeria drums and extol on the virtues of change. We make election monitoring forums by and for us. Our blogsphere is created by people like us and for us. We are both addresser and addressee. Think about it: do you think Nigerian newspapers have to worry about making less money because folks read 234Next/Punch/This Day/Guardian/Daily Independent online and don't buy the physical newspaper? NYT, LA Times and the Washington Post have to worry about stuff like that, because, in the U.S., internet access is ubiquitous. In Nigeria, it's not, so internet cannot be the default for a national or statewide conversation that we actually really need to have. Gov. Fashola and his posse really ought to think about expanding their scope and widening our conversation to those who don't have the same access as we do. That is, Fashola and his posse should really think about expanding the conversation to within the reach of most Lagosians.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

China Meets Angola in an Oil Field

Two passages in this piece over at Guernica on Chinese investment in Angola and its oil struck me.

The first:

The Chinese, in turn, wanted little to do with the ordinary people whose country they had come to salvage from the wreckage of the last forty years. One day I met Xia Yi Hua, a middle-aged CEO from Beijing who had been in Angola for the last year and a half. He had contracts with the government to build a hotel in Baya Falte for some of Dos Santos’ most loyal military generals and a police academy in Baya Azul. He welcomed me into a spare waiting room and sat down comfortably in a stiff-backed chair. He got his chicken locally, he told me, but received regular shipments of packaged goods from China. His company sent him food. Everything in his office building, a set of low-rise prefab construction at the end of a highway leading out of Lobito, was either assembled in China, or made by Chinese laborers in Luanda. The wooden coffee table at which we were sitting was made of a rare and beautiful dark-colored Angolan wood, but Xia Yi Hua had brought a Chinese carpenter in to assemble the table. He had his own set of rules. No one from his construction company, China Jiang Su, was allowed to have romantic or sexual ties with Angolans.

“The chief for Jiang Su says that the Chinese who have wives in China, they don’t have the right to be with Angolan girls.”

Anyone caught frequenting local girls, he said, gets sent home. “Yes, fired.”

The gap between the two cultures was too vast, he explained, unbridgeable even in matters of the heart.

“For an Angolan to marry a Chinese girl is very bad too.”

What he wants most, it seems, is more Chinese workers.

“We can’t expand fast enough,” he laughed. “I need more Chinese.”

The second:

Zulu is the one bar in Lobito where everyone goes — the Chinese, the American oil workers, the journalists — and it sits on a wide strip of sand that looks out over the bay and the calm gray waters of the Atlantic. There’s a thatched roof hut with a bar serving tropical drinks, and several wooden tables outside. One afternoon I met Zhou Zhenhong at Zulu. He had been in Africa for five years; two in South Africa, which he found too dangerous, and two in Zambia, which he found too slow and too poor. Angola, on the other hand, was safe enough and rich enough to make it worth his time. When I met him, he hadn’t seen his family in two years and didn’t know when next he would. He used to work for CIF, but in 2006 they pushed him out and told him to start his own company. He started with $1 million in loans and since then has made several million more. “It’s a hundred percent per year,” he said. “That’s unique to this country. You don’t see that anywhere else in Africa. Why? Because the Angolans are pushing like mad to have everything done by tomorrow. They want the best and the fastest. If they want a hotel, they don’t want a three-star, they want a five-star.”

Great piece. Read the whole thing.

Friday, April 22, 2011


I'm off to see Fela! this weekend, original cast and all, in Lagos.

*insert excited squeal here*

It only adds to the experience for me that Femi Kuti, the song of the great man himself, has only good things to say about broadway show, and is pleased now after having insisted the show be performed in Lagos.

By the way, Seun Kuti was interviewed in the Guardian recently. Check that out here. He said he once did a cover of Radiohead's "Paranoid Android" when he was in school, but I couldn't find it on YouTube. Oh well...

Via OkayAfrica, Femi Kuti got the cast of the show to perform live with him at the Shrine in Lagos recently. Wish I was there; this must have been a real treat to see.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Caution: Highly Quotable -- Roberto Bolano

The very-subscribable (hint, hint!) NY Review of Books has been churning out some excellent Bolano essays. I couldn't finish 2666, haven't gotten around to Savage Detectives, and I'm not a fan of the short stories I've heard (yes, heard) so far, but dammit if this doesn't hit the nail square on the head.

Probably all of us, writers and readers alike, set out into exile, or at least a certain kind of exile, when we leave childhood behind. Which would lead to the conclusion that the exiled person or the category of exile doesn’t exist, especially in regards to literature. The immigrant, the nomad, the traveler, the sleepwalker all exist, but not the exile, since every writer becomes an exile simply by venturing into literature, and every reader becomes an exile simply by opening a book.
Almost all Chilean writers, at some point in their lives, have gone into exile. Many have been followed doggedly by the ghost of Chile, have been caught and returned to the fold. Others have managed to shake the ghost and gone into hiding; still others have changed their names and their ways and Chile has luckily forgotten them.

I read this, I think of how Nabokov never stopped writing about Russia, even though he left when he was a child. I think back to Wole Soyinka's We Must Set Forth at Dawn, and the image of him driving across the country upon his return to Ibadan after spending time in Leeds for school. I think of the latest generation of African writers, the ones we'll surely be talking about for years to come – Dinaw Mengistu, Nnedi Okorafor, Petina Gappah. I think of how the bitterest, most cynical Nigerian immigrants felt warm with hope when Nigeria came back from behind to win Brazil, as though that piece of good fortune could somehow transfer to the country's more intransigent problems. I think of my friend's father who was full of anger at his home country that he never taught his daughter, my friend, her native language.

Later on in the piece, Bolano says that “Exile, in most cases, is a voluntary decision” for a lot of writers. That's certainly not true for folks like Soyinka or Chris Abani or Ogaga Ifowodo or a whole host of writers from Somalia and apartheid-era South Africa, but it is for a lot of us modern African immigrants. This is probably due to the cruel irony that the people who most desperately need to leave are often the most trapped, be it in refugee camps or slums or fleeing from village to village in conflict-torn areas. Many of us self-flung across the world aren't forced from our countries because we feel like our lives are in immediate danger. We live in self-imposed exile for the short- and long-term goal of having a better life, however grudgingly we admit that. We're all travelers, with minds like a haunted house, floorboards creaking with cultural sensitives, and expectations of who we will become like silent screams bouncing off the walls in our heads. Maybe that's the point of literature – a way to make sense of this crazy concept of home.

Photo from Latin American Herald Tribune

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Not Speaking Yoruba

It is with more than a pang of regret that I acknowledge that I do not understand Yoruba.

OK, that's not entirely true. After all, there is nothing you can say to me in Yoruba that I won't understand. There isn't enough Nigeria in my voice, apparently, to give this understanding of the language away, but I've actually learned to like that. I relish the look on people's faces when they talk about me in Yoruba as though I am not there, only to have their eyes widen in shock when I respond. Yes, I respond in Yoruba sometimes, so it's probably not true, is it, that I don't know any Yoruba.

I should be more clear: speaking Yoruba, speaking it well, is not the same as speaking English well. You can do quite well without speaking English idiomatically, each word an island that reveals itself through practice of conjugations and direct meaning, like a street increasingly familiar with returning visits. Words in English take their place like soldiers. Subject, verb, direct object. You can get more complex than that if you wanted to, of course, but it really is enough to convey your meaning the majority of the time.

Yoruba, however, doesn't work that way. True, you can learn Yoruba in a classroom, like I did in my primary school days, with paperback textbooks the exact thickness as freshly-ironed adire. You could, but why would you, when you could listen to your grandparents talk, read the Yoruba daily newspaper Alaroyin, watch Yoruba movies and laugh at the grammatically-incorrect English captions? No. Yoruba is to be experienced, lived, not – in the academic sense of the word – learned.

And, anyway, the kind of Yoruba you learn is not the kind of Yoruba you want to speak. Where English lines up, Yoruba is a contortionist. I am going to the market. The market, I am going. Both correct. And as you get to more complex situations, this ability to shape and reshape itself gets even thornier, expecting the speaker to move into a thicket of idioms, metaphor. In English, this will only serve to embellish, soften the stark nakedness of one's words. Not quite so in Yoruba. Individual words in this language can take on so many meanings, depending on where one places emphasis. Ife could be a small, university town some hour or so outside of Ibadan, or it can be love. Oko can mean husband, or perhaps forest, and, maybe, if you really butcher it, penis. This nuance is true not just of Yoruba pronunciation, but of Yoruba itself.

To understand Yoruba, then, is to know not just the words themselves, but the spirit in which the words can be used. Someone like me who merely speaks Yoruba can tell you what is bothering them. A person who truly speaks Yoruba will use metaphor as stand-in for himself, at once distancing himself from his words and bringing him – and by extension, his listener – closer to his real meaning. One realizes that this is not a language to be spoken plainly. And if you do, it is because you don't truly understand.

The older one gets in Nigeria, the more one notices the wedges that so many drive into our society. Accent and language is one such wedge, and it is not lost on me what it means to not speak my language. One finds this in English, too, where even the slightest whiff of foreignness is noted and commented on. Immediately comes to barrage of questions: Where are you from? How long have you lived in Nigeria? How long did you live abroad? These I find more understandable and less curious than the responses one gets to the inability to speak Yoruba. One is often met with what can be described as interest, but it really is something more akin to fascination. Who is this person, where did they come from, that they were so surrounded by English that they never got to learn? On occasion, one may get the “it is your mother tongue, why don't you speak it, eh?” But even this is spoken with in irritability directed at not the fact of one's level of fluency, but rather a fact of one's supposed social status. What that question means is very often “who do you think you are that you can't even deign to speak the language?”

Collective self-esteem issues always seem to pervade post-colonized spaces, and it takes different forms from African countries to the United States, from Asia to Latin America. One may even deem the latching on to something else almost necessary, a step that acknowledges the new standard in which things get validated before crafting something of one's own that meets that standard for oneself. As I say this, I am thinking of the way this new popular culture came up in most African counties, where young folks are no longer ashamed to request songs made in their own countries on radio shows, as they were not even quite a decade ago. I don't know, but I do know that the self-esteem issues that relate to culture metamorphosize, change shape. From the way American conservative nativists in the U.S talk, almost spitting in their withering contempt at the effete ways and artsy sensibilities of Europeans, we from African countries can see ourselves: the way the men from Africa are the more manly; the way the black women are stronger than their frailer, paler counterparts; the way Nigerian children are smarter than white ones, regardless of where the white people come from. We may wallow for awhile, but we always somehow find comfort, grasping at the straws of our inadequacies for something bright to hold on to.

But this is not about the self-esteem of a shapeless collective; it's about my own. After all, it's not like all Nigerians born of my generation speak so abysmally their native language. I wonder what the draw to English and not to Yoruba says about who I was at an earlier age, and what it was that I saw then. And I wonder what this pang of regret really means, and what it says about who I am now.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Congrats, Black Looks/ Women Who Rock

Seeing as I have a quotable from Nawal el-Sadaawi a few posts ago, it seems fitting to mention that the premier grant-making organization for African women NGOs AWDF has a list out of the top 50 African feminists doing big things.

As you've probably guessed, el-Sadaawi herself is on that list. So are other notables like Nigerian actress Joke Silva, singer Angelique Kidjo, Ghanaian filmmaker who directed the remarkable "The Witches of Gambaga" Yaba Badoe, and the green champion herself Wangari Maathai.

Still, the list would have been incomplete for me without fellow blogger Sokari Ekine, who got a mention for "Utilising the power of blogging and new technology to promote the rights of women and LGBTQI persons". Congratulations, Woman!

And if you're curious about The Witches of Gambaga, a film following 2 women -- among the over 1,000 accused of being witches of northern Ghana -- from a camp that housed them after they were ostracized back to their homes, check out The Guardian's video on the documentary here.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

On Debating Nigeria

The Nigerian #WhatAboutUs Presidential debate left me cold, and it's taken me a couple of days to understand why.

Let's forget for one moment the question of whether or not this debate will change the electoral calculus. It won't. Probably everyone in that room holds themselves in high enough moral standing as not to sell their vote for a cup of rice or a small nylon bag of garri, or perhaps some money. I know, because I'm one of them. Indeed, most politicians can't afford to buy off the dignity of someone who is middle to upper-class. Our tastes are too high. We already have rice, bags of it, probably eat it with stir-fry at fancy Chinese restaurants once a month when we save money. Guys can afford to buy their girlfriends a bottle of champagne (however much he'll wince at his bank statement later), maybe even play the big boy once in awhile – if not every weekend – at Koko Lounge or Marquis or wherever it is those young Lagos folk hang out these days. No, a corrupt politician wouldn't want to buy our vote. Our apathy is so much cheaper.

And apathetic we usually are, even as so many among us profess “Proudly Nigeria”, and believe that we are the ones we are waiting for. But we are not. Because we are already here. We have known for a long time what needs to be done, probably have technocrat friends who could us exactly how, and we have know for a long time. No, we are not any less Nigerian than them, but we are not the critical mass; those other people are.

Let it be known that there are less of the yuppy Nigerians trooping to Victoria Island than there are them. Yes, them. Those people who weren't there in the debate. Those people who are likelier to own a radio than a TV. Those people who were probably on their okadas looking for passengers during the debate, hawking food or recharge cards, selling tomatoes in the market. Those people whose vote is up for resale because they don't see the difference in the candidates, and are so disillusioned because they don't have the same sense of urgency for their stomachs as they do for the country.

Those are the people politicians go to, after all, when they want votes, not us. With our Twitter and Blackberries, our Bella Naija and our good English and trips to London for summer. And I'm not even saying I blame these people. I'm just saying that we do not have the humility to see the smallness of our number. I'm saying that, if we did, we would have had a debate beamed from a market somewhere, with the head marketwoman or Iyaloja moderating, with translators for the Hausa or Igbo presidential candidate.

I'm not saying that that would have helped much either. We as Nigerians are so used to our leaders being unavailable that it may even backfire. What kind of “Big Man” the logic goes, would sit with his servants? And Nigeria has always had a twisted relationship with leaders, these leaders that we have had for so long that never serve. But I wanted something, anything, to show that people in that room, the organizers of that debate, understood. Because something, however, misguided, would have shown that they realized that people like us aren't the ones that matter. Or that people like us are not the only ones that matter. Not by a long shot.

And the fact that we so often don't see it, and very often only give it lip service speaks louder than anything else of why we get the politicians that we do, that acknowledge only one slice of Nigeria in their daily business. That is what we do, too, is it not? And don't our leaders come from us? this society? these people? This society that we have crafted with our bare hands, brick-by-brick, almost adoringly. We will not blow this brick house down if we do not turn the lights away from ourselves, and on to the people who will really change this country, those who need convincing that this change is possible, and those who need convincing that there is actually a way to make it happen. We – diaspora kids, Enough is Enough kids, full-bellied kids, going to Arise Fashion Week in Muson kids, going to art galleries and Silverbird Galleria kids – are not the ones that need convincing. They are.

The secret of our dignity that makes us so hard to buy is our ability to dream. But it doesn't matter if we have stars in our eyes. It matters that they don't. It doesn't matter if we have dreams of a shining city on the hill. It matters that they don't. Because our country will not live off of our dreams. Our revolution wouldn't happen until those people who were not in that room during the debate starve, because they choose to ignore the stretch of that arm offering money for their vote, and dream, too.