Ikhide Ikheloa

Ikhide Ikheloa

Ikhide Roland Ikheloa is the Chief of Staff to the Board of Montgomery County Public Schools in Rockville, Maryland, (MCPS) USA, where he has been working since 1987, beginning as Business Manager at Gaithersburg High School and as a Budget and Management Specialist for MCPS. He is a bachelor's degree holder in Biochemistry from the University of Benin and MBA degree from the University of Mississippi in Oxford Mississippi.


Monday, 13 February 2012 09:04

Memo To The Young: Take Back Your Country

My father claims that life under Nigeria's military was much better than what he is enduring today under the civilians. My father is a man who was once prepared to die for Nigeria. Today, he lives in a village that time forgot. The only certainty is death. Everything else is rationed. My father's pension comes in unreliable spurts; he relies on the finicky generosity of his children and others visiting to tend to the dying and the dead.

Democracy has not helped my father. For him, it has been the same, the transition from the military to the civilian. Same difference. He would like the military to come back. According to him, if you are going to be miserable, you might as well have a good excuse. My father also believes he was happier under the colonialists. That may appear silly but I see it as a profound indictment of the excesses of our political and intellectual classes.

I have thought about it a lot and I have come to the reluctant conclusion that the return of the military would be a step backwards. So, what should we do? I don't know; the prognosis does not look good. But, I say to the young in Nigeria: Take back your country; my generation has screwed it up royally. Why do I say this? My trip to Nigeria last September is just now beginning to register in the sense of how appalled I was at the degradation and neglect that now passes for a country.

Nigeria as it stands now is actually an unruly gathering of the mostly clueless mostly pretending to be a nation. If Nigeria was a building in a Western nation, its occupants would be immediately evacuated and the building razed down by a team of demolition experts wearing hazardous materials suits. The situation is pretty bad, let's stop pretending. And what is happening to the young in Nigeria will have long-lasting repercussions for several generations to come. I saw young people toiling under conditions that would break mere mortals in the West.

There are absolutely no rules in Nigeria that money cannot break. Money is the king, decency, morality and justice be damned. Yes, some good things are happening; all the more reason why the current situation should be arrested, literally.

It is distressing to see what civilian leaders have done to our nation under the guise of democracy. Someone should pay for what has happened to Nigeria. Our intellectuals are just as culpable in the penkelemesi. Have you seen what passes for a "university" in Nigeria these days? I recently saw pictures of rioting "students" of the University of Nigeria (UNN) against the backdrop of their dilapidated "hostels."

The hostels looked like hovels that did not survive the Nigerian Civil war. Hogs would not be housed in these hovels in Alabama. These are not students that our "university lecturers" are raising, these are abused children. Someone stop this madness called democracy. It has become a plague on our people that must be stopped at all costs.

In Nigeria, I saw a land of pretend laws, money briskly changing hands to subvert rules of civilisation, and those sworn to protect our citizens taking turns to chase and hunt them down. It is my generation that has replicated the sins of those gone before. The leaders of my generation do not get it. They are still living in the dark ages when accountability was not a word. In the age of the Internet there are no secrets, there are lies. And the greatest wealth we can accumulate is our good name. Try to google the name of your favourite Nigerian "leader" and you will understand why not all the money in the world can rescue that name from the opprobrium. They are indeed the scum of the earth.

The leaders of the pro-democracy movement that brought us this shame should go hang their heads in shame. The pro-democracy movement that gave us the promise of liberation from a military Gulag lied to us. Once in power, the pro-democracy movement turned to be just as bad as our executioners.

They are back with placards, asking us to walk with them yet again to freedom. I say to the young, ignore them, it is not your freedom they seek. Get up and stop this madness on your own terms. Listen to Fela Anikulapo Kuti's prophetic words, this democracy is an uprising of criminals and it will bring out the beast in all of us. Stop the madness. Take back your country. What is happening to your country is what happens when you are seduced by the power of empty words. Stop the madness. Take back your country.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012 09:00

Confessions Of A Woman Wrapper

I am married, happily married. I am a woman wrapper, yes, I won't lie, I am a woman wrapper, I do whatever my wonderful, lovely, gorgeous wife wants me to do, who wan die? I have said it; oya, sue me. as I write, she is looking over my shoulders and dictating every word of this wonderful essay. No, it is the truth; I am happily married to my wonderful, lovely, gorgeous wife. Actually every happily married man is a woman wrapper. Any man who says he does not take "nonsense" from his wife is divorced or dead or both.

Priceless marriage tip: If a man ever tells you, "I will not take that from my wife, mba O!" na lie, it is a big lie, the yeye man takes that and more from his wife and thanks his wife for the privilege of taking nonsense from her! Even my father, the dreaded Papalolo, was a woman wrapper. Don't mind him, he is still very alive and he is still a woman wrapper. When I was growing up, we called him "Na Because Of You" behind his back. You see, my mother was a very reasonable person, however, whenever she was pregnant, she loved driving my father insane. In the middle of the night, she would wake up and sweetly request that my father go out and split the firewood for tomorrow's cooking. My father would gnash his teeth like Okonkwo, turn to me and hiss: "Na because of you O, it is because of you that I am going to do this!" And he would go out and split the firewood! At midnight! Whenever my dad resumed splitting firewood in the dead of night, the village knew Mamalolo was pregnant again. I am lying of course, in the sixties, we cooked with gas and we used our microwave to warm our low-fat milk and NO ONE would dare interrupt my father as he watched American Idol on his plasma TV - but you get my gist sha.

Even my lovely daughter Ominira thinks I am a woman wrapper. She is always sending me on errands. If Ominira wants me to take her to the shopping mall to buy school supplies for her advanced algebra class (lipstick, lip gloss, shoes, Gucci handbags, etc) she will call her mall-going friend on the phone (she doesn't like to buy school supplies by herself, Gawd forbid bad ting!), and she will say, "Hey Natalie! My daddy is taking us to the mall!" And Natalie will say on the phone, "Cool, Omi! My daddy will bring us back!" Ominira will pick up the car keys, hand them to me and she will say sweetly, "Come on daddy, let's go, WE will be late for the mall! We are picking up Natalie!" I will be jumping up and down threatening fire and brimstone on her for disturbing my nap and I will be threatening not to go to the mall - all the way to the mall. It is not easy to be a father!

All married men are woman wrappers. I can prove it. My fellow men, this is easily the most important essay I have ever written, so listen to me carefully. Do not ever, ever, ever settle a quarrel between husband and wife by taking the husband's side. That would be stupid. Once you exhibit such an appallingly poor judgment, you are dead and the yeye man you were supporting in the fight will help his wife to bury you. What you do is, even before you hear what the awful man did to his sweet innocent wife, start yelling at the man thusly, "Ah! Ah! You are a stupid useless man! What is wrong with you? Idiot! Olosi! Shebi you are misbehaving because she broke your head with a cutlass? It is only your head! Abeg go and buy another head in the market! Agbaya! Ode buruku! Stupid, useless fool!" Men, women like that kind of sh*t. She will immediately wipe her tears with her wrapper, bring you some more very cold beer, call you her King Solomon and ask you to sit down to judge the case some more. If you are lucky and your wisdom is really flowing (to the detriment of your best friend) she might throw in a good bowl of piping hot fresh fish peppersoup. Again, do not, I repeat, do not ever take the man's side. Literally and figuratively throw him under the bus! If you don't, at night after the woman has calmed him down in bed with her God-given gifts, he is throwing you under that bus - for, get this, for trying to ruin his marriage. I say throw him under the bus, if he survives your perfidy, he will forgive you, men are foolish that way. If you don't take the woman's side, she will never, ever, ever forgive you, trust me, this is the voice of experience talking. Ask my wife, actually, ask my mother, no ask my sisters. They keep a list of losers who interfered in their marriages and all the losers might as well be dead as far as the lovely women in my life are concerned. If God forbid, I ever get in a fight with my lovely gorgeous wife, and I call you for help, I beg you, please don't take my side. When the fight is over, you are dead and I will help my wife bury your sorry behind.

When I first came to America, I lived with an older cousin of mine for a time. Nice guy, very nice guy. His wife was even nicer (I am not just saying this because she reads my great column on Next). He loved to play tennis with me because I was the only one in all of America he could beat (if you are reading this at Mile 2, first of all please pay for the damn newspaper and then please add "lawn" to tennis). Anyway, my friend liked to play tennis with me, I hated playing tennis with him but the wife's pounded yam and okro stew was worth the humiliation of allowing this yeye man to beat me in tennis. Each time, as we would get ready to step out the door to play tennis, the madam would say, "Abeg, dear, buy me okro when una dey come back, you know how Ikhide loves pounded yam and okro stew!" Ai, this simple reasonable request would immediately cause major upheaval in my friend's nervous system. He would start raking right there and then, making unnecessary noise. "Ah! You dis woman! Why O why is it that whenever I am going to do something important you always send me on errands? I am really, really tired of this nonsense O! I don't care if St. Peter comes down from the Pearly gates; I am not buying that okro today! If I buy that okro may Amadioha cut off my head" And I would be thinking, Amadioha! Wetin concern Amadioha with Ishan man? The wife would shrug her shoulders sweetly, say nothing, and simply wave us goodbye. My cousin would proceed to ruin our tennis game by complaining about this latest travesty by his wife and he would swear to me that, as Allah is his witness, he is not going to buy the okro today, let her go and buy the okro herself! He would turn to me and say, "Ikhide, this is a matter of principle. I am teaching you how to be a real man in firm control of your household! If I allow her to get away with this, one day President Jimmy Carter will invite me to the White House, guess what, she will ask me to buy okro on the way home!" You know, it never fails, after such a miserable game of tennis, after all the raking, after all the drama, on the way home, he would suddenly end up at the grocery store to buy - you guessed it - okro! And he would say, "Ikhide, na because of you O! If not because of you, that woman for see pepper today!" My cousin taught me in his own way, that it doesn't help your blood pressure to disobey your wife!

Well, why am I rambling like this? We just celebrated Mother's Day in America and all the men in America did some serious eye-service (sucking up) to all the women in our lives. I am talking flowers, chocolate, cards and really, really bad poetry! As happens every year, the phone lines were jammed, every man calling home to mama, mama pikin, etc, saying I LOVE YOU! Who wan die? Contrast this shameless show of eye-service with what does not happen on Father's Day. Yeah, on Father's Day us long-suffering men usually sit around the house dropping big fat hints to the women in our lives plus other loved ones regarding the awesome importance of said Father's Day thusly. "My pikin, abeg spell F-A-T-H-E-R'-S D-A-Y!" "DO YOU LOVE YOUR FATHER????" that kind of thing. Unlike on Mother's Day, the phone lines are not jammed, you can call your father and the call will go through. All of you people out there, try this trick, on Father's Day, pick up the phone, and call your father. The call will go through and your father will be happy.

It is not easy being a father especially when you don't get credit for it. You do get FULL CREDIT for your fatherhood in divorce court, trust me. In my next life, after I am born, if I look down below and I see that eh I am a man, I shall run back into my mother's stomach. One lifetime of being a disenfranchised, disenchanted papa is enough (sounds like the Nigerian electorate, heh! heh! heh! heh!) On second thought, maybe not. I may come back to this earth as a woman and find that this time around, men are actually in charge. That would be wrong! Talk about double jeopardy! Besides, I do think the life of a woman is tough! They get to sleep with all sorts of ugly men! Even as handsome as I am, sometimes especially first thing in the morning, I look at myself in the mirror and I shudder at the thought of sleeping with me. My greatest nightmare is waking up in the morning as a beautiful woman, looking sideways in bed to see Chief General Dr. Olusegun Obasanjo, Father of the Nation, breathing acidic fumes in my face and uttering the romantic words "Hi honey! Abeg now, give me some!" Shudder! There is not enough money in this lifetime to suffer that trauma!

But on Mother's Day, I do get jealous of the womenfolk. I don't get it; I mean why are the women folk all so much more popular than us great dads? I remember when the late great musician Nico Mbarga put together that immortal song 'Sweet Mother'. At the time, there were only 30 million Nigerians on earth. That song sold 300 million copies. There is no house today that houses a Nigerian man married to a Nigerian woman that does not have Sweet Mother. When you are in the dog house, what do you do? You put that song on and the love of your life (your wife of course) starts rocking and invites you out of jail! Well, what is generally not known is that based on the rocking success of Sweet Mother, Nico Mbarga was persuaded by Nigerian men to record Sweet Father. Only 300 copies were sold. Today, no one can prove definitely that any such song ever existed. We get no respect!

Monday, 13 February 2012 06:48

Our World According to Binyavanga Wainaina

Book Review: One Day I Will Write About This Place. By Binyavanga Wainaina. Graywolf Press; 272 pages 

Every African thinker should find a copy of Binyavanga Wainaina’s new book, One Day I Will Write about This Place and read it carefully from front to back. Scratch “African,” every thinker should read this enigmatic book by one of the most enigmatic thinkers I have never met. Wainaina entertains and educates with his brilliance and lunacy as displayed in the many exhilarating chapters of this unusual memoir. One is reminded repeatedly that there’s no fine line between brilliance and lunacy; Wainaina is a brilliant lunatic. Let me just say that he has written the memoir that many writers are too chicken to write. This memoir is a delightful and important coming of age book that describes Wainaina’s world (and our world) with riotous clarity and shimmering brilliance. Wainaina pulls no punches, he lays it all out there, self-absorbed warts and all. Indeed there are several issues in this book that would make for robust all-night drunken debates. It is a good thing. Who is Binyavanga Wainaina, you ask? It is now a cliché to say that in 2005 Wainaina wrote the half tongue-in-cheek, angry essay How to Write about Africa  – a seminal piece that confronted the complicated relationship between the West and what is or what should be African literature. In that essay he famously wrote this about the West’s expectations of an African story, “Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment.”

The West and the African Writer: Wainaina’s new book robustly continues the conversation that he started with his essay in 2005. It is a long convoluted story though, the West and African literature. The relationship between African writers and the West has been complicated and immensely frustrating. The Western hand that gives to African writers is the same hand that holds its nose to Africa’s real and, some would say, imagined filth. It is well documented that the West has always been fascinated by the real and alleged mystery of Africa, that other planet. This fascination and the stories it has bred are documented in the travelogues, essays and novels of Western travelers and others like VS Naipaul and Dinesh D’Souza. Wainaina is following in the footsteps of Chinua Achebe who looked Joseph Conrad’s spirit in the eye and called him a thorough-going racist in the essay An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”  The writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie also lamented this phenomenon by deriding it in a 2009 TED speech, The Danger of the Single Story. And so there is a gathering body of work massed like furious clouds that question the intentions of Western writers and readers who appear to be stirred only by stereotypical stories of Africa, their war torn needy angry place of issues-laden starving peasants who do cute things. 

Well, it is complicated. When one studies the works of contemporary African writers as measured against the works of those before them, there appears to be a wide gulf in terms of attitude and focus. Today, crumbling walls and globalization have ironically fueled a self-serving market of literature that mostly serves the West and the African writer, Africa and Africans be damned. The question that comes to mind is this: When did we stop telling our stories; and when did we start selling our stories to the other? Many contemporary writers including those who are crying foul at unflattering depictions of Africa and Africans by the West are just as complicit in the ongoing distortion of our history as I suggested in 2007 in the essay The Balance of our Stories.  That essay was largely influenced by my reading of contemporary writers and Chinua Achebe’s epic essay, Today, the Balance of Stories in his book Home and Exile. The new globalization seems to have brought the worst out of many of our contemporary traditional writers. I say “traditional” because the world still relies on their books as the sole yardstick for how our stories are told. It is true that the book is really the only benchmark we and the West use. But let me propose that there are great stories on the Internet written by new African writers that are being ignored because they do not breathe between book covers. These are awesome stories written by exciting thinkers who are not that needy, or under a certain pressure to produce tales rich with a single story. My point is that there is enough blame to go around. Our writers and thinkers must emulate the behavior that they seek in others. In an essay, In Search of the African Writer, I made the case that the search for the authentic African writer is on in full force – unfortunately by the wrong hunters.

He Who Pays the Piper The West does deserve credit for rescuing most of Africa’s gifted writers and artists from the despair, devastation and abuse that was previously their lot in Africa. We would not have a Nobel Laureate in Wole Soyinka today if he had been allowed to be broken by military goons. Achebe would be dead in record time if he stepped into Africa without the generous medical and material resources at his disposal in the West. There is a long list of African writers rescued like abused puppies by the West, and Wainaina is just one of them.  The plain truth is that Africa is witnessing a renaissance in literature and the arts thanks to the robust patronage of the West. All the prizes of stature are Western or funded by the West. They are prestigious prizes and highly sought after as they should be. However, there is the unfortunate perception, perhaps reality, that any African writer who wishes to have stature and prestige must be published in the West or win Western prizes and grants. It helps that the awards are meticulously organized and the publishing houses produce books of incredibly high quality no matter how mediocre the writer’s thoughts are. The patronage appears to come with a heavy price that Africa can ill afford to pay: Many writers appear to be writing to the test of the expectations of these prizes. I expressed my concerns in 2011 in two essays, The 2011 Caine Prize: How Not to Write about Africa and The Caine Prize and Unintended Consequences. There is a disturbing trend in African literature: Africa’s history and literature are being grossly distorted and unduly influenced by the self-serving narrative-for-rent hawked by a minority contingent of African writers. Using their access to good publishers, their mediocre thoughts hide behind pretty covers to assault Africa’s sensibilities. It sells. Wainaina’s book brings to full convergence the anxieties and tensions around the tortured relationship between the West and African writers. On the one hand, Wainaina acknowledges openly and graciously in that book that it was published thanks to generous funding from a long list of Western donors and corporations like the Minnesota State Arts Board, the National Endowment for the Arts, Target stores, Wells Fargo, the College of St Benedict’s. On the other hand, Wainaina is almost contemptuous of the interventions of the West in his fortunes; sometimes he gives the impression that he suffers from a culture of entitlement. Indeed if I was to offer any criticism of this lush narrative it is that Wainaina’s analysis conveniently excludes the role of the African writer in fomenting (for profit) the stereotyping of Africa in the enthusiastic hawking of the single story.

Here is Wainaina describing how he got invited to the Caine Prize ceremony in which he was the winner: “Dear Caine Prize Shortlisted Guy, called Binya… vanga. Do you want to come to England, and have dinner in the House of Lords, and do readings, and go to the Bodleian Library for a dinner of many courses, with wine, and all of London’s literati? At this dinner, you will find out if Baroness Somebody Important will give you fifteen thousand dollars in cash, and even if she doesn’t, you should come because being shortlisted and having dinner at the House of Lords and such is like a big deal, a really big deal. Will you come? Oh yes. I go. I win the Caine Prize, and cry, bad snotty tears, and come back with some money. A group of writers and I start a magazine, called Kwani?—which means so what?” (p. 189). Wainaina’s engagement with his patrons in this book comes across as rude, there is a cloying sense of entitlement; the smirk for once comes across as contrived, just like a few of the stories that have won the Caine prize. There have been seething ripples of discontent from the West. The book has justifiably received favorable reviews; however the Economist has led the pack in skewering Wainaina here with mean bear claws: “Too many African writers are co-opted by the American creative-writing scene only to be reduced by prevailing navel-gazing. Separately, much of the African writing culture that remains on the continent, including Kwani?, is propped up with cash from the Western donors that African writers purport to excoriate.”  The Economist is irritated by this uppity Kenyan who dares to bite the dainty fingers that he routinely feeds from whenever he is hungry. The piper seeks to dictate the tune. I expressed my sentiments regarding the Economist’s review of Wainaina’s memoir in a July 2011 essay, The Empire Talks Back.

altThe World According to Wainaina So what does Wainaina have to say in his memoir? It is typically Wainainaesque – an in-your-face take me as I wish to present me attitude. He is very open about his tortured relationship with the West. He takes their money – and he tortures them. There is a sense of entitlement here that on the surface is galling but then we must have a conversation about how and why things are the way they are. The Economist does not; the magazine shows neither empathy nor compassion.  We really need indigenous arts critics to give substance to our stories. The bottom line is that Wainaina has written an incredibly important book that is in danger of being consigned to the dung heap of books to be mulched simply because Western patrons do not like what he has to say. That is not right. We should also have a conversation about the evolving role of the book as a medium of expression in an increasingly digital world.  Wainaina makes it very clear at the beginning of the book that several portions of the book have been previously published including a travel story, the genesis of this book, published as far back as 1997. Several of the chapters are reformulated versions of pieces that have appeared in various analog and digital publications, some freely available on the Internet; a point which a number of critics have made about the book. Technology fans the sense of urgency for the thinker to share. Whereas a few decades ago the book was the sole medium for sharing and archival, today it is becoming more and more one for archival and not a very good one at that. The issues that Wainaina addresses in the book had a sense of immediacy and he was astute enough to use the Internet to disseminate his ideas. I have no problem with that. It helps that he was able to collate them together in a coherent (well, not always) and thrilling memoir. Saying that it is a collection of old stories misses the point of the struggle between the old and the new. This is not the same as repackaging and recycling material from previous books.

What is there to love about the book? There is brilliance and hyper-energy in abundance. There is darkness told with startling clarity and casualness. All of this is delivered with vivid, scintillating prose poetry. With an imagination on steroids, sometimes with a bit of magic realism thrown in, Wainaina weaves an affecting loving tale of a warm childhood in a middle class home in Africa. It is not contrived. It is very true. And it happened in Africa. What a concept. Wainaina’s world is always exploding into a thousand pieces and rearranging themselves again into new masquerade-forms. The book is filled with deep insights. Steeped in the oral tradition of his ancestors the book as a medium of expression struggled to contain his genius and his demons. This memoir showcases a mighty dream smashed in the sun into a thousand nightmare-pieces; your mama’s favorite china broken by your fumbling hands. Except that there is a higher clown in charge of the drunken tremor of your hands. For young Wainaina the world is a dazzling dizzy delightful frustrating puzzle. He pulls few punches. If he wants to masturbate, he says so, if he wants to shit, he says so. He doesn’t sugar coat it with over editing. This is a story told with a fierce muscular, feverish, almost malarial urgency. You must read this book, it is hard to explain. 

Anxieties, Rage and the Mimicry The book holds loosely connected stories, but it works; it is like flipping furiously through a dark mind of many issues. Wainaina has class issues and he is haunted by his academic performance. Wainaina is an outlier; Africa does not support outliers. He exposes the mimicry from hell that Africa has become; everything is measured against a white Western standard. He lets it all hang out – all his issues.  He hints at significant health issues that were perhaps compounded by a hard drinking hard charging life. It is also a conversation about the notion of exile in the age of Facebook. There is delightful nonsense about marbles, almost childlike in its brilliance: “The world you see undulates with many parallel troughs—a million mental alleys. Every new day, you throw your marbles out of your mind and let your feet and arms and shoulders follow, and soon some marbles nestle loudly into the grooves and run along with authority and precision, directed by you, with increasing boldness. Each marble is a whole little round version of you. Like the suns.”(p 10) In turns hilarious and tragic, Wainaina charts the confusion-babel of a million clashing cultures, “You will all sit stunned and watch as your nation—which has broadband and a well-ironed army and a brand-new private school that looks exactly like Hogwarts castle in Harry Potter—is taken over by young men with sharpened machetes and poisoned bows and arrows. As you sit in your living rooms, they will take over your main highway, pull people out of cars and cut their heads off. In Nairobi, they will lift up your railway, the original spine, and start to dismantle it.” (p 245)

Wainaina’s book reminds me of a youth and childhood spent reading voraciously. You applaud when you read stuff like this: “The wind swoops down, God breathes, and across the lake a million flamingos rise, the edges of Lake Nakuru lift, like pink skirts swollen by petticoats, now showing bits of blue panties, and God gasps, the skirts blow higher, the whole lake is blue and the sky is full of circling flamingos.” (p 30) Wainana is most adorable as a twelve-year old approaching teenage hood looking for other boys all over the world in books. It is perhaps a good thing that the military still kept the Internet a dark spirit from Wainaina; we would have lost him. He is all over the place physically and many times he forgets where he is as he is texting the world manically. This globalization will bring out the beast in us, apologies Fela. Sometimes he comes across as a black expatriate among the African countries he visits (thanks to Western grants!). He is fascinated by the contents of an open-air bra stall and he goes haywire ruminating on the various types – and uses of bras. It is amusing, the amount of energy he expends on this. Wainana shows us how the savagery of destitution diminishes all of humanity – one poor person at a time. “But the money ran out, and only the first phase of the school was completed. When it rains we are overwhelmed with mud. Our toilets block and spill over every week. The showers have collapsed. There are strange animals breeding in unfinished dorms. Many classrooms have no windows.”  (p. 80).  In narrating the near nightmare that was his youth, Wainaina stubbornly tells his story. This is an angry book, delicious angry, a most unusual book, one that gives the middle finger to the tyranny of convention. No wonder the owners of orthodoxy are royally teed. It is touching, how he documents his otherness, the uniqueness that others judge as frailties. He has a gift for seeing profundity in the banal. He has been to magical strange places where the skies rain baby pink flamingos. This is who we are. Live with it, world. His descriptions of how systems, structures, cultures decay in Kenya are exquisite. It is a world where children of the dispossessed become nannies to the children of the haves. It is a war out there- for children. Servants make love and live in rooms that were once stables for horses. This is not who we once were. Listening to him, colonialism destroyed Kenya pretty much – and all of Black Africa. We should be angry, the book howls. You read Wainaina’s book and you want to wrap your arm around him and go WTF happened to you, man?

Cynicism and exile and loss In Wainaina’s world, caricatures are in abundance, they go well with the vat of cynicism about the human condition. Racism is just one of many strands of prejudice, bigotry and plain hate that the book unravels; there is also the locust invasion of the new church and the new music. He leads us by the hand to be living witnesses to the yearning for an imagined desired humanity. It is comical and tragic in its “we eat ice cream” mimicry: “You would not believe that not five hundred meters from here are roads and shops, and skyscrapers and cool restaurants that are playing the music of noiseless elevators, and serving the food of quiet electric mixers and plastic fridge containers. Burgers and Coke. Pizza.” (p 77) Wainaina’s memoir is for me the most contemporary analysis of the notion – and reality of exile. Wainaina pulls this off brilliantly even though he mentions the word exile only three times in the book, and not in reference to his own condition. Kenya and America are two main characters in the book, with Africa in the background, breathing colorful societies, people and issues. In the process Wainana offers one of the best descriptions of Lagos I have ever read: “We drive into Lagos Island. And the city changes: thirty-story warrens, and caves, and leaning, cramped buildings clawing for space, and everywhere people: crisp and ironed in tailored clothes in all colors all speeding toward the stationary bicycle future… you can see them, like weaver birds, goods laid up below the bridge, climbing up. I am waiting to see somebody claw up the side of the expressway, shouting a sales pitch jubilantly, arm raised high and laughing as blood drips down his nails.” (p. 203) Wainaina’s book makes the poignant point that exile is a spiritual thing; the absence of walls does not make it go away. Brilliant.

Wainaina’s cynical eyes sometimes train on Africa with devastating accuracy. Fascinating is the cynicism, the superciliousness, and sometimes the sense of entitlement. Why is this so? A snarling parochialism overcomes him towards the end of the book. Kenya is on his mind a lot. Kenya never leaves him even though it is clear he has left Kenya. Desiccated opinions are let out to dry in the halls of mean opinions in the hopeless hope that they will become fresh again. The new exile does that to you. It is not a perfect book. For one thing, the editing was not the greatest and I found the research sloppy.  In truth, the poor editing makes it an uneven book in quality. Because Wainaina does not provide sources for his analyses, some of the stories have the feel of opinionated anecdotes. He should have provided the sources for his research. Opinions and observations, virtually all cynical become substitutes for substantive informative analysis. To be fair, Wainaina’s attitude as overbearing as it is sometimes, provides ample room for debate, unfortunately mostly the bar room type that ends in brawls, broken bottles, broken heads and broken egos. Wainaina’s cynical eye is on overdrive and towards the end of the book it gets old. Wainaina is not the same person that started the book. In adulthood he becomes jaded and angry. He looks at Africa no longer with childlike wonder and joy but with despair. He immerses himself in a culture of despair from which he never returns. But then for many of us Africans caught in the new dispensation, Wainaina is us. We recoil only because the ugliness we see in the mirror is us. I salute Wainaina for jamming his mirror to my narcissistic face. I did not like everything I saw, but I needed to see it. The Economist is right on one point: We need to be also proactive and prospective, not merely wallow in the despair of our condition. In the end however, we must ask ourselves the questions: So what? What does this all mean? What next? It is not enough to describe what is, we must vision a desired state and work actively towards actualizing it. We seem to be long on prose and poetry and assigning blame to the other. We are woefully short on accepting any responsibility for our own glaring shortcomings. That is the real tragedy of our condition as Africans. For too long it has been chic to neglect our issues and engage the West from a position of profound weakness. Fine prose never won battles, especially when the war is unnecessary. We should stop writing about this place called Africa and do something about her mess. For once.

Related referenced links

Binyavanga Wainaina: How to Write about Africa

Adunni my iPad just bought me an e-book, “The Granta Book of the African Short Story” published by Grantaand edited by the Nigerian writer Helon Habila. The book’s “Introduction” written by Habila alone is worth the price of the book. Adunni is happy. I am happy. It is an engaging, cerebral, thoughtful and comprehensive treatise on the short story form as practiced by African writers. Habila starts out with this bold salvo: “I often attend lectures and conferences where some distinguished speaker will give a talk on African literature that, to my disappointment, if not surprise, begins and ends with Things Fall Apart, as if nothing has been written in Africa since 1958. In this collection, I want to bring things up to date and present my own generation, usually referred to as ‘the third generation of African writers’, who, until now, have rarely been anthologized. To put them in perspective, I have also selected a few influential and representative first- and second-generation writers to stand alongside their artistic descendants. My hope is to capture the range and complexity of African short fiction since independence, highlighting the dominant thematic and stylistic shifts over the decades.”

It is an ambitious statement pregnant with audacious claims. It is true that Achebe is revered worldwide to the point of undignified fawning. In September, this year, I attended the Garden City Literary Festival in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. I had a wonderful time. The theme was Politics and Literature. Chinua Achebe’s spirit was everywhere, his venerable face was piped in by video all the way from America and he gave a speech. We must have given every word a standing ovation. The son gave yet another speech on his behalf – flanked by a long row of old writers (of previous dispensations) waiting their turn at the high table to speechify. Young writers cooled their heels in the audience only to be dutifully trotted out for photo-ops. However, Achebe is not as over-exposed as the troika of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helon Habila and Binyavanga Wainana. They are the ones called upon by the Western literary establishment each time something needs to be said about ‘African literature.” It seems the case these days that Westerners think that African literature begins and ends with this hugely talented trio, It is a problem. I also dispute the notion that African short stories of Habila’s generation are rarely anthologized; their stories fill anthologies, many of them poorly edited, alas.

The book brings to the fore the debate about who defines what is an African story. It is interesting; the contemporary writers in this collection are virtually all writers in the Diaspora and as Habila freely admits, influential in determining what is African literature. To the extent that there is practically no one writing from inside the continent, it is presumptuous to declare this collection representative of African short stories. Habila’s work is an important collection that documents the heavy, perhaps undue influence African writers in the Diaspora wield in shaping the face of the African story. This influence has been amplified by globalization, the digital age, and the near collapse of traditional publishing in Africa. If this trend is not arrested, we will be living witnesses to the distortion of the history and face of African literature by Western patrons with the unwitting cooperation of influential star writers like Habila. It does not have to be so. 

In the essay, Habila coins an interesting term – “post-nationalist” to describe today’s African writers: “My use of the term ‘post-nationalist’ is aspirational. I see this new generation as having the best potential to liberate itself from the often predictable, almost obligatory obsession of the African writer with the nation and with national politics, an obsession that at times has been beneficial to African writing, but more often has been restrictive and confining to the African writer’s ambition.” Tom Begg writing here on September 16, 2011 in the Think Africa Press disagrees: “In spite of Habila’s bold words in the introduction, many of the stories in the collection are concerned with regional and national issues, looking to the continent’s blighted history or current social problems.” The book does feature several stories that have been previously published elsewhere by the contemporary writers; many readers will recognize the pieces from previous encounters. If I don’t read Adichie’s “The Arrangers of Marriage” again ever, I will be perfectly fine.

The collection pits new writers like Adichie and EC Osondu against writers of old like Camara Laye and Alex La Guma. Habila’s vision was to track the arc of African writing from the pre-colonial to the present. Habila provides a rationale for the theme and design of the anthology: “I eventually decided to order these stories generationally, starting with the youngest writer and ending with the oldest, the intention being to showcase the newest writing from the continent first, before moving back in time to show what came before that, as that is what these younger writers must have grown up reading.” I am not sure this was a successful experiment. It is impossible to tell when the new ends and the old begins. It would have been more useful to rank the stories according to when they were written to get a good sense of the trajectory and the times. To follow Habila’s logic, if the octogenarian Gabriel Okara writes a short story based on today’s Nigeria (he is still writing), his story would belong at the end of the book. That makes absolutely no sense. I would have partitioned the writing in sections by the era in which the stories were written.

The Nigerian writer Tolu Ogunlesi also reviewed the collection in the UK Independent here. Ogunlesi asks crucial questions about what our writers are preoccupied with and who determines what an African story is. Ogunlesi lists the themes in the collection as predictable staples of African stories: “Recurring themes include exile, return-from-exile…slum-dwelling, arranged marriages, and the antics of sexually exploitative tourists…” He reacts to Habila’s work with a gentle sigh: “Conspicuous by its absence in this collection is the internet. Not a single person is to be found Googling or sending emails. Mobile phones show up only a handful of times, although in the Africa of the 21st century, Russian Kalashnikovs have largely given way to Chinese mobile phones.” When I said the same thing here upon reading the offerings on the shortlist for the 2011 Caine Prize; many aggrieved writers and their friends threw pity parties in which my backside was the fillet du jour. I simply said: “The stories are so ancient, it is a wonder they did not feature smoke signals and slide rules…there is not a single mention of the Internet and cell phones, not once. Outside of the destructive force of organized religion, wars and diseases, the Internet and cell phone technology are the most powerful forces in the ongoing restructuring of African communities.” To be fair to Habila, many new readers would enjoy and could use the exposure to writers of old like Camara Laye, Alex La Guma and the irreverent Dambudzo Marechera. Habila’s collection is eclectic in how he introduces the reader to older African literature. However, it is instructive that readers and reviewers are having difficulty telling contemporary works apart from those of the older writers. Again, the question: Do the contemporary writers featured in this anthology truly represent the depth and breath of African short story writing? Let me propose again that to the extent that they are used over and over again as yardsticks for what is African literature, the history and trajectory of African writing are being distorted by an influential but over-exposed few.

I do admire what institutions like Granta and the Caine Prize have done for African literature, in collaboration with many star African writers like Habila, Adichie and Binyavanga Wainaina. There is a tiny minority of influential writers out there (and Habila is one) who are in a position to determine the direction of African writing. They must be supported and encouraged – to do the right thing. The Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah has a useful review of the collection in ft.com here. She observes that with this collection Habila seems to have engineered a reunion of Caine Prize winners: “… almost half of the writers here (including Habila himself) have come to prominence either by winning or being shortlisted for the award… It is no coincidence that the Caine writers are among the best known from Africa. This raises the perennial question of the nature of African literary production that has preoccupied the continent’s critics and thinkers since the first African writers were published in the west.” Gappah is on to something here. Of the twelve Caine Prize winners since its inception in 2000, seven of them, two finalists and a Caine Prize judge are represented in this volume: Leila Aboulela (2000) Helon Habila (2001), Binyavanga Wainaina (2002), Brian Chikwava (2004), Henrietta Rose-Innes (2008), EC Osondu (2009) Olufemi Terry (2010); Doreen Baingana (Caine finalist), Laila Lalami (Caine finalist); Aminatta Forna (Caine Prize judge). Then there is Adichie, Uwem Akpan, etc. They are all friends known to each other. Calling this a reunion is more generous than what comes to my mind – cronyism.

Habila is appreciative and respectful of the muscle of the Internet in shaping literary discourse: “With the coming of the Internet to many parts of urban Africa in the late 1990s, a new avenue for publishing was discovered and the African short story finally began to get its long-overdue moment of recognition. The traditional publishing landscape, with its excessive restrictions, was suddenly superseded. The Internet is today doing what the newspapers and magazines did to the development of the short story in Europe and America at the start of the industrial age.” I agree absolutely. Contrary to contemporary lamentations, the social media and the Internet are making compulsive readers out of consumers all over the world. Writers and traditional publishers should stop reacting to this phenomenon like oil on water. They should embrace this new democratization of our literature; we will all flourish materially and spiritually as a result. There are many talented new voices writing amazing stuff on the Internet and elsewhere; there should be a process for accessing, nurturing and collating their important works. 

At the end of his essay, Habila muses: “… before settling on a particular story, I would ask myself a simple question: ten years from now, would this story illuminate the preoccupations and concerns, literary and social, of the times in which it was written?” Time will tell, but the reviewers seem eager to confine this volume to mulch, because in their view, Habila’s eloquent and bold vision does not match the product. We are making progress and Habila is part of that grand march to the light. Someday we will laugh at memories of times when Western benefactors enthralled by the notion that Africans can actually write pretty things reacted with the glee of scientists discovering that chimps can actually use twigs as implements – to scratch their backsides. The challenge is to force them to change the paradigm of patronage and stereotype – of paying African writers generously to say the same thing over and over again, even in the face of mounting evidence that things have changed. So… who tells our story? Africa is undergoing an exciting renaissance in the arts especially in literature. These exciting new writers are easy to find; just go on the Internet and you can feast on their magical words for free. Institutions like Granta, the Caine Prize and Western literary patrons should use their considerable resources to reach out to these emerging writers. They would be pleasantly surprised. In the meantime, the search for the elusive authentic African writer continues in full force. Habila reminds us of Dambudzo Marechera’s contempt for that elusive African animal: “If you are a writer for a specific nation or a specific race, then fuck you.”

Monday, 13 February 2012 06:45

Of Biafra, Roses, Bullets and Valium

The other day, Adunni my trusty iPad bought me Roses and Bullets, Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo’s new book on the Nigerian civil war. I don’t know, iPads should not be this powerful; Adunni has unfettered access to my bank account and she is always buying me books off the Internet. I wish she would buy me books that engage and entertain me like a good bottle of cognac VSOP. I won’t lie, reading Adimora-Ezeigbo’s latest offering was pure torture. The book sent me to sleep each time I opened it on Adunni’s Kindle. I stopped reading it halfway; I won’t be back to it. Life is too short to be miserable.  I tried, I really did, but I could not get past the clinical aridity of this book. This is one deadly boring book. Reading it makes watching paint dry an exhilarating experience.

Why did I stop reading the book? Well, it reads like a neatly typed, fastidiously edited memorandum penned by a humorless civil servant who is used to writing government white papers for the Kremlin. It is relentlessly edited, stripped of every conceivable emotion, with every joy of reading wrung and bleached out of every word until the reader’s eyes beg for sleep – or death. This book should be an instrument of torture in police stations. The victim will confess to an imaginary crime just to be allowed to rest. I kept rubbing my eyes and falling asleep. All insomniacs should skip Valium and buy this book; they will be cured. This tome is borne on stilted clinical prose, a meandering tale that seems reluctant to make a point, any point.

Why was this book written? What new insights does it offer on the Nigerian civil war? How does this book improve upon the silence? Other than it is about the Nigerian civil war, I have no idea what the reader should take away from this book. The clinical antiseptic prose violently strips the novel of ambiance or atmosphere. I could not imagine Biafra; I could not imagine Nigeria, not with this book. Not even the mention of Kingsway Supermarket could drag me back to those years. Any writer worth his or her salt should be able to describe the unique smell of Kingsway and bring tears to the eyes of memory. The Nigerian civil war was a unique era, a sad time in our history that requires an expert hand to capture  the sights, smells, and songs of that horrid period. 

This plodding overweight non-story suffers from a poor design, well, actually from no design; it does not lay the context for the story and anyone new to the horrors of Biafra is well advised to go elsewhere first. There is no over-arching vision, and the characters are so inchoate and forgettable, I cannot remember any of them, can’t tell them apart. And this brings me to my pet peeve. Adimora-Ezeigbo goes to great lengths to italicize and explain indigenous terms like ikpi nku, chinchin, ube, udara, etc, I imagine in a bid to reach and keep a wider audience beyond her clan. I have a huge problem with this habit among African writers. They all need a healthy dose of self-confidence. In their works they are always italicizing egusi and ugali. I say, tell your story; stop italicizing our way of life. Let the reader do the research. Besides that is what Google is for. I have never seen sauerkraut in italics.

The Nigerian Civil War is a hugely important topic and it is a crying shame that many Nigerians have no idea of the enormity of that horror that visited us.  A search on “Nigeria Biafra” on amazon.com yielded hundreds of hits. Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is a good book for those who want to read everything about what Roses and Bullets is not about. I have a review of it here. There are many contentious issues that Adichie brings up – and there is no shortage of robust debate about them. That is what a book should do. Dan Obi Auduche also has a helpful bibliography of eighty books on the Biafran war here. Adichie’s book has a helpful reference list of thirty books. Where Awduche’s list is focused on books directly about the war, Adichie’s has a broader focus. Virtually all the books directly on the war on Adichie’s list are also on Awduche’s list. It would have been helpful to see the reference list Adimora-Ezeigbo drew upon for her research. My favorite essay on Biafra by the way is My Biafran Eyes by Okey Ndibe, that irrepressible owner of words. You may feast on it freely on Guernica here. 

And oh, by the way, Roses and Bullets was published in Nigeria by Jalaa Writers Collective. Do not bother clicking on the link, the website of this publishing house has been suspended. Are we a serious people or what? And no, this is not a review, but a rant expressing my frustration that Adunni wasted my money on a dreadful book. There… I feel better. So tell me, I would dearly love to hear suggestions from my readers on useful resources on the Nigerian civil war. Do you have any? Why do you like it? Share… 

Adunni, my iPad just bought me African Roar 2011, an anthology of stories written by fifteen African writers, and edited by Emmanuel Sigauke and Ivor Hartmann. I don’t think Adunni wasted our precious money but I expected more; I hope this is not my Christmas present.  Contrary to what the anthology implies, it is not exactly representative of African writing; the writers come from just five English speaking countries; seven are from Zimbabwe, four from Nigeria, two from South Africa, and one each from Ghana and Malawi. I loved the debut annual anthology last year and reviewed it here. Sadly this year’s collection is mostly a gaggle of safe stories celebrating the familiar, tried and tired. There is little attempt at experimentation and there’s neither range not depth in many of the stories. These are mostly political statements about certain miserable conditions, wrapped in the pretend-toga of short stories. They feature pedestrian prose and lack energy and passion. Editing issues hint at a hurried publication.

Many of the stories are feverish experiments in self-absorption and narcissism. Memory Chirere’s tribute to the late writer Stanley Ruzvidzo Mupfudza is self-serving – and poorly written. Blessed silence would have been a more fitting tribute. Stories like the late Mupfudza’s Witch’s Brew are painstakingly devoted to decay, disease and conflict. Noviolet Bulawayo’s open lines in her story Main are lovely prose-poetry: “Main.   Main Street standing up straight and adjusting the rainbow-coloured wrap skirt that threatens to slide down her wide waist, black blood boiling in her veins. Bustling throbbing writhing street. Everything moving: cars, voices, ambitions, money, dreams, feet, smoke. Just moving moving moving — like a wind.” Nice, but then Main dissolves into a pointless story about death, and filth. The good news is that the story is so short it should not be called a short story. Bulawayo’s considerable literary talents are gainfully deployed to relentlessly documenting despair and mediocrity. Zukiswa Wanner’s story, A Writer’s lotabout the joys and perks of being a privileged African writer doted upon by the society and the West is a botched attempt at humor. Wanner should find her own voice. She will never be Binyavanga Wainaina. 

Gloom and doom have become chic signature tunes for defining the African writer – and Africa. These self-perceptions are true and they deserve the world’s attention and opprobrium but they do not speak to the range of life’s experience in Africa. Instead they only reinforce the persistent negative image that the world seems to have of Africa. African writers may be courting disrespect with their glum self-absorption. Case in point: Jerry Guo of Newsweek once conducted a profoundly incoherent interview of Chinua Achebe (Chinua Achebe on Nigeria’s Future, Newsweek, July 5, 2010) in which he referred to Things Fall Apart, as a story about “a simple yam farmer in tribal Nigeria.”  In the 21st century Things Fall Apart is being described in such a hideous fashion. Anthologies like African Roar 2011 should improve upon the silence and raise the bar for the quality of discourse in the burdens of Africa’s stories.

It is not all dreary. Dango Mkandawire’s prose shines in The Times. Ivor Hartman’s story, Diner Ten about cockroaches is so charming it could serve as a public relations charm offensive for that most loathsome of creepy crawly pests. Hajira Amla’s story Longing for Home wasquite entertaining, albeit slightly inchoate and improbable. Helon Habila handles the same subject masterfully in The UK Guardian (The Second Death of Martin Lango). Uche Peter Umez’s Lose Myself gamely  makes a short story out of a one-night stand somewhere in America. It is one of the best stories in the collection. It is mostly successful but obsessive thoughts of home make the protagonist – and the story impotent.

Why are virtually all these stories so mindlessly obsessed with Africa’s political and social issues? Are African writers under pressure to write the single story? Issues of identity are on my mind. I am thinking specifically of the African writer’s preoccupation with identity. It is possible that the label African writer is having the effect of defining and limiting the writer’s range. It is as if African writers have sealed themselves hermetically in this bubble where they  toil in a culture of despair, relentlessly beating the same ‘African” dead horse to death. The good news is that, thanks to many obscure writers (alas), the literature of our continent is alive and well in many places other than in anthologies. The reader is well advised to visit those places on the Internet where all the stories of Africa dance riotously and assure the world of her people’s place in this market called humanity. I have  previously shared my appreciation here and here and on Facebook and Twitter. And yes, this is a shameless plug, please join me on Facebook and on twitter (@ikhide).

Interestingly enough last year’s debut issue of African Roar had a helpful introductory essay that provided appropriate context and coherence to that year’s collection. This year’s edition could have used an introductory essay. As an aside, next year, the editors should strive to produce a more user-friendly Kindle edition. I had trouble navigating the collection. I did find the biographies of the writers in the collection more entertaining than several of the stories. I had more fun reading The Granta Book of the African Short Story published by Granta and edited by the Nigerian writer Helon Habila. As I shared here, I have issues with that collection, but you cannot quarrel with the quality of its presentation and the thoughtfulness that went into it. Habila’s introductory essay alone is worth the price of the book. 

Wainaina recently ignited a firestorm with his statements about the West’s obsession with what African writers have to write about. The article and the podcast in which Wainaina held forth about this are here. Wainaina did say, “If you are to ask me what are the greatest issues in Africa, I would say it is that people love, people fuck, people kiss, people speak.” That may be true, but you wouldn’t know it from reading African Roar 2011 (and come to think of it, Habila’s recent collection of “African stories”). These writers are too busy solving Africa’s myriad issues to make wild lust-filled love. It would appear that only misery makes them roar.

First published January 5, 2010

Forgetting is the final instrument of genocide. To witness genocide is to feel not only the chill of your own mortality, but the degradation of all humanity… even the most brilliant photography cannot capture the landscape of genocide.

 -       Simon Norfolk

The writers Okey Ndibe and Chenjerai Hove are two of Africa’s finest thinker-writers. They are awesome wordsmiths, word cannon balls boom fiercely out of their fecund minds pulverizing their targets with uncanny accuracy. They write with an uncommon sensitivity to the issues that Africa faces. This they do with respect and compassion and one is taken by the honesty and industry that they bring to their craft. They have just co-edited a slim volume of essays, Writers, Writing on Conflicts and Wars in Africa, published by Adonis & Abbey Publishers Ltd. It is a largely academic but highly accessible treasure trove of reflections on war by an army of mostly African writers who have been affected by Africa’s myriad wars and genocides. In about 200 pages and sixteen chapters (including the introduction), the reader comes face to face with the anxieties, nightmares and dreams of sixteen diverse and eclectic artists. These are issues covering past and present wars all over Africa; Biafra, Zimbabwe, the hell delta of Nigeria, Darfur, the Congo, South Africa, etc. Kudos to Ndibe and Hove for ensuring that these writers are a judicious mix of the known and unknown. The resulting essays are refreshing and filled with uncommon candor. The references alone are invaluable. I wrote down passages in the book that spoke to me and then I walked among the words, talking to them. I was shaken to my soul’s roots. Even the cover is evocative in what it does not say. It is an image of beautiful children born into wars they did not ask for. There are all these children mugging for the camera with Africa and decay as a surreal backdrop.

As an aside, this compilation of essays came out of a workshop attended by the departed poet-warrior Dennis Brutus. In the book, Ndibe and Hove recall his spirit with eerie nostalgia: “Dennis Brutus, the South African poet whose back bears the scar of an apartheid bullet, lent a measure of revolutionary gravitas and hard-earned moral capital to the workshop. When Brutus spoke or read his poems, his voice, though slightly enfeebled by age, still rang out with stunning range and power.” (p11)

This book is several conversations burning at once. The writer Yvonne A. Owuor starts the conversations rolling in a piece she admits is a rant. It is a rant pregnant with profound gems. She questions why the West glorifies its own wars with stories of valor and views Africa’s wars as savage and barbaric, pointing out that there have been equally gory examples to draw from in the West Again, Chinua Achebe, in his seminal volume of essays Home and Exile, reminds us of the proverb: “Until the lions produce their own historian, the story of the hunt will glorify only the hunter.” I agree. Africans must tell their own stories or risk the total annihilation of their humanity by the other. We should write about our own humanity, for war is about the sorting of individuals into bins of identity and differences and the hunting down of those anxieties that lurk behind ancestral masks. 

This book is a defiant ode to the power of the word and Hove captures it neatly: “Those years of war… gave me scars and smiles. Scars because real bullets pierced and tore apart the bodies of real women, children and men. Smiles, for, in the midst of death and pain, I saw children, women and men who proudly showed human resilience even in the face of death as they fought for the restoration of their dignity.” (p38)

The last chapter, Reflections on Inyenzi is an evocative essay bearing a conversation between the writers Karin Samuel and Andrew Brown. Brown wrote the book Inyenzi: A Story of Love and Genocide based on the Rwandan genocide. That chapter alone is worth the price of the book. It brings to great closure several issues engaged by the other writers in the book. In simple, almost clinical prose that flogs the reader’s conscience wide awake, the writers weave fascinating images of war and one is reminded of the starkness of images of apartheid’s war housed in South Africa’s Hector Pieterson museum.

This is a slim book bearing weighty reflections on conventional wars in Africa. Wars still rage on in Africa, most of them wreaking havoc below the radar of our uncritical eyes. Every day alien religions wake Africa up and rape her with impunity and send her to bed sobbing inconsolably. Capitalism marches through Africa unchallenged reducing her millions of victims to needy supplicants to the God of more and more. We should reflect on why Africa is in this condition. The book does not. It is not a criticism; a book can only do so much. Africa is enduring many wars and while this book focuses on conventional wars, I propose that today’s most devastating wars are the unconventional. If we don’t focus on those we may be writing our way to irrelevance. Why is the world indifferent to the travails of Africa?

In the book, Lauryn Arnott’s drawings are harrowing in their detail and they nicely complement the writing. But it is not enough. In the age of the Internet, the book is dying a long slow death and it is no longer a robust medium for expressing the horrors of war or the joys of triumph over adversity. I dream of creating a virtual museum dedicated to Africa’s suffering – a total convergence of all media and all voices singing with one earth-shaking voice of the horrors that we have seen and heard. And the griots Ndibe and Hove would be the leaders of that mother of all projects. 

Let’s accept some responsibility. Owuor makes this profound observation: “This war, this violence is ours. Ours is the hateful thing – a roaming stain that prowls through the society and sows seeds of chaos – that thing that appalls our within-ness. And horrifies us with the blood it wastes.” (p21) However the book is virtually silent on the crucial question: Why are things the way they are in Africa? There are many questions folded into that question. What is it with Africa and conflict? Why are we constantly forced to question and justify our humanity? What is the role of the writer in shaping events in today’s Africa? Why do some of our writers turn Goebbels on the people? What is the best medium for forcing the people to focus brightly on the fires that burn so fiercely all around Africa? Is this generation of African writers self-absorbed and narcissistic and why?  Has the African writer deserted the role of the writer as the land’s conscience, priest and town-crier? We must seek answers to the why even though it might frighten us.

The Internet, that new world that holds the promise of liberation from hell on earth, is right now busily retrieving Africa’s brightest and best minds from Africa and dumping them in Europe and America.  Virtually all of Africa’s best thinkers are writing about Africa from the outside looking in. Thanks to technology, sadly, this exodus includes those writers who physically live in Africa.

Hope Eghagha in his essay evokes the spirit of the poet-seer Christopher Okigbo using lines from Okigbo’s Hurrah for Thunder:

The smell of blood already floats in the lavender-mist of the afternoon
The death sentence lies in ambush along the corridors of power;
And a great fearful thing already tugs at the cables of the open air,
A nebula immense and immeasurable, a night of deep waters –
An iron dream unnamed and unprintable, a path of stone.

This poem was written four decades ago; one could argue that it seems prophetic today only because the situation in Nigeria is heading South fast and the future is certainly frightening. But then the question is why this constancy of turmoil. Okigbo would not know; he was murdered by Nigerian troops on Biafran soil in a war he did not ask for. This book is one more compelling proof that the sacrifices of Okigbo and other African thinkers hunted down and slaughtered for owning words have not been in vain. I salute Okey Ndibe and Chenjerai Hove.