Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Of trusty old-timer-writers, Celebrities reading Africa and the question of writers camaraderie

His abode was Spartan, though not overly so. The low, old styled chairs – some wood, others possibly wrought Iron – and the ancient shelves teeming with sheets of paper, made it needless for me to wait to see him scribble – something he did intermittently throughout the hour I spent with him – before identifying him to be scholar.

He was old, possibly way into his 60’s or early 70’s, but his voice still retained a solid timbre that I wondered at but fully understood when he smiled boldly at my proud “I am a writer” retort to his question about my vocation.

“Aha!” He had happily exclaimed, “A colleague of the pen, I should have known you from your inquiring eyes, not to mention that jotter you are grasping and the pen poking out of your shirt pocket.”

I smiled back at him, holding his still very sharp eyes that brimmed with not just intelligence but also a knowledge fountain that I would not mind drinking from. “You write sir?” I asked foolishly, for want of something better to say in the face of an enigma.

Understandably, he screwed up his face at my awe. “Yes I do, was with Daily Times in its hay day, still dabble as you can see.” He held up a sheet of paper on the table, turning both sides to show it was covered with scribbling, “Yes, I still dabble, you know how it is, once a writer always a writer.”

I nodded my head, agreeing while praying silently he does not ask me to demonstrate my meagre skill. He didn’t. He turned, still smiling, to the lady that accompanied us to see him. No problem, he said, a writer, I can trust.

Simple words, yet they touched me deeply, enough that I felt the beginning of a tear. Here was a man still holding fast to a camaraderie I am only beginning to understand. Just like an old soldier warming to a young serviceman, this old timer was willing to overlook every other aspect of my person because of a shared passion.

We had actually gone to view a vacant room in an ancient storey building somewhere in Surulere. The agent had informed us after we agreed to other terms – exploitative, as usual – that the only remaining hurdle was the owner, renowned for his selectiveness. We were given a 50-50 chance of getting the room, even with the help – paid– of a woman said to be his favourite tenant.

Now, there was I, to the surprise of every one, with barely a few words, receiving the old timers good will and declaration of trust.

Anyway, we left the old man to his Spartan home and lifestyle a few minutes later, but not after I had agreed to return often (the room was for a friend) and talk about the “art” with him. His handshake, when he bid me goodbye, was surprising firm and warm. I am sure you know we got the room, so no need to dwell on that.

My tale about the old timer is digressive. I was actually on my way to a HIV and AIDS themed edition of my recently found craving, the Celebrity Read Africa project and only branched to Sulurere at the behest of a house-seeking friend, who was counting on using my persuasive skills, as she calls it, to her advantage in the house negotiations.

As I once again resumed my journey to the Island, I pondered my encounter with the old journalist, I wondered if we, the writers of today, have not lost that sense of belonging readily seen in our fore runners.

It was not the first time I have had cause to ponder on the issue. I also had cause to do so while sitting as part of a panel discussing futuristic writing at the recently held Lagos Book Fair. I had looked down on the audience, made up mostly of writers in their twilight years, from the national theatre stage and wondered if we have not actually demarked ourselves into age grades. I mean, why is it that at certain literary events young writer abound, while in others, the old timers hold sway? Are we, young writers, not losing too much by this lack of interaction? Are they, the old timers, by not associating with the young writers, not leaving life changing stories untold?

It would be rascally of me not to excuse the elder writers here, because in our society the young seek out the old not the other way round. If we, young writers, do not seriously seek out and pay the necessary homage to our forerunners, learn from their experience and tell the stories they could not finish, we are doomed to get serious knocks from posterity.

Meanwhile, I arrived late to the event I was headed to, on account of my ‘branching’. I entered the Terra Kulture library just as Tosin Jegede was rounding off her reading. Looking around quickly, I could see that most of the headlined celebrities showed face, a great improvement from previous events. I think the organisers have finally found their mojo and are using it right.

It was about 4:30 pm and the event was already in top gear, no sign African timing, the usual suspect – aside from me sha, but I have already explained myself.

A brief look to the front of the room showed Essence, Modele – of the Makeba style headgear, Chude Jideonwo and Myne Witheman – who I was looking forward to meeting (doesn’t her colour become her?) – completing the headliners list. Missing in action were Tosyn Bucknor, Segun Odegami and Tosin Otitoju.

The sight of school kids in their colourful uniforms sitting prominently in the packed hall was heart warming. Finally, the core ideal of Celebrity Read Africa was being met, I thought as I sought for an elusive seat to rest my sweaty frame on.

After some serious looking, with help from a friendly usher, I spotted an empty seat and made my way towards it. I was just settling down when I noticed Nze Efedigbo, a fellow writer, seated two rows in front of me, finally, a known face in a sea of faces. A brief look around revealed several other known faces – people I had met at previous literary events and others, not so well known to me, but possessing faces I had come across online in writers' circles. Suddenly it dawned on me that by virtue of my inclination, if not talent, I have come to know those who are arguably the future of Nigerian literature, only not well enough to do more than smile when our paths cross. There and then, I made up my mind to fight against my shy nature which usually keeps me from going over to introduce myself to people I have had cause to exchange ideas with online. I will, I decided, greet as many people as I can today.

My decision played out well, as I easily shrugged away my habitual shyness around strangers and moved around the room like someone on a mission greeting those whose paths has crossed mine before and the odd stranger, but that was after the event closed.

Before then Chude read a Tolu Ogunlesi short story that was consistent with the day’s theme of HIV/AIDS. After him came Christine, winner of Nokia first chance reality show, who I have heard a lot about but yet to hear sing. The beautifully petit lady did more than sing, she spoke eloquently about the personal experience of her friend who was infected with HIV by her fiancé. It was so touching how she told of the fiancé committing suicide out of regret, while the lady in question later died, but not from HIV. She, for me, brought the message home, after which she went on to sing so sweetly. I for one will buy her album the very day it drops, even if she toes Tuface’s 1500 Naira per copy line.

However, Christine’s performance brings me to the question of Nigerians and acquired accents that have no regional base, but that will be talk for another day. For now, she can sing for me any day, no leles.

Chiedu Efeozu, whose reading I have not heard for a long time, delivered another of his usually well thought out poems right after Christine. Then another musician, Jodie, of the West African Idols fame gifted the gathering a soul stirring song “up above my head” that got most people nodding along.

Finally a young poet, Noble, wrapped up the days performance with a poem about the state of Nigeria and the way forward. Like I said before, I got to the event very late and as such missed most of the readings.

Unlike the last edition, I did not feel the pulse of the interactive session that followed, though a witty and sound minded Essence did much to liven it up, while inputs by Myne Whiteman, Modele, Chude, Tosin Jegede and members of the audience were quite interesting. Me I was already beat, and a little pissed at the young ladies serving energy drinks for missing my row.

High point for me was meeting Myne Whiteman and getting her to sign a copy of her book for me, was sad though as I didn’t get to ask her how it feels to be a published writer and getting the recognition she has obviously worked for. Still, I did what I promised myself to do, mix with fellow writers.

It was quite early, but my phone kept ringing, another busy bodied friend wanted me to grace another of our blue moon dates. I left the venue like always, on a boxer motorcycle, grateful for the old-timer that gave me further reasons to remain on this path. Yes, a writer I can trust.

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Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Celebrities Read Africa

The event was the third instalment of celebrity Read Africa at Terra Kulture and I was bent on beating the stigma of African Time. By bypassing the BRT buses and danfos, I arrived the event venue at exactly 3 pm atop an okada piloted by a happy-faced Fulani youth not long past his teenage years.

Thinking the event would already be in full swing at about that time, I hurried into the Terra Kulture library and was shocked to find it sparsely occupied. I looked towards the large wall clock on the far wall of the room to ascertain that I had not somehow arrived earlier than I thought I did. I didn’t.

Understanding then dawned; I had given up on African time, but most of the continent still hangs on to that mentality. Not to worry, I looked around the room, discovered Onyeka Nwelue among the early birds, and spent the next hour with him and another young Nigerian talking about the golly in Ghollywood.

My interesting discourse with Mr Nwelue set the tone for a very exciting evening that finally kicked off at about four with commendable poetry readings and music by upcoming acts.

Onyeka Nwelue opened the reading floor, rendering a thought invoking reading from his debut novel ‘Abyssinian boy’.

The organisers, who thoughtfully replaced absent advertised celebrities Kaffy and  Modele with TV and radio presenter Kachi Nochiri and actor David Nnaji, averted a potential low point.

The duo went ahead to give very impressive renditions of the respective texts they chose to read from. For Kachi, it was a narrative poem from Ayo Arigbabu’s short story collection ‘A fist full of tales’. While David read from Chimamanda Adichie’s ‘Half of a yellow sun’.

Their well-received renditions paved way for another high point of the evening, the reading by the only advertised ‘celebrity’ present, Tosin Martins, who wowed everybody with not just his dramatic reading of Dapo Adeleke’s novel ‘Thrills and trials’ but also the intellectual nature of his interpretation of it.

Tosin Martins was the revelation of the evening as his exhibition of a sound, very intellectual mind, caused many who previously thought Nigerian musicians are hardly intellectual to rethink their position.

After him came Harrysong, who performed, to the admiration of everyone, what he called an impromptu song he began working on just a few minutes prior. Adewale Orishade, a poet, read from his new poetry collection ‘Sad Nectar’. The poet Olulu performed to spoken word poems, then Chinelo ended the day’s performances with a Martin Luther King styled rendition of her poem ‘Utopia’.  

Another high point of the evening was the engaging discussion session between the celebrities and the audience. This discussion session brought out sides of the celebrities that the audience obviously knew little about as patriotism was exhibited in diverse ways. By the time the third instalment of celebrity read Africa came to a reluctant close at about 6:30 pm, I was feeling very elated for having being a part of this. Yes, the celebrities came and this time, they read Africa, so very well.  

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Time to bite back harder

Weeks ago, while seeking creative stimulus on television, I chanced upon an American programme, one of those life-of-a-very-rich-brat formats that are becoming very popular these days.

This one centred on an eighteen year old girl who came home to receive what she termed the worst news of her life - a forced visit to Africa (it was actually Kenya) as a birthday present.

My grouse is not with the programme title (though ‘Exiled’, is a rather harsh name for a holiday to the Kenyan Savannah) but with the way, the producers conveniently skipped most of modern Kenya - minus a beat up Land Rover and a khaki wearing guide. The editor cut off all references to modern Kenya, leaving just a sparsely populated Masai village, whose natives paint their round earthen huts with cow dung - a point the teenager made sure to stress when her rich dad called her via satellite phone.

Another sore point is with the subtitles. The native guide in the programme, a tall, beautiful Masai girl inappropriately named Josephine, who spoke clear, just slightly accented English, had her words subtitled, while the nasal sounding American teenager, whose words seem to drawl forever, made do without subtitles.

Anyway, I took solace in the thought that the use of subtitles probably meant Americans cannot understand clear, well-spoken English. Perhaps I am propagating a stereotype here but what else does the constant use of subtitles when African speakers are concerned denote?

However, as we all know, double standards are hallmarks of the great western experience.

One would have expected Josephine to be invited to partake, even if briefly, in the ‘good life’ when her American guest went back home, but, expectedly, nothing of such occurred. The American girl went back home to tell about the horrors she faced during her five-day stay, further subjecting an already badly informed society to more miss-education .

Time and time again, I have come across condescending stereotypical opinions about Africa and Africans in the western media. I used to excuse these statements, believing, erroneously, that the writers did not know enough about Africa to form an opinion about the topic they chose to spotlight, when in truth, these writers were following a cultural script that sends every negative image about Africa to the top of the list without recourse to factuality.

I was so set in my belief that human nature makes it imperative for people to seek knowledge about the unknown, that a thirst for knowledge inherent in man makes discovery possible.

Well, I believed wrong. For the West, knowledge about Africa, when not linked to profit making, is generally constrained to stories about despotic leaders, child soldiers, wars, epidemics and recently, mass rapes. Even knowledge about economic potential exploited from Africa is usually left to the annual reports of western multinationals involved in the exploitation.

Sometime ago a friend pondered on his Facebook status about the common perception by westerners that Africa is one country. The answer, which I am sure you would have grasped, points to an institutionalised apathy to knowledge outside the western sphere of influence.

Thankfully, I was not one of those that bought into the Obamamania that swept this planet a few years ago.
Africans, even more than the African Americans, saw in that man’s ascension a sign of the acceptance of the African into the scheme of things.

They forgot that Obama, raised within the safety of his white mother’s family, would naturally feel more affinity to that race, hence, the little impact of his government on the perception of Africa on the global stage.

The battle to get Africa more respect in the western media should be an all-inclusive one. Let us shout to the high heavens when we feel aggrieved, let the African American media spare Africa more coverage; let their celebrities visit more, and not just our game reserves, let their writers counter the negative images that the west seem to feed off. Only by doing such can they find relevance in a society that begrudges them their blackness. An African American posting a picture of starving children in Somalia beside that of poor welfare African American kids in a quest to explain why she is proud of her ‘good fortune’ for being born American smacks too much of self loathing and the culture of ignorance we are talking about.

We in Africa should also do more to sell ourselves. We have to start believing again, to look beyond the toga of bad leadership and embrace a more positive outlook to life, if for nothing, then for the fact that the western world needs us more than we need them.

There is really nothing to be ashamed of in being an African, we may be poor by Dollar and Pound standards, but as Eric Donaldson said, ‘‘the progress you make is not about how rich you are’’.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Before we dismiss EFCC’S list

Economic and Financial Crimes CommissionImage via Wikipedia

I read with interest, not just the list of ‘corrupt’ politicians recently released to political parties by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), but also the comments posted to the web by others who read the list before me and felt like venting.

For most of the commentators, the grouse is not the amount of money – staggering by the way – that those who made the illustrious list are alleged to have pilfered from our collective pocket, but with the EFCC, for having the temerity to conceive of such ill-thought-out-list in the first place. They barraged the commission for allowing itself be a tool in the hands of politicians who want to keep perceived opponents from challenging them in the polls.

The leaning of most of the commentators did not come as much of a surprise, for I have come to associate my countrymen with that unequalled ability to look but see very little, an ability that stems from an uncanny compulsion to defend those who common knowledge depicts as the chain holding our collective will in perpetual enslavement.

While it is not my intention to hold brief for EFCC, I however find something fundamentally wrong with Nigerians who allow themselves be constantly beclouded by politicians and their antics. A say this because the EFCC rightly called the list and ‘advisory’ one. As such, the list as presently constituted, is supposed to provide information about individuals who have cases to answer in court, to political parties that may want to field them in the 2011 general elections.

True, these individuals remain innocent until proven guilty. However, one thinks it is in the interest of the political parties and the electorate to know the status of people who might be interested in public office. On the other hand, if we all pander to the argument that asks that they remain unnamed, if elected, wouldn’t some guilty ones (again) enjoy the immunity that comes with political office, thereby defeating the aims and objectives of the EFCC.  

I don’t know, but it seems we as a country have become so used to corrupt leaders that thoughts of not having them in power elicits in some a mild kind of madness.
I believe the EFCC is bent on preventing the situation highlighted above and should be commended for having the will to draw up the list as it is.

As for those on the list, I doubt if they have any reasons to worry, if they are innocent, for the innocent have no reason to fear the law. However, something of import should be said here, cases against some of the accused that would have been concluded a long time ago, continue to drag as they (the accused) continue to use every available legal loopholes to prolong it. It is instructive to note that, had they allowed the cases to run at a natural phase, they probably would be free men now.

I do not really know any of these people on a personal basis, perhaps with the exemption of Ndudi Elemulu, who I was opportune to meet while serving as a NYSC member in his home town and Chimaroke Nnamani who held sway over my home State Enugu for eight, perhaps, not very productive years, so I will not presume to know the strength of their moral character. That said, I gladly leave decisions about their guilt to the law courts. However, I dare to state that anyone with a sense of decency would have fought tooth and nail to clear a good name, not fight to postpone the outcome of a case that seeks to clarify just that.

Nigerian politicians seem to lack positive ambition, not that they are not ambitious in other ways, as they seem very interested momentary gains. Most are willing to grab what they can without recourse to posterity. I usually cringe, when I recall the euphoria that greeted the emergence of Chimaroke Nnamani as governor of Enugu state in 1999. I was among those who saw the young medical doctor as a breath of fresh air. I believed, with his charisma and education, that he would ascend to the national pinnacle after serving Enugu state, but I believed in a dream that probably did not believe in itself as Chimaroke, the EFCC claims, went on to steal N5.3 Billion from Enugu state’s coffers and effectively constrained  himself to the dregs of Nigerian politics. I am yet to hear of a bill the supposed senator sponsored in the years he has so far spent in the that not-very-much hallowed chambers.

As for Elumelu, I really cannot say. For a young man whom I recall, as chairman of the House Committee on Power, seemed to embody the new Nigerian spirit, especially during the public hearings for his power probe, a EFCC indictment for corruption does all kind of harm to his image. Like I said before, I know him too sparingly to be a better judge of his character, but I still feel the disappointment of believing in his star too. I hope the allegations against him turn out to be false, so we don’t get to ask of him, “where is our money?”

Let all those in the list have their day in court. They should stop running away and clear their names as Fani-Kayode is trying to do, and if they cannot, they can always swallow their collective pride and follow the Lucky Igbinedion, and recently, Ibru example – Plea-bargaining, that great gift the law provided for criminals everywhere.

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