The Woyingi Blog

Black Blog Review: Ijaw Girl

Posted in Black Blog Review, Nigerian Blogs, Peoples: The Ijo by the woyingi blogger on August 31, 2009

This week, I’ll share with you a blog I stumbled up. I was interested in reading Ijaw Girl because I myself am half-Ijaw. I expected a blog about the struggle of the Ijaw in the Niger Delta against oil companies, pollution, and violence but what I got was…FASHION!

Ijaw Girl should really be called Nigerian Fashionista. The subtitle for the blog is:

-for the love of all things bright,beautiful & tailor made. -celebrating nigerians in and around fashion.

Ijaw Girl is the blog of the designer of the label AKPOS OKUDU. She is also a student. Her profile sets the tone for the whole blog:

i’m a fashion designer who loves quirkyness,couture dresses,red lipstick,photography,sewing with really loud music,dressing my friends,cocktail rings,sexy lingere,d big apple,shoes,u2,oprah,sex& d city,bags,beyonce,blush,vogue,red nail polish,the cranberries,d colour green,norah jones,playin dress up. i also love dancing in front of d mirror,bono,my beauty sleep,flats,lucite& vintage bangles,recycling trends,kate moss,eco chic[lets do our bit 2 help save d planet],thisday style,my fab. cousins[my inspiration]style.com,old hollywood movies,chandellier earrings,paris and most importantly my gap joca jellies.

This blog is about Nigerian Fashion and although I was hoping to read the blog of a politically aware Ijaw Nigerian woman, it was interesting to read about the Nigerian Fashion scene. The blog is full of images of Nigerian Fashion, as well as the blog writer’s own work.

I was fascinated to learn about the reinvention of Ankara Fabric in Ijaw Girl’s post “Nigerian Designers Jazz up Ankara“. Ankara fabric originally came from Europe (but the Turks made a cheaper version so that is why it is called Ankara, after the Turkish city of the same name). Nigerians loved the fabric and began making their own elaborate culturally inspired designs on it. But for a long time, Ankara Fabric was only associated with traditional and “frumpy” Nigerian clothing. Now Ankara Fabric has become chic, and most Nigerian fashion designers have a line of Ankara dresses and accessories. According to Ijaw Girl “An Ankara outfit is definitely a must in every fashionista’s closet”. To learn more about the history of Ankara in Nigeria read the article “Ankara: The Rebirth” in fashionafrica.com.

The Ijaw Girl blog showcases the work of some of the blog writer’s favourite Nigerian Fashion Designers. These include Folake Folarin-Coker who is the designer behind the Tiffany Amber label and Lisa Folawiyo who is the designer behind Jewel By Lisa. I really do love the designs on the fabrics used by these designers. My size is too large to fit into any of their styles (I’m much better off in the frumpy traditional Nigerian clothing which gives the “traditionally built” African woman room for her volupiousness) but I can still acknowledge that they are beautiful and as good (if not better) than anything I’ve seen come down the runways of Paris, Milan, or New York (I do sometimes watch Fashion Television).
 
Ijaw Girl sometimes just posts pictures from Nigerian newspapers and magazines of women she considers to be “Head to Toe Perfect” in terms of style. She writes:
 
Nigerian women are super fabulous; i know, i know.i could say that a million times. Your probably sick of hearing it; but come on this is a blog that generally celebrates fabulous Nigerian fashion and pretty much anything fashion related.
As amazing as i consider Nigerian women stylewise, there are lots who generally go over the top with their outfits;so when i find pictures of Nigerian women that look on point you know I’m drawn to them like a complete magpie and i get super excited.
 
It seems that the Nigerian Fashion Industry is really booming. There is even something called Le petite marche in Lagos, a monthly flee market, which provides a venue for new and established independent designers and entrepreneurs to network and sell their creations.
 
I have to thank the Ijaw Girl blog for exposing me to the Nigerian Fashion industry, something which I really knew nothing about. The writing style is far too text-message cutesy for me so I won’t be a regular reader but I wish the designer success with her label, and given the success other Nigerian Fashion designers seem to be having in Nigeria and abroad (several are premiering at New York’s Fashion Week) she will have ample opportunities to make a name for herself.
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African Writer Profile: Dayo Forster

Dayo Forster was born and raised in Banjul, the capital of Gambia. She had to leave Gambia at 18 to pursue a university education because at the time there were no universities in Gambia.
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Dayo Forster

Dayo comes from a family of Aku, otherwise known as Krios. The Aku originated from Krios who came from Sierra Leone in the 19th Century. The Krio are a mixture of recently freed slaves who were liberated from slave ships intercepted by the British in West Africa and freed slaves returning from the diaspora from such places as the US, the Caribbean and Nova Scotia.  Many of the freed slaves were of Yoruba descent, which is why it is common to find Krios with Yoruba names, like Dayo.

Dayo studied statistics and computing at the London School of Economics.

Dayo had always been an avid reader but she took up writing late in life.

On her website she writes:

I took up writing aged 35, while living in America, essentially to figure out a way of expressing opinions and publishing essays on various topics. I stumbled into fiction while attending a writing workshop. The optional assignment was to extend a character in a story someone else had written. I tried it – and was bowled over by the power of virtual reality – the ability to create someone else’s world and be able to view everything through that person’s eyes. And to feel God-like, able to make things happen, yet be sensitive enough to continue to inhabit a character’s skin.

To learn more about Dayo’s relationship with literature, read her piece “a short life in literature”.

Dayo went on to publish a short story in Kwani?, a Kenyan literary journal. She would later participate in the 2006 Caine African Writer’s Workshop. The short story she wrote for the workshop would be published in the 2006 Caine Prize for African Writing Anthology, The Obituary Tango.  The short story she wrote for Kwani? would lead her to write her first novel, “Reading the Ceiling”.

“Reading the Ceiling” follows the three possible trajectories that the life of its heroine, Ayodele, could take based on who she chooses to lose her virginity to when she is 18 years old.

Dayo is the first Gambian woman to get an international publishing contract. She was able to achieve this with the help of her contacts in the Kenyan literary scene.

In her interview with Molara Wood she says:

In Kenya where I’m based, I went along to monthly meetings organised by Kwani? I read the first chapter of my manuscript and got lots of helpful feedback. Binyavanga Wainaina (2002 Caine winner and Kwani? founder) recommended some agents; the first one I contacted, signed me. I wrote the first draft while in the US, in 4 months; the whole process was wonderful and quick. If I hadn’t been living in Kenya, it would have been difficult to complete this book. I do thank Kenya for that. There were a few people who were selfless.

“Reading the Ceiling” was shortlisted for Best First Book in the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize-Africa Region.

Dayo Forster speaks Krio, Wolof, Kiswahili and French.

She is currently working on her second novel.

Further Reading:

Dayo Forster’s Website

An Interview with Dayo Forster about her book “Reading the Ceiling” from African Loft

An Interview with Dayo Forster by Nigerian writer Molara Wood

Black Blog Review: The Missing Piece…thoughts of a black adoptee

Posted in Black Blog Review, Black Canadian Blogs, Blacks and Mixed Race Identity by the woyingi blogger on August 24, 2009

This week, I am reviewing the blog The Missing Piece…thoughts of a black adoptee

The author of the blog describes herself as:

black woman, adopted into a white family as an infant; mother of 2 girls; part-time insomniac; ex-lawyer; interests include: family stories, culture, race, books, writing, art, parenting, other adoptees, gardening…

In the post “who am I?”, the author gives more details about her home life.

The author of The Missing Piece was born in Nova Scotia, Canada, and adopted into a White family. She does not know her biological parents, but she does know that her mother is White and her father is Black.

In the post, Rejection: adoptee woes in a nutshell, she writes about her struggle to contact her biological mother and get the name of her biological father. The post is a fascinating tour through Nova Scotian Adoption Legislation, for example, because her biological father never acknowledged paternity he is not legally her Birth Father.

In the post Missing Pieces, she explains her choice of blog name:

I don’t mean to characterize adoptees or transracial adoptees as ‘missing pieces’ or incomplete human beings, so just hear me out.  An old, true friend introduced me to The Missing Piece, by Shel Silverstein many years ago.  It succinctly and beautifully sums up the road many of us take to find ourselves, but especially adoptees who might feel at different times in their lives that they are missing some crucial part of themselves – knowledge of self, knowledge of family, medical or cultural history.

I really enjoy The Missing Piece blog because although I was not adopted, having a deported Black father who I had no hope of finding, and growing up in my mother’s totally dysfunctional White family, often made me feel like I was an orphan.

I can particularly relate to her struggles with Black Identity. In her post Back to Africa, she writes:

As a black girl growing up in a white family I was often on the outside of black culture and community. That is, until I entered junior high and made black friends, listened to black music, read black history and literature and deliberately absorbed black culture.  Embracing black culture gave me some self-confidence and generally helped in the quest to know myself, but a kind of doubtful self-consciousness about my cultural identity remains.  I am easily shaken if someone (black or white) insinuates I am not black enough, because I am too fair-skinned, or because I like to read, or because my family is white, or for some other ridiculous reason.   What do you care what other people think, my friends and family ask.  Intellectually I know I should not care, but the emotional need to belong or fit within family and community is strong.

I too grew up isolated from  Black communities. In someways, the author is lucky to have grown up in Nova Scotia, which has a large and deep-rooted Black community. Growing up in Ottawa, in the 80s and 90s meant that I didn’t have much opportunity to interact with Black people, until the wave of Somali immigration in the mid-nineties. I can’t say I have ever really “embraced” Black culture because I don’t think there is such a thing. I am grateful for finally learning how to manage my hair (which shows no signs of being mixed as it is quite short and course), something I only accomplished in my early twenties with the help of a friend of Afro-Trinidadian descent. Here in Ottawa, there are now large communities of Sub-Saharan African descent but they are divided by ethnicity, culture, religion, and language (Ottawa is a bilingual city) so you can hardly say there is a Black Culture here. But I do interact a lot with these communities, some more than others (for obvious reasons I am closer to Muslim communities, but I find that I get on well with both Muslims and Christians from the Horn of Africa, and with Muslim and Christian francophones. Ironically, I seem to get on the least with Nigerians of any ethnicity, despite the fact that I am ethnically half-Nigerian. I guess a sense of belonging has very little to do with bloodlines).

I think many of the author’s issues with Black Identity are the same for all of us who are mixed race but didn’t grow up with our Black parents.

They are many Black adoptees out there. The Missing Piece’s blog roll contains links to other websites and blogs by transracial adoptees, as well as a link to the Black Adoptees Group on Facebook.

I learned from the Missing Piece blog that Darry McDaniels, the DMC from Run DMC, is a Black Adoptee, as well as musician Michael Franti. I am also grateful to the author for highlighting the work of Jackie Kay, a Black Scottish writer who was adopted into a White family. Kay’s father, like mine, is a Nigerian. She had the opportunity to meet him but it did not turn out as hoped, because he was hell bent on trying to save her soul by converting her to his rabid form of Christianity. This was actually my big fear when I found my father. As so many Nigerians I had met seemed to detest my conversion to Islam, I was worried my father might reject me because I was a Muslim or make our relationship contingent upon me becoming a Christian. I am grateful that this was not the case.

I hope the author of The Missing Piece continues to write about her own struggle, as well as the struggle of others to piece together the puzzle of mixed race and transracial identities.

How to Study Africa: From Victimhood to Agency by John Lonsdale

Posted in Africa in the Media, The Woyingi Blogger by the woyingi blogger on August 14, 2009

How to study Africa: from victimhood to agency
John Lonsdale

Why do most westerners see “Africa” as feckless victim and “the west” as a rescue service, and how far are Africa specialists responsible for this misperception? The scholar John Lonsdale argues that a renewed focus on African agency is essential to a deeper understanding that can help redress local and global structures of inequality, injustice, and misrule.

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John Lonsdale is emeritus professor of modern African history and fellow of Trinity College Cambridge. Among his books are (as co-author) Unhappy Valley: conflict in Kenya and Africa (James Currey, 1992) and (as co-editor) of Mau Mau and Nationhood (James Currey, 2003); he is also the author of seventy articles or book chapters on Kenyan and African history This article is adapted from John Lonsdale’s plenary lecture at the Aegis conference on African Studies at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies on 30 June 2005

On Monday 25 May 1959 Iain Macleod, then minister of labour in a British Conservative government, wrote privately to his prime minister, Harold Macmillan. It was a bad time for British rule in Africa. Eleven Kenyans had been clubbed to death at Hola detention camp after refusing to do the forced labour that was designed to reclaim them from their “hard core” allegiance to the Mau Mau rebellion.

There was also a state of emergency in Nyasaland (Malawi). More Africans had been killed there, this time by police gunfire. In a long letter on how Britain might best respond to such imperial crises there is one particularly arresting sentence. Looking forward to the approaching election, Macleod wrote:

“Black Africa remains perhaps our most difficult problem so far as relationships with the vital middle voters is [sic] concerned. It is the only one in which our policies are under severe criticism and for example the only one on which we are regularly defeated at the universities. Indeed the universities feel more strongly on this issue than on any other single matter.” (National Archives/Public Record Office (Kew): PREM.11/2583; emphasis added).

Imagine, British universities then felt more strongly about Africa than about academic salaries or levels of state funding! To have been an Africanist at that time must have been very heaven. The pity of it of course was that there were very few of us, mostly linguists, anthropologists, medical experts, agricultural and veterinary scientists. The Journal of African History and Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines, brave trumpeters of a seemingly new field of scholarship, started only in 1960, the “year of Africa” that followed. So the strength of university feeling must have reflected a general sense of political obligation to Africa among Britain’s middle classes.

There was also a widespread perception that Africans were now a political force to be reckoned with. They had to be heard, and were. African leaders who jetted into London to negotiate the terms of their independence electrified university audiences. Press cartoons of the time portrayed Africans not as starving children or emaciated victims of disease, but as virile nationalist giants, overshadowing puny British politicians.

The press could also accuse ministers of ruining Britain’s good name in Africa by reason of their cowardice or folly. The same must have been true in France and Belgium – though not in Spain or Portugal, at that time dictatorships not only in Africa but also at home.

Africa has changed since then – as has Europe. Fifty years ago European electorates felt they had responsibilities towards Africa. Africans were their colonial subjects. Africans were also demanding responsibility for themselves. European publics listened. They knew the names of African leaders: Leopold Senghor, Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyerere, Zik (Nnamdi Azikiwe).

One of the leaders of Mediterranean Africa, Gamal Abdel Nasser, had in 1956 humiliated both France and Britain in the “Suez” fiasco. Had European publics been more ignorant, Iain Macleod would have been less worried. It was a time of hope for Africa and Africans, perhaps of unrealistic expectations. The world expected Africans to use their energetic new sovereignties to slay the dragons of poverty, ignorance and disease. Some African leaders took up the challenge by adopting the slogan “Freedom and Work”.

And now? Which European minister would warn his leader – Balkenende or Chirac, Schröder or Zapatero, Berlusconi or Blair – that the outcome of the next election might depend on what they did or did not do about Africa? How many Europeans care what Africans think? How much obligation do they feel towards Africans today? Even after the outpouring of publicity, protest, and pop music surrounding the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, and the accompanying “make poverty history” campaign, the answers may not be comforting.

How far are the professed “friends of Africa” – scholars, students, activists – to blame for the mix of everyday indifference and latent fear, tempered now and again by pity? What can we do to repair our failures in representation? Perhaps it would be to do what best serves our own professional interest: regard African colleagues as allies in a common cause, and repair the failures in African higher education that so diminish the African ability to speak to the rest of the world as intellectual equals, expert witnesses in their own cause, full citizens of our one world.

These questions and answers raise others. How many Europeans today could name any Africans, apart from the bogeyman Robert Mugabe at one extreme and the twin saints at the other, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu? How many less exceptional African leaders attract attention even when, as in summer 2005, the media overflows with African stories? How many Europeans expect Africans to solve their own problems? Do newspapers report how Africans themselves argue about political and social issues, generally with more commitment than European electorates at home?

Why do we need celebrities to enlist our attention? What Bob Geldof and Bono have done is marvellous (the Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen tells me that Geldof proved to be a sharp student of development economics in the telephone tutorials Sen gave at the popstar’s request in 2004). But there are also two dangers in the “celebritisation” of Africa’s needs:

  • the sense of guilt that Geldof and Bono arouse in their audiences may prove fleeting and ineffective – when it is important that the G8 and the European Union need to be subjected to intellectually sustained and politically creative scrutiny
  • the image of the secular saint flatters the self-regarding, even racist, European image as the heroic dragon-slayer riding to the rescue of a voiceless and helpless African continent, trapped by poverty, ignorance and disease

This, after all, is only the latest chapter in a long history of the mirror-construction of two “racial” identities, European and African. It began at least two centuries ago, during the struggle for the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. The slogan of the Quaker abolitionists, coined in 1787 – just before the French revolution – was “Am I not a man and a brother?” But the African slave into whose mouth this revolutionary question was placed was himself shown, on the Anti-Slavery Society’s seal, down on his knees before his white audience, not on his feet. (Four years later, black slaves were very much on their feet, musket in hand, following Toussaint l’Ouverture in their Haitian rebellion.)

So today, popular media constructs Africa as the hopeless, history-less, “other”, the dark antipodes to the purposeful, liberal – above all, storied – west. The occasion for the resumption of this image, after the hopeful picture painted by African nationalism, appears to have been the Nigerian civil war of the late 1960s, when the (London) Sun called secessionist Biafra The Land of No Hope. The self-righteously civilising mission of the past two centuries has thus revived in a post-colonial age.

“Parachute journalists” – so different from the “old Africa hands” like Colin Legum or Basil Davidson, or Richard Dowden more recently – accompany sometimes equally transient aid-givers into what they can understand only as a tribal, lawless, starving Africa, from Somalia and Rwanda in the 1990s to Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) today.

This populist version of the “civilising mission” infantilises Europeans as well as Africans; it reduces media consumers to voyeurs demanding instant gratification for their immediate feelings – when the real need is to face up to the long, complex, often dispiriting negotiation of critical solidarity with people who demand that their own views be heard.

People specialising in the study of Africa from outside the continent must welcome this task, arduous as it is. But what can we do to help achieve it?

Then and now

This is a task of enlightenment, in most ways harder than it was for our predecessors of fifty and more years ago. Perhaps in one sense only has it become easier, in that pop stars have created an enormous audience for news of Africa, if one that may have little patience with complex academic discussions. We must learn to engage with – even educate – that audience, even if the politicisation of pop is a two-edged sword.

In other ways, the times have moved against “Africanists”. Above all, “freedom fighters” have too often become lords of misrule. The transmutation of Kwame Nkrumah, Hastings Banda, Haile Selassie, or (again) Robert Mugabe tell the melancholy story.

It is difficult to find local heroes today, the equivalent of South Africa’s African National Congress in the 1980s. Africa’s women have the best claim to that title. But in general, Africans and their friends have become disillusioned with the fruits of freedom: stony and pitiless as in the Sudan and Zimbabwe, shrivelled into nothing as in Somalia, or utterly corrupted as in the DRC.

At the same time, many African states would be capable of delivering the public goods of societal renewal – Senegal, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Botswana, South Africa among them – if they were permitted the affordable means to tackle the social cancer of HIV/Aids.

But there is a deeper problem in addressing the task of enlightenment. In the 1960s, students of Africa were able to read the work of African leaders – Julius Nyerere, Frantz Fanon, Tom Mboya, Leopold Senghor – and to learn about Africa in wonderfully cheap books such as the Penguin African Library. The authors were often cosmopolitan journalists with long African experience, such as Patrick Keatley of the (Manchester) Guardian (a Canadian), Brian Bunting of the Rand Daily Mail and (Johannesburg) Guardian (a South African), and Jack Halpern, editor of the Central African Examiner (born in Berlin). African novelists also appeared in Heinemann’s equally accessible African Writers Series, launched by Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in 1962.

A lesser-known series that addressed both European and African students was just as significant. Its authors were often white expatriates, deeply involved in the adventure of setting up new African universities. This was Oxford University Press’s “Students’ Library”, whose first title – George Bennett’s Kenya: a Political History – I bought in 1963 for the equivalent of a few pence today.

Academics were then prepared to write short, simple – but learned – books for a student audience (nor were they burdened by today’s severe bureaucratic obligations). The OUP’s public-spirited authors included Margery Perham, Bolaji Idowu and Fred Welbourn on African Christianity, Merrick Posnansky on the distant past and Philip Whitaker on the relevance of western political theory to African problems.

Whitaker was on the extra-mural staff of Makerere University College, Uganda – as were his better known contemporaries in Ghana, Thomas Hodgkin, Dennis Austin and David Kimble; this is the sort of teaching service that stands in urgent need of revival today.

The enlightenment such people offered was amazing. They brought African and European audiences into the same historical discourse, with, for instance, comparisons between African and European nationalisms or discussion of classical Greek solutions to contemporary African problems.

What has become of the Penguin African Library, or the Student’s Library? Which Africans can interested students now read in cheap editions? Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom is the only recent autobiography that comes to mind. James Currey’s African Issues series is the sole source, I believe, of moderately priced but unimpeachably expert discussion on contemporary Africa. Perhaps we should be all the more grateful to Geldof and Bono, the Penguin Specials of today.

It is all the more important that younger Africanists should be aware of the precedent set by our predecessors in bringing Africa and Africans to the attention of a western public. Public academic engagement with African issues has a long and intellectually strenuous history, as a brief (and insular) survey of its achievement and inheritance suggests.

Predecessors in hope

The first modern attempt to educate British voters about African issues – leaving aside university support for the 19th century anti-slavery movement and the early 20th century Congo reform movement – seems to have been in 1929, when the Student Christian Movement produced an eighty-page booklet on East Africa in Transition.

This summarised and discussed the 350 pages of a commission of enquiry into the possible “closer union” of the British territories in Eastern Africa, an issue full of racial dynamite in a part of Africa where white settler interests competed with the principles of “native trusteeship” at the heart of British policy. So the precedents go back a long way, even if one ignores them.

A decade later – and nearer to my own theme of the need to listen to Africans as equals – Bronislaw Malinowski presented to a western readership Jomo Kenyatta’s work, Facing Mount Kenya. As a displaced Pole, conscious of the twin dangers of fascism and communism, Malinowski believed educated Africans experienced the shared “tragedy of the modern world in an especially acute manner.”

Malinowski welcomed Kenyatta’s views as those of an observant world citizen. The Commission for Africa’s 2005 report is entitled Our Common Interest. The contrast is stark: self-interest rules in place of universal tragedy; Africa is no longer a prophetic voice but a common concern.

Much more sterling work was accomplished by Africanists’ predecessors of more than half a century ago, including the international galaxy of scholars who advised Lord Hailey’s African Survey (1938). That era of hope for Africa included the renowned figure of Margery Perham, Oxford’s University teacher of generations of British colonial cadets. At the intellectual centre of empire, she went to great lengths to include Africans in the circle of a common humanity.

In 1936, Perham edited a collection of biographies, Ten Africans. It is extraordinary to read her introduction today, and to recognise how much she is our contemporary. Britons, she remarked, accepted as normal what was in truth “the peculiar condition of empire under which we control the destinies of people we do not understand.” The absence of ordinary social relations between the races, “through which people come to know and like each other”, was, she thought, to blame for this misunderstanding. She continued:

“The main reason for this is the ‘backwardness’ of Africans. It is an obvious and fundamental fact, but one upon which we are apt to lean a little too hard in order to make ourselves comfortable in a difficult situation. In default of true knowledge we too often make do with assumptions: the primary one, that Africans are backward; next, that they are almost all equally backward; even that they are inherently, and so permanently, backward. Cut off as most of us are from any contact with Africans as individuals, we think of them or deal with them in the mass…”

Margery Perham carried on the work of introducing individual Africans to the world after 1945. In 1946 she found a publisher for and wrote an introduction to Obafemi Awolowo’s book, The Path to Nigerian Freedom, when he was but a law student. A decade later she wrote an introduction to the young Tom Mboya’s radical pamphlet, The Kenya Question: An African Answer, published by the Fabian Colonial Bureau. Ten years later still, she introduced J M Kariuki’s shocking memoir of what he had suffered at British hands in Mau Mau Detainee.

Here was a senior academic, one of the chief public moralists for imperial trusteeship, actively helping to give young Africans a subversive voice at the seat of empire – and one who could write, privately, that Jomo Kenyatta was the sort of person with whom one could speak without condescension, “man to man”.

Scholars at the time had great faith in human agency – perhaps because willpower seemed so self-evidently decisive during and after the ordeal of world war. Margaret Wrong, secretary of the international committee for Christian literature for Africa, started her book, Five Points for Africa – a plea for a new deal for the continent – with the chapter “We are Men”, echoing the question the Quakers had put to the merchants of slavery.

Joyce Cary, former colonial official and no friend to African nationalism, was nonetheless passionate in his call for the sort of African freedom that increased personal choice: “To leave any man in ignorance, sickness, poverty, or racial contempt, without help, is to hold freedom cheap.”

Melville Herskovits, a founder of African studies in the United States, was no less eloquent in the cause of African agency, more cultural than individual in his opinion. To him colonial rulers were wrong to suppose that “Africans were … highly malleable, a people whose destiny it was to be mo[u]lded into the image their tutors delineated for them.” Africans were “a force in being”, no mere “supplementary resource”. Nationalism thus restored to Africans the creativity of power: “Culturally, no less than politically, independence made of them free agents.”

How might we, in our generation, recover a similar sense of purpose and obligation for ourselves and for Europe, in the cause of an African agency that Africa’s recent history, no less than the popular mood of today, seems to deny?

Globalised apartheid?

What we need, I suggest, is an analogy for what got us angry and active in the past.

Would it be too much to compare today’s politically and socially divided but economically unified world with the apartheid South Africa of yesterday? The parallels are surely very close. The rich countries’ immigration and asylum laws operate in ways not greatly different to pass laws. Northern farmers enjoy the same price guarantees and export subsidies that used to protect white settlers from black peasant competitors. The world’s terms of trade, the operations of international oil companies, seem designed to exploit African resources for very little in return other than the arming of African protectors – like the township police of yesteryear. Skilled African workers are recruited to the rich countries’ health services; their “social reproduction” costs are borne by poor African states that reap no benefit from their trained manpower – just as black South African migrant labour was reproduced in the Bantustans, more or less cost-free to its white urban employers.

If that analogy is anywhere near accurate, then might not the precedents of the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM), and the campaign against British investment in South Africa, also be useful? Mike Terry, former executive secretary of the AAM, says that “anti-apartheid became part of British student culture and economic boycotts an accepted norm”. AAM also embraced the enthusiasm of the pop music world.

A related point is that African studies stand in great need of economists and economic historians who might understand the real impacts of globalisation on Africa. Three simple thoughts arise, to prompt research into complexity.

First, Africa stands in great need of capital, and the formal relations of production and governance that demand the wider distribution of capital’s profits than to its owners alone. How capital can thus be “socialised” – whether by foreign direct investment or by African state or cooperative ownership – is surely best argued out between Africans.

Second, is it possible that the precipitate rise of Chinese textile and other exports will make African labour globally redundant, and will thirst for oil and markets make China the newest friend to African dictators?

Third, economists will doubtless never agree on how far the fault for Africa’s economic stagnation lies at the door of global structures or the malign local agency of kleptocratic rulers. Existing interpretations of contemporary Africa have paid most heed to changing forms of structural fate. Is it time for a change?

Structure and agency in African studies

Africanist scholarship has not always been the most usefully critical friend of Africa. That judgment may be no more than the prejudice of an historian, whose instinct is for stories of human agency – about who did what to whom, to whose advantage and at whose expense. Historians, like anthropologists, tend to be particularists, resistant to the grand generalisations beloved of sociologists, political scientists and economists.

With this qualification, the problem in studies of Africa over the last two generations is that Africanists have tended to create three successive, “single” models, teleologies or paradigms of Africa in the public mind. All of these are largely empty of the identifiable, awkward, individual Africans that Margery Perham long ago felt made us, or our analyses, uncomfortable.

The first model, friendly to African nationalism and the new African nations, is the “modernisation” theory that held sway in the 1950s and 1960s. This translated the socially mobile behaviour that was thought to characterise industrial Atlantic society, with its urban anonymity and capitalist rationality (but without its class struggles), to an almost entirely pre-industrial, largely rural, scarcely capitalist Africa.

This liberal political theory was totally disconnected from the parochialisms of African societies; it was also strangely empty of human courage and ingenuity. “Charisma” was an analytical category rather than a personal quality in someone like Nkrumah. Nationalism, far from being a creative adventure, was (as James S Coleman wrote) a sociological banality, “the inevitable end product of the impact of Western imperialism and modernity on African societies.”

The second model is “underdevelopment”, modernisation’s dark mirror image. This approach had many strands, some more vulgarly Marxist than others. Its partisans could not agree on how far Africa had been exploited by colonial capitalism. Its proponents tended to argue as if Africa had no hope until the socialist world revolution. But no “underdevelopmentalist” knew how to analyse African social classes and their struggles, a confusion reflected in the common use of the term “petty bourgeoisie”, trendy code for an analytical blind alley.

Without well-defined classes, it was hard to discover heroes of class struggle, people who might mobilise a capacity to change things, however tight the constraints on their agency. A truncated teleology of paralysed dialectics generated few of the African voices which Perham had given us.

The third model is “neo-patrimonialism” – although its scholars disagree on the meaning of the term. In general, it signifies a fatal conjuncture between one of the past glories of African history and its modern nemesis, and leads to an emphasis on the creative resilience of free peasantries in self-governing, stateless, frontier societies.

Today, the argument runs, political elites patronise the same small communities – “tribes” – in order to press their private demands on the state’s public goods. Clientilism, bound by personal codes of honour, cannot build states that obey a rule of law and, without law, states can expect neither investment nor any wide political legitimacy.

Yet even in such “neo-patrimonial” analyses of what are quintessentially face-to-face politics, it is rare to meet fully rounded political actors. Indeed, there is a curiously mechanical quality to our analyses of the intricately personal politics of neo-patrimonialism. The logic is too inexorable, inviting two objections: it invites acceptance of what is at best questionable, that international non-governmental agencies can resolve problems of governance when it often appears that they absolve African governments of the necessity to tackle them; and that not all African states have followed the same downward path to its inevitable end.

All three analyses of modern Africa have shared a basic weakness: lack of historical depth. Without this it is difficult to see how African states have developed differently from one another over the last half century. But there are indeed many diverse social, political and nationalist histories within Africa, emerging within different sorts of colony, shaping different purposes for independence, and permitting different ways of responding to post-colonial crises.

What the three models miss is the exercise of agency by political leaders, or their failure to act. The social sciences seem structurally averse to recognising such contingency. An understanding of the variety of modern African history rests on a balance between structure and agency.

The recovery of African voices

What is to be done? If the globalisation of apartheid gets anywhere near the truth, then global justice must be the goal for the west’s political leaders – as I think it was for Iain Macleod, prompted by the fear of what Africans might do were justice denied.

But there are obstacles in the path of such distributive justice: the protections demanded by producers in the industrialised world; the security priorities of “the war on terror”; popular objections to the immigration of today’s huddled masses; the curse of oil and strategic minerals; the age of Chinese mass production that may turn Africans anew into “surplus people”. Europeans no longer fear African protest – unless they happen to be Muslim. Conversely, there are few African heroes, allies in development, not least because African states lack so many of the competitive institutional authorities that can, on occasion, call rulers to account.

The G8 has proposed its compromise solutions. But what can mere academics do to see that even compromises are honoured? Our only power is to educate imaginations. But that – both in what we write and in what we advocate – is potentially enormous.

The most powerful goad to action on behalf of justice is surely a universal imagination that Africans are also men and women like us, with the will, however constrained by past history, to change their societies for the better. What Africans perhaps most need from our research are the biographies that give voice to their reflective, polemical, thoughts.

Alexander McCall Smith may have done more for Africa than all the rest of us, with his creation of Mma Precious Ramotswe of Botswana’s No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Certainly, more people will read McCall Smith than, say, JDY Peel’s account of how Yoruba Christians have acted with a consciousness of history as acute as any European’s, or John Iliffe’s panorama of how a sense of honour has stiffened African agency throughout history, perhaps more so than is prudent for the conduct of modern states. The historical perspective that makes biography worth writing, one that concedes some causal weight to a willed sense of purpose, is beginning to colour our analyses at last.

But Africans need our advocacy as well as our learning; without passionate commitment there can be no dispassionate research. The best way to combine such passion with its opposite, professional disinterest, is for European Africanists to concentrate our public energies on demanding that our governments support the properly funded, properly protected, rebirth of African universities – a matter to which the Commission for Africa paid some, but too little, attention.

There would be many benefits of such an initiative; I will suggest five:

  • the renewed ability of African scholars, as in the 1960s and 1970s, to challenge the monopoly on what passes for useful Africanist knowledge now held by westerners; our colleagues would again be our competitors, and western leaders too would once again hear African voices to which they would have to pay heed
  • restored African universities would find the energy to rethink Africa’s development needs, and allow higher education to find a new direction, better adapted to a knowledge-based world economy; at the centre of such academic globalisation must surely be the Atlantic African diaspora of academics and other professionals
  • African universities’ access to moral and political philosophers as well as science and technology would be a way for Africans to create a revolution in public morality; a distant, difficult but essential aspiration to offer public thinkers in these institutions
  • African universities would be enabled to think through problems of social reform and economic competition in the context of the global economy
  • African universities would be helped to revivify public spheres of political discourse, against the will of rulers unaccustomed to any competing authority; productive effort needs confidence in the future that only politics can provide; and rational bureaucratic politics, held to account by democratic institutions of collective opinion, is the least worst option.

The critical public voices I envisage will need to be protected, to be properly paid, with international standards of information and research infrastructures. This is a tall order. But what is the alternative? African states must be encouraged to submit to the self-disciplines undertaken by the few that have avoided the depths of “clientelist crisis”. Most are already subject to many external conditionalities, each a derogation from sovereignty. Another conditionality is as likely as any other to help Africans get off their knees and on to their feet. Is there a not a case for insisting on an “Academic Rights Watch” conducted by some international body, of which the Association of African Universities would be a foundational element? Might that not be a condition for all educational aid? Is this the one simple point that academics might fasten on when considering a goal for our political activism?

Finally, how might we as Africanists equip ourselves for such public advocacy? In our own national academies we are weak, as disregarded as church mice. Our individual national research assets in Africa are puny. But we could turn such separate weaknesses into the beginnings of a collective strength, by forming an “ever closer union” of research activities on Africa

We could also resurrect something like the Oxford University Press’s Student’s Library. The first title might even be a summary, eighty-page, discussion of the 460 pages of the Commission for Africa (priced at two euros or less)?

How many of us still alive thirty years hence will be able to echo what Basil Davidson said to me in 1998, looking back on his activist journalism of the 1960s: “The names come faltering back, and the dramas associated with them and I am repeatedly made grateful to have lived though those tremendous years”? The responsibility for a new partnership with Africa and Africans is ours.

The Woyingi Blogger’s Comments:

I have a used book-buying addiction, but I am of course selective in my purchases as much due to being broke as discrimination. Two of the series I am desperately hunting for in used book stores across the country are the Heinemann African Writers Series and the Penguin African Library Series, both mentioned in this article. I’m happy to say that I have managed to dig up quite a few of these titles. These books are almost entirely out of print now. Why?

I’ve been really disturbed by how much activists, on the left as much as on the right, people of colour as much as Whites, are extremely ignorant of African Affairs. This has been seen most extremely in the reaction of both left-wing and right-wing activists to the “crisis” in Darfur. But at least people are talking about Darfur. So much is happening that doesn’t even reach the headlines of right-wing newspapers or spark the concern of the political left.

Who cares about Africa or Africans? Who thinks we have anything to offer to the world other than something to be pitied in a way to expiate Rich people’s guilt or to be paraded around for Hip Activist Street cred? People only care about us if there is something in it for them, even if it’s simply furthering their own ideological beliefs be it neoliberalism, Marxism, or Islamism.

There are so few books in wide distribution written by Africans, particularly by Black Africans, about Africa. In the section for African History in Chapters most if not all of the books are written by non-Africans, mostly journalists not even academics. I know, it’s Chapters but it’s not that much different at independent book stores either….sometimes they have even less. There are books available online but they are often from academic publishers and incredibly expensive…probably because they know that the general public isn’t interested and so only specialists will buy them.

I think that this is because many people who aren’t Black are still so cut off from interactions with Africans, particularly with Black Africans. They haven’t learned to see us as individuals not faces in a newspaper, but people with our own thoughts, opinions, beliefs. And again, this isn’t just a White people issue. People of colour who aren’t Black are pretty much the same in this regard. Just because you are a person of colour doesn’t mean you don’t have racist ideas about Black Africans.

I’m lucky to live in an area that is predominantly Black African. My neighbours are from Somalia, Zimbabwe, Congo, Liberia, Ghana, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Rwanda, Burundi, and Sudan. Most are countries known for their conflicts and little else. Most of my neighbours originate from the educated elites of these countries who are now living as refugees in diasporas across Canada and around the world. I wish that they had the time to write their stories but they are too busy struggling to survive in this cold country.

Being Muslim and Trying to Connect to My Nigerian Heritage: No Easy Task

I became Muslim a couple of years before I found my Nigerian father. I am grateful to members of the Nigerian community here in Ottawa for making it possible for me to reconnect with him. However, during those years of searching, I discovered that being Muslim and trying to connect with the Nigerian diaspora is no easy task.

Religious conflicts have been a constant in Nigeria’s history. Most Nigerians in diaspora are not Muslims but Christians. Many Nigerian Muslims have actually converted to Christianity while in diaspora. Islam is generally concentrated within certain ethnic communities in Nigeria, such as the Hausa. But the majority of Nigerians in diaspora are either Igbos or Yorubas. Southern Nigerians, who are predominantly Christian, are more highly educated than Northern Nigerians which has led to a great deal of class resentment. Because corruption and nepotism in Nigeria is widespread many educated Nigerians leave and settle abroad, often doing quite well for themselves.

Often when I attend Nigerian community functions or just end up somewhere where there is a lot of Nigerians, I get asked about my conversion to Islam. Almost all of the time, the conversation ends up leading to my interlocutor trying to get me to accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour and abandon the “demonic” religion that has destroyed Nigeria. I politely refuse. I know many Muslims reading this will think: “How Islamophobic of those Nigerians to do that to you sister!” Well, the truth is, I get where they are coming from. I don’t think Islam has “ruined” Nigeria (Oh dear, now some Nigerian is going to write me a comment elucidating in great detail about just how Islam has ruined Nigeria…I’ve totally given them an opening.) However, I do believe that Islam has been used as a tool to manipulate people into committing acts of aggression against non-Muslim communities. It’s far more convenient for the Muslim religious and political leadership (remember the North of Nigeria is a caliphate) to distract their people from challenging their corruption and bad governance by blaming Christians for why they have no jobs and their region is so underdevelopped. If it wasn’t Islam being used to do this it would have been something else, like ethnicity or language. This is an old story.

Interreligious dialogue between Muslims and Nigerian Christians in diaspora would be really useful but unfortunately, most Muslims involved in this work really just want to talk to White Christians (I’m discussing the Canadian context, things might be different in the US…hopefully). Also, often it is only between such Christian denominations as Roman Catholic, United or Anglican. Pentecostals and other evangelicals are, it almost seems, purposely avoided. However, it’s these denominations that Nigerians and many other Africans often belong to. Also, if there is to be real interreligious dialogue between Muslims and African Christians, Muslims are going to have to leave off this whole triumphalist approach many of us seem to take when discussing our history. We often describe Islam’s spread from the point of view of the conquerors, not the conquered. That’s pretty imperialist. Yes, I said it…Imperialist! Certain Muslim communities have a history of imperialism and seem almost “put out” that the rest of the world refuses to recognize that they are the supreme rulers of the universe. To these Muslims I say: Get Over Yourselves!

Historically speaking, Muslims have not always been the “underdog”, sometimes we were the oppressors. This history has created a legacy of resentment and distrust between Muslims and many other communities. If we hope for reconciliation we need to get off our high camels. We need to be willing to look at our history and current politics as frankly as we demand that White Westerners look at their history and current politics. We will have to learn to speak about the slave trade carried out by Muslims in Africa frankly. We will have to learn to talk about the destruction of indigeneous African religions in the name of Islam frankly. Muslims always emphasize our respect for Christianity and Judaism but those aren’t the only two religions in the world!!! We will have to develop strategies for reconciliation, particularly if we are having a dialogue with people who have actually directly experienced violence in the name of Islam.

Sadly, I don’t know how many Muslims are ready to do this. I find that whatever religious violence happens in Black Africa is brushed off by Muslims who aren’t African as just a sign that Africans are barbaric animals and need to be taught Islam properly by their ethnic superiours. Thanks for the Racism! You are of course totally ignoring the brutal history of violence committed against Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Bahai and other non-Muslim communities by Arab, South Asian, Turkish, Malay, and Persian Muslims. When you actually look at that history it’s pretty clear that we Africans don’t have a monopoly on barbarism. So put that myth to rest right now people!

Nigerian Christians, as well as other African Christians need to learn too that Muslims don’t have a monopoly on barbarism either. I understand that for many Africans Christianity has represented many positive things like the abolition of the slave trade, education, respect for human dignity, and democracy. But that hasn’t been true throughout the history or even present practice of Christianity either in Africa or in the world. It’s all about context. Most violence and oppression happens because people want something the other has: land, food, money, natural resources, women, livestock, access to the sea or a waterway, etc. People will use whatever reason to justify their right to take this stuff from others…religion (ie: Sunni Islam in Afghanistan during the attacks against the Shia Hazara, Christianity during the conquest of the Americas, Protestants versus Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland, Hinduism during the Gujarat Riots), ethnicity, language, level of development, political system (ie: Bush’s “Democracy”).

Attacking Islam as inherently evil isn’t going to help there be reconciliation. Muslims aren’t going anywhere. We are all going to have to learn how to live together on this planet and Muslim and Christian Nigerians are going to have to learn how to live together in Nigeria without one community claiming supremacy over the other or desiring to erase the other’s existence. I’m committed to seeing this reconciliation happen. Are you?

Barack The Magnificent by Mighty Sparrow

Posted in Barack Obama, Blacks and Music, Calypso, Calypso, Countries: Trinidad and Tobago, Reviews, Songs, Trinidadian Music by the woyingi blogger on August 14, 2009

The following are the lyrics to the song “Barack The Magnificent” by legendary singer and self-proclaimed King of the Calypso World, Mighty Sparrow. Originally from Trinidad (born in Grenada), Mighty Sparrow’s career in Calypso spans over 40 years.

He is a naturalized US Citizen who lives in New York. Sparrow endorsed Obama back in 2007 during an exclusive meeting at the Marriott Hotel in Brooklyn.

Mighty Sparrow and Barack Obama

Mighty Sparrow and Barack Obama

Sparrow’s music has always been socially conscious and political. He was a supporter of Eric Williams, who he referred to as “The Doctor” and his People’s National Movement (PNM) which formed in 1955 and led Trinidad and Tobago to independence in 1962.

My favourite Sparrow song is about the Crown Heights Riots between Blacks and Jews back in 1991.

Here’s the link to Mighty Sparrow’s song on Youtube. Sparrow pretty much outlines Obama’s entire election platform in this song. This is why Barack Obama won the election. Sparrow is supposedly working on a whole album dedicated to Obama.
Lyrics: Barack The Magnificent by Mighty Sparrow

The respect of the world that we now lack,
If you want it back, then vote Barack!
Because this time we come out to vote!

Stop the war!
Stop genocide in Darfur!
No matter what,
Get health care for who have not!
The Foreign Relations Committee,
Can attest to his tenacity,
For homeland and job security.

He stood his ground
When the war was a conception,
Said it was wrong,
So he didn’t go along,
Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton
They said of Barack’s opinion,
“He’s a man of resplendent vision!”

I know the warmongers are anxious, ready and set,
Saddam is who posing to us our really main threat,
They magnified Saddam’s offences,
Now we’re paying the consequences,
Everyday our soldiers joining the trenches!

Barack! Barack!
He’s fighting for openness and honest government!
Barack!
He’s doggedly defiant,
Phenomenal strength and wisdom beyond comment!

After you put we in a quagmire!
Not this time!
We come out to vote!

What’s at stake?
Clean up Washington overall!
In the wake
Of the Jack Abramoff scandal.
The middle class done elect a man,
It’s without representation,
This régime has too much corruption!
He wants to see,
A whole energy policy,
Inclusively,
Extent? Comprehensively:
Renewable fuels to clean coal,
There’ll be no price gouging at all,
These things are Barack Obama’s goal.

Entrenched in the crooked régime, we must all, take note,
They’ll be kicking and screaming at me, so we all must vote!
By not exercising these rights,
It’s refusing to see the light,
Democrats! Rise up! Stand up and fight!

Barack! Barack!
On the Senate Affair Committee he’s a giant!
Barack!
Dignifiedly resilient,
And with rock star status he’s Barack The Magnificent!

You talk about how you won’t cut and run,
Rumsfeld and Rove, that’s what they done!
But not this time!
We come out to vote!
Not so government work!

As a grad,
From both Columbia and Harvard,
This GI lad,
Want all others to study hard,
We’re the wealthiest in less respects,
Without proper health insurance,
Walter Reed Hospital, for instance.
Quality check!
Every wounded soldier should get,
Not abject neglect,
All providers must give a heck!
Health care must be affordable
And easily accessible,
Make existentialism enjoyable!
Without that we could be living in pure misery,
Psychological, mental, even insanity.
Loving husband, father of two,
That is Obama’s point of view,
Religiously-urged family value.

Barack! Barack!
Civil rights lawyer who taught constitutional law.
Barack!
Super terrific, I quote,
“Candidate of note!”
So, make sure he gets your vote!

Subpoenaing them gets you no answer!
The Attorney-General can’t remember!
Not this time!
We come out to vote!

We know he’s young,
But, with the Wisdom of Solomon,
Not like that one!
He has experience, look what he’s done!
Insurgents have just one focus:
That’s to put a hurting on us.
Worldwide security must be enforced!

Immigration
Could even get further outta hand,
The border plan,
He’ll protect in legal fashion
Undocumenteds would get time,
They’ll have to atone for their crime,
Criminals would be kicked out, behind!
Employers who hire illegals and who outsource,
Know it’s unconstitutional and time to change course,
Special interests ain’t facing facts,
Illiteracy and slavery could last,
Disenfranchisement gone, the time has passed!

Barack! Barack!
The first black President to lead this mighty nation!
Barack!
We’ll regain worldwide respect
with Obama’s vision and excellent comprehension!

The respect of the world we now lack,
If you want it back, then vote Barack!
Not this time!
We come out to vote!

Read the article Singing Obama’s Praises about all the reggae and calypso songs written about Obama and presented at this year’s Canadian Calypso Monarch Finals.

Poem: Spirit of the Wind by Gabriel Okara

Posted in African Literature, Countries: Nigeria, Nigerian Literature, Peoples: The Ijo by the woyingi blogger on August 14, 2009

Spirit of the Wind by Gabriel Okara

The storks are coming now
white specks in the silent sky.
They had gone north seeking
fairer climes to build their homes
when here was raining.

They are back with me now
spirits of the wind,
beyond the gods’ confining hands
they go north and west and east,
instinct guiding.

But willed by the gods
I’m sitting on this rock
watching them come and go
from sunrise to sundown,
with the spirit urging within.

And urging, a red pool stirs,
and each ripple is
the instinct’s vital call,
a desire in a million cells
confined.

O God of the gods and me,
shall I not heed
this prayer-bell call,
the noon angelus,
because my stork is caged
in singed hair and dark skin?

Poem: The Call of the River Nun by Gabriel Okara

Posted in African Literature, Countries: Nigeria, Nigerian Literature, Peoples: The Ijo by the woyingi blogger on August 14, 2009

This is Gabriel Okara’s famous poem.
The Nun is formed when the Niger River splits in two, forming the Nun and Forcados rivers. This poem is all the more poignant now to Ijaws because Shell is dredging the River Nun .

The Call of the River Nun

I hear your call!
I hear it far away;
I hear it break the circle of these crouching hills.

I want to view your face again and feel your cold embrace;
or at your brim to set myself and inhale your breath;
or like the trees, to watch my mirrored self unfold and span my days with song from the lips of dawn.
I hear your lapping call!
I hear it coming through; invoking the ghost of a child listening, where river birds hail your silver-surfaced flow.

My river’s calling too!
Its ceaseless flow impels my found’ring canoe down its inevitable course.
And each dying year brings near the sea-bird call, the final call that stills the crested waves and breaks in two the curtain of silence of my upturned canoe.
O incomprehensible God!
Shall my pilot be my inborn stars to that final call to Thee.
O my river’s complex course?

Further Reading:

Interview with Gabriel Okara in the Sun News Online

Interview with Gabriel Okara in African Writing Online

Interview with Gabriel Okara, an Ijaw Writer

I want to devout a large portion of my blog to sharing my knowledge of Nigerian History, Literature and Culture with my readers.

Nigerian Literature is probably more well known internationally than the literature of other African countries but it is still not read a much as it should be.

This article is a great interview with a famous Ijaw writer, Gabriel Okara, which originally appeared in the Nigerian Sun News Online.

It’s also a great survey of some pivotal events in Nigerian History, such as the Biafran War.

My father met Okara’s daughter and through her I was able to have a short exchange through e-mail with Gabriel Okara himself. I intend to write a review of his novel, The Voice, soon for my blog.

Unfortunately, this article also highlights the lack of financial support given to Nigeria’s great artists.


Writer saw me pushing my old car and Gov gave me a new one -Gabriel Okara

By NWAGBO NNENYELIKE
Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Although he has just 17 years left to become a centenarian, Gabriel Okara, the great African poet, is still very active and agile. The octogenarian writer, whose poem, The Call of the River Nun, won the best literature award 51 years ago in the Nigerian Festival of Arts, developed his writing career through self-education and reading. This took him to several libraries, including that of Oxford University, England. The outcome of this reading habit made him one of the main literary figures not only in his country and Africa, but also around the globe.

The Ijaw-born poet, who is reputed for projecting African world-view, has also argued in favour of indigenous languages. He has reasoned that English language can be well manipulated to express African cultural values. This is what he experiments in his popular novel, The Voice.

Many of his poems are embedded with Ijaw imageries and symbols. And because he abhors injustice in whatever form, the poet told Daily Sun that he stood on the side of Biafra during the civil war as a propaganda officer and later, as the poet who was able to write so many war poems.

Background

I was born in 1921 at Boumandi in Bayelsa State. I attended the village school and also primary school in Kaiama from where I was awarded government scholarship to Government College, Umuahia. I left the college in 1940. That was during the Second World War. I had wanted to join the Air Force but because I failed the medical test, I joined the British Airways. I was transferred to the Gambia from where I came back to Nigeria. I have been a widower for many years. My wife died in 1983. Remarry? Oh! I do not want to talk about that but I have four children.

Information service/Journalism

All the while I was in the Airways, I was reading and writing. Then when I came to Nigeria from the Gambia, I joined the media. It was in Enugu when my poem, The Call of the River Nun, won the best award for literature in Nigeria Festival of Arts in 1953. From then, I continued writing. I later became the information officer in the Eastern Regional Government. I ran a number of courses in British Information Services Centre, London. Also, I was in Northwestern University, USA where I studied Comparative Journalism and Public Relations. That was a special programme for foreign journalists.

My role in the civil war

I was the head of the information service when the civil war broke out. I was on the side of Biafra, tagged the rebels. I wrote many war poems some of which were included in my first poetry book, The Fisherman’s Invocation, which won the Commonwealth prize in 1979. I did not go to the warfront as a soldier. I was the director of the cultural division of the Propaganda Directorate. I worked with Comrade Uche Chukwumerije and Dr. Eke. I have not heard much of Eke now, but they were the top directors.

Biafran intellectuals/Emeka Ojukwu

They were those attuned intellectually to the course of Biafra, because they were convinced that it was a right and just course. People like Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi and myself who is not an Igbo and many others. The Biafran leader, Emeka Ojukwu, sent three of us to the US during the war to tell the world about the fate of Biafra. This was to let the world know that it was not just soldiers but that intellectuals joined in the fight, too. We read our literary works during the tour.

After the war

I was absorbed back into the civil service which had by then been created. I set up the Rivers State newspaper, The Tide, from scratch. Again, I set up Rivers State Television. I became commissioner for Information and Broadcasting in 1975.

How I started

I was propelled by the interest in writing, reading and the curiosity to know. Early in life, I knew I was going to write even as I was at the Government College, Umuahia. In fact I thought I was going to be a Fine Artists. I painted so well in water colour. But later I came to realise that I’m more talented in writing poetry. So I started and continued with it. I cannot remember the first poem I ever wrote but I wrote, a lot and even short stories till the time I wrote the poem that won the literature award in 1953.

The Call of the River Nun

In this poem, I was trying to remember my life as a child born at the bank of River Nun; how peaceful, joyous and beautiful life was at that time. Then coming into life as an adult in a strange place like Enugu, I found that things were not what I thought they would be. As a child, everything was rosy and beautiful. But as an adult, I came face to face with the realities of life and the various challenges people contend with. People follow unscrupulous ways to get along, shoving other people aside in a crowd to move on. It became a matter of survival of the fittest.

Ijaw/riverine world view

Ijaw man does everything of his in the water. He derives his livelihood in the river and other water related things. His way of life is the water. That is his culture.

African Literature

There are about three schools of thought as to what African literature is. One said you do not have to write in a special way that your Africaness would emerge with respect to what you write in any foreign language. The other group went to the extreme to argue that the only authentic African Literature must be written in the indigenous language of the writer. Mine is the mid-way. We can adapt the metropolitan language, but use it in such a way that it will suit our own way and the idea we want to express in our own language. That is the result you find in my novel, The Voice.

Inspiration

It is all about being very sensitive to what happens around me. I see things in the way that others would not see them. For instance, in my ideal country, I think of a corruption-free country because it is corruption that pervades all sectors of the society. The reality of corruption in the society conflicts with my own corruption-free society. It is like singing. What makes the singer sing may be the feeling of joy or sorrow. This feeling can equally be expressed in poetry or in prose. So I have, in most cases, expressed my feeling using poems.

Symbols and images

I use them a lot in my poems. The Fisherman’s Invocation, for example, is full of symbolism. I am talking about the gaining of our desire, the independence. That is the fight for victory. After the victory dance and the palm wine in the head, we have to face governance. In the poem, I have used the reverie Ijaw symbols and images as well as tradition to present the experience. In most cases, I use universal imageries. For instance, in the same The Fisherman’s Invocation, I used Midwife which is known everywhere. That is to say that when you write, your culture is bound to reflect and also universal culture.

Block

At times people want to write, but it will not flow. In my own case, it does not happen very often Whenever it happens I leave that particular piece to sleep for days, weeks, months and even for years before I start it again. But I will be writing other things. My best writing time is in the night.

Christopher Okigbo

He was a very good friend of mine. We used to gather, form a poetry group, read and criticise our poems. That was when we were all young. Apart from poems, we used to talk about the state of the nation. Wole Soyinka used to be in the group.

Writing for children

I write for children just like Chinua Achebe does. We all learnt a lot in Government College, Umuahia. But Achebe and the rest of them were my juniors. Most of the teachers that taught us were young graduates from Oxford and Cambridge who were very sound. The library was filled with books. So I feel that it is to nurture the reading as well as writing habit of children which I equally acquired in the college by writing for them. It will also help to implant the idea of honesty, bravery, hard work and good behaviour while they are young because most of us imbibed same as children. Apart from school, my father taught me early in life that it is better to tell the truth and die than to live in falsehood. And that if I must be anything in life, I must work hard for it. These have been my guiding principles.

State of Nigerian writers

Many people work, retire and live on pension. But the case of writers is quite different because they are independent. Writers are self-employed and live by our writing. That is the only thing we have. We gain very little in terms of cash reward. This is because many people stop reading immediately they leave school. In fact, generally, poets do not have money. Only textbook writers make money these days because their works are used in school. But then the money they make is still small. Ours is if the Ministry of Education recommends our creative work, you make money during that period. When the book is no longer required, nothing again. Worst still, there is the case of piracy. Of course, the copyright law is not effective because nobody is really enforcing it.

State of poetry in Nigeria

There are some young writers whose poems are good. But many also have wrong ideas about poetry. They feel they will not make money by writing poems. So when they are in school, they ask what are they going to do with poetry when they leave school. They conclude that with something like Engineering or Law, they can make money. As such, they do not develop interest in poetry. Indeed, the state of poetry is that people do not read poems for the sake of reading them but for examinations. Many people do not read at all. Some think that poetry is a foreign thing. I ran a class in Imo State University and I told the students that poetry exists with us, that we have it in our villages. The traditional songs we sing and ballads are all poetry. And that is how poetry started in Europe before it was written down. I told them to write down in the native language some of their traditional songs like dirges, the songs at marriages and other events. They did and I asked them to read and sing them. Later I asked them to translate them to English. After the exercise, they were all happy. They accompanied these songs with dances. Of course, in African tradition, songs go with dance. You cannot stand still when you sing as the Europeans do. It was a great revelation to them.

Literature in Nigeria

There is a wrong idea about literature in this country, especially among the youths. They think that anything written is publishable. I am saying this out of experience. Many bring what they have written for me to help them get a publisher. But publishing companies are commercial enterprises. They want to make money out of what a writer has written and give him a certain percentage. So it is not easy for some works to be published. But those who have the urge to write should continue. Opportunity would surely come for the publishers or the general public to discover them.

Car gift to me

The Executive Governor of Bayelsa State, Chief Diepriye Alamieyeseigha, presented a brand new 406 Peugeot to me on my birthday. I was told that the Secretary-General of Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Bayelsa State branch, told the governor that he saw me pushing my old car trying to get it started along the street. The governor was touched as to why a great man like me push a car when I should ride comfortably in my car. I am grateful to the governor for that kind gesture.

My coming volume

My next volume of poems is with the publishers in the US. The title is, The Dreams, His Vision. I chose that title because most of the poems are about debacle and suffering under the military dictatorship. The dreamer is a man who dreamt about the future of his country and joined the mass movement of the people, became a leader of the masses and was overthrown by the dictators. The dreamer is somebody who would come and deliver this nation from the grip of military dictatorship. What made me use the title is Moshood Abiola. When he was campaigning for the presidency, he said, “You the people of this country have made me what I am today. And I am going to give you back when I become the president.’’ I respected him for that statement which is a great dream, but he never lived to realise it. So he is the dreamer in that poem.

My publications

The books I have written are, The Fisherman’s Invocation (poetry), The Voice (prose), and a lot of books on children, like Little Snakes and Little Frog.

Further Reading:

The Voice, a novel by Gabriel Okara

Another Interview with Okara on African Writing Online

Nigeria and Me: Am I Nigerian?

Posted in Blacks and Mixed Race Identity, The Woyingi Blogger by the woyingi blogger on August 14, 2009

In this blog, I’m going to discuss a lot of my issues around my “Nigerian” heritage.

Am I Nigerian? And if I am, what does that mean?

I know many of my friends who were born here but whose parents came from another country also have a lot of issues around cultural identity.

In my case, it is much more complicated because I was not raised by my Nigerian father. He was deported when I was very young. I have no memory of him. I only found a picture of him when I was eight years old, stuffed behind the keys of my mother’s typewriter.

But I was always reminded of my father everytime I looked in the mirror. I was black…really black, and my mother was white.

I didn’t look like the other mixes in my neighborhood (remember, I grew up in the Ghetto so there was a lot of us). Their fathers had been from New York, Nova Scotia, Jamaica, Trinidad. I was the only one whose father was a straight-up African from the Dark Continent and it showed.

It showed in the courseness of my hair, the width of my nose, the prominance of my cheekbones, the protrusion of my jawline.

Because I could know nothing about my lost father, I tried to compensate by learning as much as I could about Nigeria.

In many ways Nigeria, the nation, the concept, became my father.
Chinua Achebe became my father.
Fela Kuti became my father.
King Sunny Ade became my father.
Wole Soyinka became my father.

But I didn’t know many Nigerians in my real everyday life.

It is only recently, in the last 6 years or so, that I have become acquainted with many Nigerians.

But, in many ways, I am probably much closer to the Somali, Eritrean or Ethiopian community than I am to the Nigerian community because I was raised among these people.
I certainly speak more Somali than Yoruba.

I remember when I was six I was asked to represent Nigeria for a school assembly about Multiculturalism. My teacher knew that my father was Nigerian because when I started school she was curious to know why I was black and my mother was white. She had initially assumed that I was adopted. I explained that my father was from Nigeria and that’s why I was black.

But being black isn’t the same as being Nigerian.

Things have become more confusing now that I have found my father and am trying to build a relationship with him as well as the local Nigerian community.

No longer am I simply the daughter of a Nigerian but I am now the daughther of an Ijaw Nationalist. The local Nigerian community, which is predominantly Yoruba, is convinced that my father is actually a Yoruba (this is because he is from Ondo State, which is dominated by Yorubas but has a large Ijaw minority. Also, my father’s last name is Yoruba because his grandmother was a Yoruba slave).

Nigerians never question my identity as a Nigerian. They adamantly affirm it. However, this comes at the cost of a lot of expectations. For example, when I tried to learn Yoruba, I was constantly made fun of because “I sounded like a white girl!” What did they expect?!!!!!!!!!

Now, there is the pressure to return “home” and reunite with my father, my family, my people, my nation.

But is Nigeria really my “home”? How could it be?

The weight given to my blood lines by Nigerians is something I can’t appreciate.

And isn’t my inability to appreciate this a sign of my total lack of “Nigerianess”?

Ya, I’ve read Things Fall Apart, but so have many readers with no connection to Nigeria.

It hasn’t made them Nigerians.

So, what am I?

I would love to hear readers’ thoughts on this post or your own issues around cultural identity.