Zahrah, the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu
Graphia Books, 2005
“A fantastical travelogue into the unknown of a young girl’s fears, and the magical world that surrounds her town. Written in the spirit of Clive Barker’s Abarat, with a contemporary African sensibility. Okorafor-Mbachu’s imagination is delightful.” Nalo Hopkinson
If Jamaican Canadian Fantasy writher Nalo Hopkinson recommends something, I’m going to read it. I wasn’t disappointed by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu’s novel Zahrah, The Windseeker, although it did leave me wanting more. The novel is ideal for young adults. It is the winner of the 2008 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa (Although published in the United States in 2005, it was only published in Nigeria in 2008). There are elements of it that reminded me of Alice in Wonderland. Zahrah, The Windseeker is a simple tale, which I think would translate well into a graphic novel or animated film. The story begins with Zahrah, who is in early adolescence, and lives in the Ooni Kingdom on the planet Ginen. Reflecting on her birth, she explains:
When I was born, my mother took one look at me and laughed.
“She’s…dada,” said the doctor, looking surprised.
“I can see that,” my mother replied with a smile. She took me in her arms and gently touched one of the thick clumps of hair growing from my little head. I had dadalocks, and woven inside each one of those clumps was a skinny, light green vine. Contrary to what a lot of people think, these vines didn’t sprout directly from my head. Instead, they were more like plants that had attached themselves to my hair as I grew inside my mother’s womb. Imagine that! To be born with vines growing in your hair! But that’s the nature of dada people, like myself. (p. vii)
Zahrah, The Windseeker is a fascinating book, particularly as an example of African fantasy and science fiction. Okorafor-Mbachu, a Nigerian American, incorporates several aspects of traditional Southern Nigerian culture into the book. For example, Zahrah’s mother is a market woman, a very common occupation for women in Southern Nigeria. The central city of the Ooni Kingdom is Ile-Ife, which is also one of the most important cities in Southern Nigeria, often seen as the city of origin for several ethno-cultural communities in Nigeria. Zahrah regularly reads about a superhero named Chukwu; Chukwu means infinite power and is the name given to the supreme deity by Igbos.
Another wonderful aspect of the novel is how the people of Ooni Kingdom incorporate technology with nature. Computer Operating Systems are grown, so are buildings of all kinds, including sky scrappers. The best parts of the book are the descriptions of the Ooni Kingdom itself. This is why I think that Zahrah, The Windseeker, would work best as a graphic novel or animated film or, at least, an illustrated text.
Our planet Ginen, is a world of vegetation; there isn’t one part of it that’s not touched by plants, trees, vines, grasses, or bushes. At least this is what explorers who claim to have traveled all the way around the world say. Cutting down trees or attempting to clear plots of land is a waste energy. Within days, things will creep back in. But the people of Ooni don’t bother to fight nature. Instead, they try to team up with it. This is one of the old ways that the people of Ooni have not forgotten.
However, there are times when people avoid nature at all costs. My small town of Kirki is right on the border of the Forbidden Greeny Jungle, a vast untamed wilderness that covers thousands of miles. No one ever thinks of venturing there. It’s full of the most savage madness. As the old saying goes. “You go into the forbidden jungle and even your ghost won’t come out.”
In Kirki, where fear of the unknown was strong and where so much of the past had been pushed aside and forgotten, my dada hair was like a big red badge on my forehead that said, “I don’t fit in and never will.” It kind of made me like the forbidden jungle. (p. xii)
We follow Zahrah as she enters puberty and discovers that she has the power to fly. But there is no one to ask about her ability as she doesn’t know other people who have dadalocks. At the instigation of her best friend Dari, the only person she’s told her secret to, she ventures into the forbidden Dark Market were she meets Nsibi, a fellow dada whose parents come from far away lands. She assures her that there is nothing wrong with her ability and that she should practice it more.
Dari once again encourages Zahrah to break the rules and travel into the Forbidden Greeny Jungle where she can practice flying without fear of being observed. But when Dari is poisoned by one of the many strange creatures in the Forbidden Greeny Jungle, Zahrah must abandon all her fears and travel alone deep into the Forbidden Greeny Jungle to find a cure. There she encounters many bizarre, deadly, and helpful creatures that have never been encountered by residents of the Ooni Kingdom before.
I just wished that we would have had a chance to learn more about why people in the Ooni Kingdom had lost so much knowledge of their past. Also, just where is the Planet Ginen and what is its relationship to Earth? In the novel, Earth is actually a legendary place, something that Dari, in his studies of mysterious and forbidden things, is curious to learn more about. I would have felt better as a reader if when finishing this novel, I was assured that this was the beginning of a series and some of these mysteries would be solved over the course of a few books. But, Zahrah, The Windseeker appears to be a stand alone novel, however the Planet Ginen and the Ooni Kingdom do appear in other works by Okorafor-Mbachu so if you want answers, I guess you have to look there.
Review of Zahrah, The Windseeker on Strange Horizons
Excerpt from Zahrah, The Windseeker available online
Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu’s Website
Profile of Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu by Publishers’ Weekly
Second-Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta, Flamingo 1989
Buchi Emecheta is one of Nigeria’s most well-known writers. She managed to raise her five children on her own, go to university, eventually achieving a Ph.D from the University of London, and write over 20 novels, plays, and short stories. She was honoured with the Order of the British Empire in 2005.
Emecheta was born on July 21, 1944 in Lagos, Nigeria. Her parents were Ibos who had left the Ibo town of Ibusa (Igbuzo in Ibo) located in what is now called Delta State. She moved to London, England to join her husband in 1962. Second-Class Citizen (1974), her first published novel, is semi-autobiographical, based on her childhood in Lagos and early life in London with her husband before she divorced him.
Adah, the character based on Buchi, is smart and determined to study despite the fact that there is not much means or will to have her educated particularly after her father dies. Adah eventually marries Francis and together they move to London, England in the early sixties. Life is hard. Not only is there racism which makes it difficult to find accommodations, but Francis himself becomes Adah’s greatest obstacle.
Adah is the primary breadwinner for the young and growing family with her job as a librarian. Francis becomes physically abusive towards Adah and cheats on her. Although Francis is definitely portrayed to be an obnoxious bully it is clear that Adah doesn’t entirely hate him. She understands why he’s ended up this way: “Francis was not a bad man, just a man who could no longer cope with the over-demanding society he found himself in. (p. 110)” This is sadly probably true for many immigrant men or any man who does not have the ability to cope with failure and the setbacks and challenges of life. But why do men often need to feel power over someone in order to feel better about themselves? Where does this need come from?
Adah is a survivor and this novel is the story of her survival. It is also a fascinating portrait of Black immigrant life in sixties London. Despite what could be quite depressing subject matter, Second Class Citizen is actually an easy read and more often than not quite funny. I have actually reread Second Class Citizen several times and I never stop finding great character portraits and home truths.
Interesting Passages from the novel:
Adah is a Christian but her husband is a Jehovah’s Witness. But he wasn’t always a Jehovah’s Witness. While at the maternity ward Adah meets a women who waited 17 years to have her first child. Adah wonders what Francis would have done if it had taken 17 years for her to give him a son:
Suppose she had had to wait seventeen years for all that? She would have either died of psychological pressures or another wife would have been bought for Francis. He would have declared himself a Moslem, for he was once a Moslem when he was younger. Francis was like the Vicar of Bray. He changed his religion to suit his whims. When he realized that equipping Adah with birth-control gear would release her from the bondage of child-bearing, Francis went Catholic. When he started failing his examinations and was feeling very inferior to his fellow Nigerians, he became a Jehovah’s Witness. (p. 122)
Adah befriends Janet, a young Cockney girl who is the wife of a Muslim Nigerian, Mr. Babalola. He is hardly an endearing character. In the following passage, one of the sources of the conflict between Southerners (predominantly Christian) and Northerners (predominantly Muslim) is outlined, of course with a Southern Ibo bias.
Mr. Babalola had come to England, just like Francis and Adah, to study. But, unlike Adah and Francis, he had been single, and had a Northern Nigerian Scholarship. This meant that he had more money to spend, because the Northerners, unlike the over-educated Southerners, would do anything to encourage the men to really get educated so that they could come home and obtain the jobs in the North which were then going to the Southerners. Mr. Babalola was, therefore, a very rich student.
Rumour had it that he had a glossy flat and was always entertaining. This was no surprise to anyone who knew the Northerners. They liked to spend their money, to really enjoy what they had, and to them what they had was theirs only today, not tomorrow or the day after. Allah would take care of the future. That was certainly Babalola’s philosophy of life. (p. 52-53)
Janet, who gets pregnant at sixteen by a West Indian, gets kicked out by her parents because she refuses to give up her baby. Babalola ends up taking her in and using her as a party favour for his friends. As Emecheta writes: “…Janet was being offered to any black man who wanted to know how a white woman looked undressed. Most of Adah’s neighbours had had their sexual adventures with Janet.”
However, this all changes when a broke Babalola (His Northern Nigerian Scholarship is inexplicably revoked) realizes that Janet can receive enough social assistance for herself and her baby to pay his rent. Babalola decides to keep Janet all to himself and she bears him a child. Babalola, like Francis, seems content to depend on women financially, while still treating these women like servants.
Adah reflects on being the child of Ibos from Ibuza living in Lagos:
Well, Adah thought she was eight at the time when her mother and all the other society women were busying themselves to welcome the very first lawyer to their town Ibuza. Whenever Adah was told that Ibuza was her own, she found it difficult to understand. Her parents, she was told, came from Ibuza, and so did many of her aunts and uncles. Ibuza, she was told, was a beautiful town. She had been taught at an early age that the people of Ibuza were friendly, that the food there was fresh, the spring water was pure and the air was clean. The virtues of Ibuza were praised so much that Adah came to regard being born in a God=forsaken place like Lagos as a misfortune. Her parents said that Lagos was a bad place, bad for bringing up children because here they picked up the Yoruba-Ngbati accent.(p 7-8)
Adah reflects on her social isolation in England and how this relates to domestic abuse:
In England, she couldn’t go to her neighbour and babble out troubles as she would have done in Lagos, she had learned not to talk about her unhappiness to those with whom she worked, for this was a society where nobody was interested in the problems of others. If you could not bear your problems any more, you could always do away with yourself. That was allowed, too. Attempted suicide was not regarded as a sin. It was a way of attracting attention to one’s unfortunate situation. And whose attention do you attract? The attention of paid listeners. Listeners who make you feel that you are an object to be studied, diagnosed, charted and tabulated. Listeners who refer to you as ‘a case’. You don’t have the old woman next door who, on hearing an argument going on between a wife and husband, would come in to slap the husband, telling him off and all that, knowing that her words would be respected because she was old and experienced. (p. 72-73)
Adah reflects on the role of religion in her life in England:
There was no time to go to church and pray. Not in England. It took her years to erase the image of the Nigerian church which usually had a festive air. In England, especially in London, ‘church’ was a big grey building with stained-glass windows, high ornamental ceilings, very cold, full of rows and rows of empty chairs, with the voice of the vicar droning from the distant pulpit, crying like the voice of John the Baptist lost in the wilderness. In London, churches were cheerless.
She could not go to any of them because it made her cry to see such beautiful places of worship empty when, in Nigeria, you could hardly get a seat if you came late. You had to stand outside and follow the service through a microphone. But you were happy through it all, you were encouraged to bellow out the songs-that bellowing took away some of your sorrows. Because most of the hymns seem to be written by psychologists. One was always sure of singing or hearing something that would come near to the problem you had in mind before coming to church. In England you were robbed of such comfort.
London, having thus killed Adah’s congregational God, created instead a personal God who loomed large and really alive. She did not have to go to church to see this One. (p. 164-165)
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,
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
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Voice, a novel by Gabriel Okara