Archive for April 2008

Endless Strictures On Achebe’s Female Characterisation

April 23, 2008

By Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye

Recently, (Saturday April 12, 2008), I was at the National Theatre, Lagos, because of Prof Chinua Achebe, Africa’s best known and most widely read author, who many regard as the indisputable father and rallying point of African Literature. The Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) had organized a forum to commemorate the Fiftieth Anniversary of the publication of Achebe’s classic novel, Things Fall Apart, published in London by William Heinemann in June 1958.

CHINUA ACHEBE

I was held back at the office by some engagements, and by the time I arrived at the venue, I had missed a substantial part of the ‘Interactive Session’. I came in while Segun Olusola, former ambassador and arts enthusiast, was concluding his speech. As I sat down, I heard him paying glowing tributes to Achebe and his novel and saying how happy he was to be at the event. He then announced that he would also grace the Awka event in honour of Achebe and Things Fall Apart, coming up more than a week later.

Achebe evokes a very special kind of pleasant, soothing feelings in most people that have read either his novels or essays. And this was evident in the emotion-laden speeches made by various speakers at the National Theatre that weekend.

The literary patriarch and icon was absent at the ceremony, but his image loomed large everywhere, and this, mind you, was not because of those large posters and billboards bearing his photograph (and, of course, the emblem of the main sponsors, Fidelity Bank Plc) displayed at strategic points by the organizers.

There is something profoundly unique about Achebe and his work that confers dignity and awe on any event organized around him. The spirit of the man breathes through the pages of his works, giving you the very palpable feeling that the gifted story teller and meticulous teacher himself is by your very side, as you read, physically telling you his most enchanting tales in the very unique way that only him can tell them. His wit, deep insights, the overpowering wisdom he conveys with such sagely precision, simple and subtle diction and disarming style, the impressive imageries he effortlessly conjures, and the pleasant local colour he so generously splashes on his narratives, never cease to overwhelm. Achebe is one writer whose reputation and looming image was neither built nor enhanced by any prize. What further glamour can occasional decorations add to an already very colourful and big masquerade? The man rather dignifies any prize he decides to accept, and not the other way round. For instance, as Achebe and Things Fall Apart are celebrated across the world this season, only an insignificant few consider it necessary to recall that a few months ago, he was awarded the Man Booker Prize – a very important no doubt. Such information, though great in its own right, makes little or no difference to the man’s already solidly established stature.

Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye

It is impossible to read Things Fall Apart without visualizing the village of Umuofia in its alluring freshness in the warm embrace of rich nature in its most exciting vivacity and purity. This is the only novel I know written by an African that has acquired such a stature and influence, as to be so celebrated in such a grand fashion.

No, doubt, Chinua Achebe is Africa’s rare gift to the world, and Nigeria should never cease to be glad and grateful that this giant emerged from its loins. A focused and consistent writer, the views expressed by Achebe in the sixties and seventies, as the nature and boundaries of what is today known as African literature were being meticulously defined, have remained valid and timeless. They now constitute an invaluable reference material for anyone seeking a better and reliable understanding of Africa, its literature and culture.

With his novels, superb lectures and rich essays, Achebe has been able to compel the world out there to significantly alter their entrenched warped views about Africa. After a particularly brilliant speaking engagement in Canberra, Australia, in the summer of 1973, Professor Manning Clark, a distinguished Australian historian wrote to Achebe and pleaded: “I hope you come back and speak again here, because we need to lose the blinkers of our past. So come and help the young to grow up without the prejudices of their forefathers…” I find this display of sincerity very touching.

It is interesting that Things Fall Apart enjoys significant readership across cultures and races, and its message continues to register lasting impacts that are simply rare and peculiar. Not a few Nigerians can recall the instant celebrity status they had suddenly assumed or even some favours that had come their way, in one remote part of the world or the other, just because they had let it be known that they were from Chinua Achebe’s country. Achebe has also remarkably excelled as a critic and essayist. His 1975 Chancellor’s Lecture at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, entitled, “An Image Of Africa: Racism In Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness,” which I am never of tired of re-reading, has not only significantly altered the nature and direction of Conrad criticism, but is now widely regarded as one of the most influential essays in the criticism of literature in English.

As I listened to several speeches at the National Theatre on that Saturday, I could feel the depth of admiration displayed by the various speakers towards Achebe and his work. The whole thing was moving on well until one lady came up with elaborate praise for Achebe for the significant “improvement” his female characters achieved in Anthills Of the Savannah, unlike what obtained in Things Fall Apart, which we had all gathered to celebrate that afternoon.

Chinua Achebe

 Now, I would easily have ignored and quickly forgotten this comment as “one of those things” one was bound to hear in a “mixed crowd” if I had not also heard such thoughts brazenly expressed by some female scholars whom I thought should be better informed. For instance, I was at a literary event in Port Harcourt some years ago when a female Professor of Literature announced with the excitement of someone who had just discovered another earth: When Achebe created his earlier female characters, we complained; then he responded by giving us Clara (in No Longer At Ease), and we still complained; then he gave us Eunice (in A Man Of The People) and we still asked for more; and then he gave us Beatrice (in Anthills Of The Savannah). Unfortunately, I have encountered thoughts even more pedestrian than this boldly flaunted in several literary essays by women and some men.

Honestly, I had thought that this matter had long been resolved and forgotten. It should be clear (and I should think that this has been sufficiently stressed) that whatever perceived differences in the various female characters created by Achebe are a function of the prevailing realities in the different settings and periods that produced them, and Achebe’s ability to record those realties so accurately should not be construed to mean that he also “celebrates” them (as some fellows have wrongly imputed) or advocates their sustenance.

In his lecture at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, specially slated to precede the very memorable Eagle On Iroko Symposium, organized to mark Achebe’s sixtieth birthday in 1990, Prof Dan Izevbaye described Achebe as “history’s eyewitness.” Today Achebe is being widely hailed for using his first novel, Things Fall Apart, to change the distorted images of Africa celebrated in the heaps of mostly concocted historical and literary accounts about the continent and its people by Western writers. But Achebe did not see any wisdom in countering these distortions with greater distortions. He merely presented reality with both its glowing and unedifying sides with exceptional insight, penetration and grasp of the real picture which the foreigner, whose impressions were mostly coloured by many years of deep-seated prejudices, was incapable of capturing.

Buchi Emecheta

It is a credit to Achebe’s mastery of his art that even though his readers may be shocked, for instance, at the bloodcurdling murder of Ikemefuna, they would still find it nearly impossible to categorize the incident as one more evidence of savage pleasure in wanton bloodletting. The reader is able to see an Okonkwo with genuine human feelings that are even more appealing than those of the whitman who was attempting to “civilize” him, but who would have no qualms wiping out an entire community, as happened in Abame community! Indeed, no sane person would endorse any religious observances that prescribe human sacrifices, but the reader would most likely catch himself empathizing with a highly traumatized and sorrowful Okonkwo who had killed the boy as a national duty prescribed by the deity he and his people worshipped at that time. Our dilemma is compounded when we see that the same community that sacrificed Ikemefuna would later banish Okonkwo for accidentally killing a man with his gun during a ceremony in honour of dead great man. That is the reality of that era. And so, when Achebe also records reality as it pertained to gender placement in Okonkwo’s time, he is only playing effectively his role as “history’s eye-witness.” Maybe, the feminists would have been happier if he had recreated Okonkwo’s community to suit their notions and expectations, and in effect fall guilty of the same charges of distortions that have trailed colonialist portrayals of Africa in many works. We seem to forget, at times, that Achebe was writing like someone who was part of that society and not some foreign observer desperate to ‘confirm’ some preconceived notion. Umuofia was a society in transition, and the author was able to capture the prevailing mood of the time, instead of imposing on it his own idea of how the society should be.

I agree with Prof. Ian Watts in his book, The Rise Of The Novel, that there must be “a correspondence between the literary work and the reality which it imitates.” I wonder what kind of novel Achebe would have produced if he had made a couple of women sit with the elders of Umuofia to deliberate on the banishment of Okonkwo, or even the killing of Ikemefuna. Granted, that would have earned him the boundless admiration of certain feminists, but the novel would have been unrecognizable to anyone familiar with the subsisting features in the Igbo traditional environment in the period Things Fall Apart or Arrow Of God was set.

Ifi Amadiume

But despite the “emancipation and empowerment” Chinua Achebe’s later female characters were said to have achieved, some faint murmur of dissatisfaction could still be heard in some feminized critical circles. In a review of Anthills Of The Savannah in the journal, OKIKE (No 30: 1990), for instance , Prof Ifi Amadiume blames Achebe and his novel for failing or refusing to give “women power” insisting that the female characters in the book are still existing to “service” the men. But she appears to overstate her case when she alleges that Ikem, one of the principal characters in the novel, despite being a “great poet, great journalist and nationalist” could “at a personal level” still stoop so low to “sexually exploit a grassroots girl.”

Now, what my reading of the novel showed, however (that is, if we read the same book – Achebe’s Anthills Of The Savannah), is that Ikem was very proud of Elewa, taking her to social meetings with his highly placed and educated friends, including an expatriate administrator of the nation’s General Hospital and a visiting British Editor of a poetry journal. In fact, during a lecture he gave at the University of Bassa, Ikem proudly announced Elewa’s mother as his future mother-in-law. He also did not forget to inform his audience that his fiancée’s mother was a market woman, a petty trader at Gelegele Market.

Now, while not endorsing Ikem’s lifestyle (since I detest pre-marital sex), I fail to see a case of sexual exploitation here – Ikem was genuinely in a flourishing relationship with a lady he wanted to settle down with. How they eventually choose to spend the night — in the same room or in different rooms — should not be the concern of any nosey feminist. From all indications, Elewa and Ikem were happy in that relationship, and that was all that mattered. There is never ever a perfect union, but people have been able, by sacrifices, forbearance and accommodations of each other’s faults and weaknesses, where love is alive and well, to make the best of many relationships, and live happily ever after. So, the little matter of Ikem insisting that they would not spend the night together (which was the only point of conflict) is something that can be resolved in the life of the relationship, and I wonder why that should be the headache of any third party?

And, by the way, what is all this noise about “servicing the men” in actions that were purely consensual and mutually pleasurable to both parties who are also adults? Even if His Excellency was removed from office and replaced with a Beatrice (BB) as President of the Republic of Kangan, would that have automatically elevated her above whatever obligations she had discharged towards Chris (and vice-versa) before her status changed? Can it be said in all honesty that BB was subjugated in the novel? Is her character not real? Assuming the nation was not under military rule, which was an aberration, were there any impediments before BB, barring her from aspiring to very high political offices?

Flora Nwapa

Again, wasn’t a strong point also made by the fact that Elewa, despite her poor background and almost no education had no complexes whatsoever socializing with the society’s elite, whether she was able to follow in the discussions or not? No doubt, Achebe could have just changed his story and made Elewa possess a doctorate degree, but can anyone say that the status the author gave her in the novel made her less than real? Certainly, the creative enterprise would yield only boring works if all novels and plays are stampeded into adopting one predictable, feminized pattern.

Now, it is all this insistence by feminists on prescribing strict codes of conducts to govern couples in the privacy of their homes that most people find very revolting. Many women who had uncritically swallowed those ‘great rules and regulations’, and had attempted to implement them in their homes, mainly to underline the fact that they have now been “liberated and empowered,” even when there were no situations in their homes that called for such brazen show of ‘girl-power,’ are today without even any stable homes from where to flaunt their wonderful empowerment. Their marriages have since crashed, leaving them out in the cold, sad and lonely. Only the truthful among them (like the ‘liberated’ Nigerian actress who has been screaming all over the place since her husband left her) would confess that their daily menu ever since have remained regrets and more regrets. This is the point late Professor Zulu Sofola most brilliantly underlined in her play, Sweet Trap. If Ikem was battering Elewa or sneaking her into his house only when his friends would not observe, then Ms. Amadiume would have had a point. But instead of praising Ikem, a nationally celebrated journalist and upper drawer writer and poet, for proposing to marry a barely literate girl like Elewa, Prof Amadiume, would rather ‘batter’ him, having found him guilty of an offence he did not even dream of committing. Men then do not hold the monopoly on battering, after all!

Now, we return to the issue of “giving women power”. I doubt if any novel, or indeed, any book, can boast of the capacity to just take hold of power — political, social or economic — and hand it over to women? That seems to be what female critics are asking for, but as would be seen later, their attempts to compel their own books to do this with indecent haste have unleashed on all of us disastrous and grotesque creative works, with characters, settings and incidents that are so gratuitously padded with several outlandish details and extreme exaggerations, that their stories simply lost their abilities to be true. As a result, many of them have served us with excellent demonstrations of how fiction should not be written.

Zaynab Alkali

But a writer can choose to make some projections, depending on his thrust, and point the way forward. In Anthills Of The Savannah, Beatrice was the only character who was able to look the dreaded His Excellency, the very maximum ruler to whom all the men cringed, in the face and tell him some home truth. We may not endorse what she did to get His Excellency to listen to her, but she has set an example by daring the tiger. Others can now improve on her effort and tactics.

So, whatever power women would acquire (assuming they lack any now) would largely be the outcome of their own conscious effort. And this would clearly be reflected in the literary works that would appear in that period. But care must be taken to ensure that art is not sacrificed on the altar of advocacy. Propaganda is important, but so also is art. And like Chinua Achebe has warned, virtually all art is propaganda, but not all propaganda is art.

In this vein, therefore, Ms. Katherine Frank has raised very important questions in her article, “Women Without Men: Feminist Novel in Africa,” published in the journal, African Literature Today No 15: “How are we to judge a work which we find politically admirable and true but aesthetically simplistic, empty or boring? What do we make of characters whose credos and pronouncements we endorse but whose human reality we find negligible? … If the writing is inferior, the book becomes a tract and there are far more efficient and effective ways of spreading an ideology than by novels…”

As the first published female novelist from Nigeria, late Flora Nwapa’s objective was to hurriedly “empower” her female characters and place them above the male ones. But in doing this, as evident in her novel, Efuru and the others, she featured ‘liberated’, empowered and highly assertive female characters in a society peopled by mostly weak, grossly irresponsible, non-innovative, non-enterprising, in fact, emasculated men. Art and realism suffered so that ideology and advocacy may thrive. Is Nwapa saying in effect that women are incapable of competing with men that are equally endowed and so can only excel and attain some prominence in an environment inhabited by mostly emasculated men or, in fact, outright imbeciles? How then can success be celebrated when the supposed winner was spared any form of competition? Or like, she demonstrated in One Is Enough, must women become morally irresponsible and hawk their bodies (to the same men they intend to demonstrate the are superior to) to make it in society? There is a huge irony here which neither Nwapa nor the majority of female writers that she inspired saw the need to resolve. Certainly, no decent person would embrace a “liberated” character like Amaka in Nwapa’s One Is Enough, who after a misunderstanding with her husband, abandoned her home, and relocated to Lagos to “fully realize herself” by excelling as a public piss pot in the city of Lagos.

Mybe, Nwapa wanted to use the character of Amaka to give full expression to the overly pernicious doctrine so eloquently promoted by the Egyptian feminist writer, Dr. Nawal El Saadawi, in her book, Woman At Point Zero. Said Saadawi: “A woman’s life is always miserable. A prostitute, however, is a little better off…. All women are prostitutes of one kind or another… the lowest paid body is that of a wife…. A successful prostitute (is) better than a misled saint…. Marriage (is) the system built on the most cruel suffering for women.” (Woman At Point Zero, London &New York: Zed Books, 1983, pp.114, 117,111)

Although some female scholars have made the case that feminism is not monolithic, I keep thinking that they have a responsibility to help us draw a clear boundary between female assertiveness and female extremism, because from what I can see out there, definitions of feminism are mostly situational, and most of the time is solely dependent on the mood and peculiar cravings or experiences of the particular woman defining it at any given time. Indeed, today, whether as a struggle, ideology or movement, feminism is an amorphous and an unnecessarily ambiguous phenomenon. The lesbian, for instance, announces herself as a feminist. The prostitute claims she is “making some kind of protest.” The never-married, unmarriageable single mother is “driving home some point.” The ever-wild nympho-maniac (who ought to have sought help) is “advancing the struggle.” The lady out there with revolting obsession for luring small boys to her nest and cruelly deflowering them is “getting back at the oppressor—man.” The habitually unfaithful wife is “sending out some message.” Now, in the midst of this cacophony of voices, how can we know who is sane? Must otherwise sane women continue to endorse all these ruinous absurdities just to get back at men?

Many critics are agreed that the societies she created in Nwapa’s novels are unrecognizable. But because of her popularity with women empowerment diehards, most other female writers that came after her were easily seduced into adopting her art-murdering style. In my article in The Guardian (Lagos), Sunday, June 1, 1997, p.B4, entitled, “Zainab Akali And Feminist Writers,” which provoked a year-long debate and even name-calling by some female contributors, I was frank about my observation that the works of those female writers “are united by their possession of the same maladies: they are blessed with all the features of fairy tales and myth; they unabashedly distort with indecency and uncanny bravado, sociology and gender images just to make some shallow feminist point; their heroines are spared healthy competitions as they only thrive in outlandish communities peopled by only weak, emasculated, lazy, foolish and insane men.”

Indeed, the “unliberated” Beatrice in Anthills Of The Savannah, achieved all she had by dint of hard work in the midst of equally intelligent and hardworking men, not by “conquering” the men by sleeping around. Her only offence, may be, would be that she was not anti-men, but favoured an environment that promoted equal opportunities for both the male and female to excel. Maybe, she also sinned because she did her best to ensure her proposed marriage to Chris worked.

All I am saying really is that when viewed within the particular environment and period in which they were set, Achebe’s female characters are very real. They are easily recognizable, and I would prefer them any day than the outlandish caricatures offered us as alternatives in many feminist novels.

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scruples2006@yahoo.com

www.ugowrite.blogspot.com

The African Writer Is An Orphan, Says, Chinedu Ogoke, Nigerian Writer

April 20, 2008

[In 2002, Chinedu Ogoke, a Nigerian writer and translator resident in Germany published his first novel, Under Fire. His second novel is being awaited. In this interview with UGOCHUKWU EJINKEONYE, Mr. Ogoke speaks on his work and the state of African Literature in relation to the still thorny issue of audience definition]

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When we talked in September 2003, after the publication of your first novel, Under Fire (2002), you said you already had the outline of another novel, how soon should we expect to read the novel? 

 

2003! That is already an age. You mean I have allowed so much time to pass without coming up with another work? Phew, in that time, two novels ought to have been breathing on the table.

I had thought that what I had had been brought to a stage and so laid out that one should just do a smooth drive and that would be it. How wrong I was. Some pages of the outline, which is elaborate, have gone missing. Snatched away by the wind of time. I built a pattern, though simple, that requires a reorientation to keep it going. I have found myself in an undesirable situation whereby I have to walk through the worlds I meant to depict, or replay events in those contexts. I have to rediscover our people’s speech habits and choice of words to construct such scenes. Something like that. They are not inconclusive outlines, but whole portions gone missing. You cannot insert peanuts for perm kernels and expect a flow. The right attitudes have to be found in the appropriate places.

Besides, my current research work came in and has to get priority attention. That naturally, caused some delays. Unless this current project gets out of the way, the manuscript will be lying where it is at the moment. The research work is boring. I detest conventions, and this is what I am forced to do. Rules here and there. Flowery language may be unwelcome here, which takes away the fun and the urge to move ahead with it. Assuming it were a novel, I wouldn’t need a driving license in every corner or adhering to a thousand traffic rules.

In fact, I work on the novel once in a while as a kind of push for the project at hand. Else even the project will be there, with nothing going. One third of the novel has been written, which includes the last page. Let’s see; by the end of this year, 2008, we can be talking about a conclusion of a second novel. Publishing is something else, for obvious reasons.
 

 

 

Thank you. How much of African and Nigerian Literature is being studied in Germany?

 

 German society is served by as much African Studies as the country requires. A German student who finds himself or herself in a classroom for African Studies understands his or her business there is a foundation for eventual social work in Africa. When one turns to a lecturer of African Studies, the reasons might be different. From the score sheet of African studies, the University of Bayreuth takes the lead here. The spirit for which it has been recognized manifests even now. Presently, it has a series of events that runs like a continuous programme in any university anywhere.

In Mainz, there is the Ethnology Department, which houses the famous Jahn Library. The library is presently headed by a young lady, Dr. Anja Oud. It is awash with African books. The largest collection of African books in the whole world, I am told. This is mere aspiration than the fact, I guess. For all I know, a visitor will see as many books as possible. How they have been able to lift even the most unlikely books to the place is interesting. The response to the need for those books, while neglecting the use of the very books, is a great puzzle. There are insufficient courses, lecturers and purposes for so many books. So, the books lie there idle. The Ethnology Department is certainly home to the largest collection of African music worldwide. The man responsible for this is a Prof. Wolfgang Bender. He had had assistance from one Bayo. Ow-, the other name is elusive. Once, I benefited from a well-attended promo on Nollywood given by one Professor Frings.

Yet, compared with the situation in the USA, UK or Canada, African Studies here is at the kindergarten stage. In the Ethnology Department, they are under-funded. Students are brought face to face with scholars from Africa through a commendable exchange programme. Why Africans only have to come and go remains a puzzle. Like Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo was in Bayreuth some time in 2006.

Elsewhere, African literature has really not qualified to ride in the same vehicle as say American literary studies or English literary studies. This is not far removed from the prestige that accompanies these literatures and cultures. In the English and Linguistics departments the closest students may come to anything African is the encounter with the name Nnamdi Azikiwe in Langston Hughes’ poems, or Onwuchekwa Jemie’s work on Langston Hughes, all in African American Studies. In which case, Jemie’s and Azikiwe’s roots are lost. In the library, Chinua Achebe’s and Wole Soyinka’s books may lie below an often visited book, the latter hardly noticed. Their literary status here is hardly diminished, for they are well represented in people’s leisure time, especially in the hands of people desirous of good literature. Ken Saro-Wiwa is the most prominent personality.

 

Chinedu  Ogoke

  What do you think accounts for Ken Saro-Wiwa’s prominence, the quality of his work, his struggles or manner of death?

 

It has to do with the type of prominence bestowed upon oil politics. Worldwide, oil has a special place in news coverage. The quality of Saro-Wiwa‘s work has little to do with it. A girl with an African parent and I once honoured him (Saro-Wiwa) with a presentation. We were marketing what we thought was a good product. People were there yearning for their own Saro-Wiwa encounter and we had to satisfy that. In doing it, I was fully aware of what projecting him meant to my roots.

If you took away the struggle and the manner of death, and without the signature of an African dictator, the fan base wouldn‘t have grown out of probably Africa or the UK. You know, Sani Abacha was unpopular in the West, because he was stingy. He forgot the rules of the game, wouldn‘t let the naira depreciate and so made enemies with the wrong people. You don‘t get away with such acts. In spite of the disguises, Saro-Wiwa and Moshood Abiola were rallying points for them. We will never fail to point out what is injustice, which was what Saro-Wiwa‘s was. If you can get that type of picture from Africa, of the innocence associated with literature on one hand and the brutish force on the other, you will have people coil around lit candles, and dance to the drumbeats of those media people. It was all a pre-arranged fight and one of the best plots in our time. Like, I guess, it was you who once pointed that out in a write-up; they must have whispered to Abacha that Saro-Wiwa wasn‘t untouchable. If a Saro-Wiwa were to be pushed into Robert Mugabe‘s hands and no love is shown to the writer, the story would be heard far and near.

 

Okay, let’s return to the issue of readership of African literary works. I doubt if this matter of under-readership also applies to writers whose works are available in German. Achebe’s works, for instance, were translated into German many years ago.

 

The need has to be there for the works to be translated. They haven‘t taken much notice of African works. Achebe‘s is like something that is there but out of sight. Things Fall Apart is like an African Beowulf. You wonder if somebody wrote it and disappeared. That is his dilemma. The West is the giver and taker of literary life, and one in charge of the African creative estate. On the other hand, the African writer is an orphan, an adopted child. He has to operate within some accepted standards, and listen to the voice of his guardian, who reports to a higher authority, the Western reader. On the idea of transforming our society into a large reading audience, one Segun Fajemisin, a publisher in Britain, once in a private discussion, suggested that flyers of novels should be slipped into home video CD sleeves, perhaps to invoke the home video magic. That is, making literature part of the menu. This means that Nollywood could pass the message around. There is the easy-to-listen audio arrangement that has gained currency in Europe. That way, consumption of the product may not interfere with every day things like driving. So also, with incentives, we can get crowds to listen to writers read from their works.

We can begin from the home, by making entertainment literature visible in the house. By extension creating a fantasy world within the home that connects with the outside world. Parents will then routinely make their children tell them about the stories they read recently and vice versa. As a child I was myself partly led into the exciting worlds of mathematics and fiction by an elder brother. I found myself aged maybe six listening to the Medusa mythology from a sister of mine. The story was very complex, but the sensation the broken pieces therein left in my head perhaps was helpful. Besides, the powers of the images of Hercules and the two snakes held in his hands, and of orangutans from a book I won as a member of a youth volunteer society entitled Wonders of Nature really did sink in. Every household needs these siblings of mine. My parents were far removed from the scene. Sadly, it was short-lived. I also wouldn’t forget us children partly encircling a village lad and listening to akuko ifo or folk tales. Victoria Ezeokoli did try to re-enact this on TV. But you get these results if you have the African family intact. The family we have come to know today is one left to the care of the Nigerian reality. Now, we don’t know how to get our children back to schools. We need divine help to pull them out of internet cafes, from hawking on the streets, etc. The family has to be put back. Unfortunately, we let the extended family branch fall away, and every other thing is going with it.

If we talk about something being fulfilling, Nigerian society rewards people who can boast of patronage, which is what a relationship with the West brings. The question is: what are publishers looking for in a book? Readers in turn would want to spend their money and time for brilliantly written stories. The scenery as painted in a novel may fail to excite a certain reader. In Nigeria, if you draw a line around most writers, you discover they are hardly on the side of justice. They haven’t made us see that they are sincere. A danger can go on as long as the edge of the murderous sword is directed elsewhere.

 

Each time I hear an African writer demonstrate so eloquently this obsession with Western readers, I am always very uncomfortable; does it really mean that the success of the African writer, every African writer, must necessarily be dependent on his ability to successfully win the heart of the Western reader? 

 

  I observe some insincerity in the fact that for an African work to be heard it should exhibit or contain elements that will make Western publishers and readers look kindly at it. Which is the requirement for success. And, has it stopped being the fashion to seek for literary glory overseas? If the market doesn’t exist here, writers definitely will get up if they can and walk away. Besides, it is currently the puzzling nature of literary business between Africa and the West. It conforms to the postcolonial practice of the Chinese or Americans lifting your oil, a hired Italian technician (no offence intended) running to the pulpit, an unlit cigarette in his lips, to tap a malfunctioning microphone, during a church service. It was the least I expected of Nigeria during a visit that oil wealth wasn’t accompanied with ability of the locals to fix even such minor things. Youths in Nigeria live from one Premier League day to another Premier League day; that is from Arsenal-Manchester to Manchester-Arsenal, with their backs turned on Nigerian football. Factions have been built in Nigeria around these clubs. These realities have endured for so long that it’s the only form in which our lives are shaped. It all has a lot to do with literature. Like you have foreign based players, so you have writers who have certified that the material needs of their vocation cannot be satisfied within Nigeria. Let’s say that the oil boom being experienced at the moment may provide a little support for our literature, but that would still be an abnormal growth, since financial well-being derived from a condition where the Nigerian people are at the borderline of what is happening at the oil rigs, and with oil supply being unpredictable, if you don’t look past the oil gushing out of your backyard, and it dries up, if your economy is solely driven by this oil, when it dries up, you dry up. For the writer, the prize is bigger outside. Writers you referred to, can only change their minds if we make structural changes. Only then will there be hope

 

You seem to believe so much that literary progress is largely dependent on the economic growth in a given society?

 

Yes, and built on a stable platform.

 

 

What of your own work, how has it been received in Germany? Also, do you think people in Nigeria have been able to discover it?

 

Germany is not a fertile ground for African literature. African literature cannot free itself from the continent’s images of Rwanda, Dafur, etc. Only few African works have been perceived distinctly from these accumulated images that have refused to go away. In some quarters, I have been received much more than the novel. It is difficult to classify the book. There hasn’t been consistency, I have to admit. Personally, I don’t want to be robbed of my little freedom. I have refused to meet modest success at the deserved rendezvous. I have been able to extract myself from the scrutiny associated with success of any degree, to embrace the life on the street where I would be unnoticed. With my cooperation, the novel would have asserted itself much more effectively. Creatively, I can go anywhere with my fantasy. I can roam various spheres. I am aware of my skills. On the novel, there have been gratifying forwarded messages like “Tell Chinedu Ogoke, I can’t wait to read his next novel!” The novel isn’t a lightweight among works from my part of the world. Even when I had had to write essays in German and among people of various nationalities, the content of what I had put down had often drawn attention to me. The celebrity environment is a domain writers share with other artists. This thing is of great value. If I have been received, then yes, the book has been received. How far the book can go is not in question, but how far it has gone, is difficult to say.

We don’t have figures from sales in Nigeria. That market has been left to the mobile phone marketers and so on. I haven’t reckoned with that market. If one out of every five students in Nigeria leaves the book out of his or her reading lists, then there is cause for concern. Here you have a book that celebrates them. But they haven’t discovered it. That is clear.

 

I still believe that enough of the right things have not been done to exploit the potential large market in Nigeria. What really have Nigerian writers, publishers and educational institutions done to revive reading culture among the populace? I remember Chinua Achebe revealing the sales figures of his books in a lecture in the sixties and showing that he had more readers in Nigeria than all other places put together, so what has happened to change that?

 

The gulf between the huge Nigerian population and the type of literature we‘re talking about is deeper than is apparent. With the forces against change fortifying their positions, hardly anything will be achieved. Lecturers and educational institutions should be prominent voices for change, which sadly they‘re not. They should seek the type of arrangement you have in Europe. As a ruler and as a nation, you need shoulders to stand on, as well as the people‘s consent to confront the world. You can‘t lead the people with a padlock on their lips, their hands tied behind them and with guns on their heads. You can‘t demand loyalty from me when there is litigation on your office and Nigeria‘s legitimacy. The Nigerian question needs our attention, and can‘t be wished away. In Nigeria, going to federal house is always in response to ethnic summons. We can see what the sprinkle of autonomy did somewhere, when after World War 11 Onitsha Market Literature (OML) with its gracefulness held sway. The circumstance spilled over to Chinua Achebe and the rest of them, hence that comment. Think of a currently thriving OML standing condemned in an Obasanjo‘s eyes.

You can‘t build on sand dumped by sea waves. Literature has to be powered by democracy. Readers thirst for that recreation of life as stroked by the writer‘s pen. The book is something to fall in love with. It is romance that‘s involved and a directionless and insecure society chases away potential lovers. If we do what is necessary, that most cherished entertaining literature will find calm waters to drop its anchor and the people will get on board.

 

Despite the trying situation in Nigeria today, youths can still be encouraged to read once the right things are done. Writers’ bodies could collaborate with the electronic media to awaken society’s interest in literary works through even jingles. You would remember that as youths, we were always given reading lists for the holiday period, but all that appear to have gone now. Youths used to compete among themselves who read more books; we have to find ways of reviving all that, if the literary enterprise would see tomorrow in our society. I think the writer should naturally be at the forefront, but that doesn’t seem to be happening.

 

Yea, then there was the talk of who did what. We had to listen to someone‘s entire narration about a novel just read. It all conveyed a faith in books. One read texts inherited from relations, and distant cousins. The books contained information on the inside front covers and other places about their names, schools, like St. Catherine‘s Girls, Akabo Girls, Ndoki Grammar School, Abba Techs etc. Those people were valuable in the form of motivation. They left us with things to forge ahead with, therefore a tradition endured. We have to understand that the 50s to 60s Nigeria had some influence on that period when the books I mentioned were still available. But Nigeria has drifted too far away from that path. We don’t like the tune the West is playing but must dance to it. There is Western dictatorship in its fullness. In that 50s, 60s and into the 70s, the African merely found a new playground. He linked up with the African Diaspora to form a formidable team. He had his own share in literary criticism, where to patch and mend and what to ignore when it came to African literature. He went further to point fingers at what he felt about European literature and culture. On a good day, people hardly walked the streets of Paris without perceiving the presence of the African writer. Some writers showed assumed disrespect to the West with books like Pepper Clark’s America Their America. The West was cautious, unsure of our potentials. Now they have come knocking, everything sounds hollow. The African cultural base is now weak. The relationship is now specified. They have to endorse everything. We have scientists we can’t use, writers whose works benefit others. If you are singing before a world audience, of course, it is good to make effort to be understood, but in literature you shouldn’t carry it so far that we won’t find traces of your culture in your work.

Let us say that they have been fair with their criticism, but partly because they criticize what they allow to make it to their table. It will take that African to appreciate African art and interpret it to the world.

 

 

There is some hope, however. Recently I was a guest at literary an “Outreach Programme” organized in a secondary school by the Imo State Branch of the Association of Nigeria Authors (ANA), and I was excited at the measure  of interest the kids displayed towards literary works. If such events are intensified, I think it would go a long way to reinvent the significant interest in readership of literary works. Or you don’t think so?

 

The recruitment drive at that stage as you witnessed is remarkable. The benefit will be no doubt immense. But the goal shouldn‘t be raising readers from among them who would lack books to read, or people who would have stories to tell and would want to be heard, but wouldn‘t exercise any of that. Not when failure has been arranged in advance for them. Definitely, we will not spoil their fun if the institution of the right circumstances will come before or coincide with their maturity.

I notice that our celebrated writers have found themselves being mobbed by these kids during literary workshops. It‘s welcome, but it will be awkward to conceive something without directing the energies into texts. We shouldn‘t be too preoccupied with those events without raising the literacy rate or political awareness in the country. University admissions, you will agree, are now prohibitive. We are deprived of reading moving stories like the type a friend told me recently about his childhood. If you spent a part of your teen years in a village between Abeokuta and Port Harcourt, it may also be your untold story. The friend and I agreed his story was not unique, but it ought to cease being just faint images in our consciousness. It is not found in any book. Now, imagine such thrilling experiences that happened on that stretch of land never being reported. Our oral traditions made certain that such gaps or ecological dilemmas never existed. To go back to my point again, literature is very sensitive. It only thrives in a democratic setting. Nigeria isn‘t a democracy.

 

 What can you say about the dominance of subsidy publishing, or what the Americans call, “Vanity Press” in the Nigerian literary scene – where writers either have to print their own works or sponsor its publication?

 

It is disturbing. Yet, it‘s inevitable. What‘s behind it is resisting the hostile forces that intend to stem the flow of literature. Well, if there is no ladder available to climb to the top, people have to device ways of getting up there. Publishing houses can‘t assemble good teams to work with given the problems in Nigeria. Nigeria overflows with talents whose abilities publishers can tap into. Without editorial input, someone in that capacity bending over the manuscripts, like Irene Staunton, the publisher of the Baobab Press, did with some Zimbabwean writers, literature in Nigeria will only manage to stand over its mediocre neighbours,’ and short of expectations. It’s the case with a movie, which needs a director’s competence to modify certain elements for desirable results. Also, it has to be linked to a good distribution network. ANA is simply handicapped by its short-sightedness.

 

Like I said earlier, language may be a strong barrier in those Western nations where English is not the official language, like Germany. Because works of Nigerian writers are better known in the UK, for instance. Apart from Achebe and a few others, how many other Nigerian writers have had their works translated into German, for instance? You don’t feel some interpreters and language scholars, especially, of African descent, have not done enough in this regard?  

 

 Language is without doubt a factor. But the problem is more of attitude. Use of English has developed so much that the population with this knowledge at its disposal can consume the trickle that comes in. The people have a strong appetite for books. Unless you have a book that does to everyone what Things Fall Apart does to people, pushing an African book into someone’s hand is like handing him a bitter pill. The contents of African works are in conflict with the local taste. Readers are reluctant to explore Africa with Africans as tour guides. I am not making the connection of appreciating African literature because of it being unusual.

The source of the material plays a role. They dedicate their time and resources exclusively to much advertised concepts. The same thing goes for cuisine. Chinese restaurants are popular. In effect, Chinese products, including its literature, benefit from this development. The new interest area now is the Middle East. Latest events in the world make the people curious. You don’t also rule out old traditions. Assuming Africa begins to command some respect around the world, its literature will be popular here. The Harry Potter series are especially popular because the writer is a British woman. When David Beckham dons your jersey, you obviously will smile to the bank. An Austin Okocha may not get such following in spite of all the wonders credited to him on the pitch. We should find a way of redesigning the African image, clearing away the backlog of slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism. Previous attempts to correct these have, sadly, been futile.

Many works by writers from Nigeria can be read in German. Saro Wiwa, Soyinka, Achebe, Chimamanda Adichie, Nkem Nwankwo, etc. And even a new guy, Francis Obimma, who just rolled up his sleeves here and started writing, debuted only in 2006 is about to join that club. Somebody looked at the young man’s work and decided the state should put its translation services at his disposal.

African scholars can play a role by preparing the home turf, and letting the world know about the good news from Africa. Promise Ogochukwu is doing her part by establishing the Soyinka Prize. A writer putting up a structure and allowing another writer to walk away with $20,000! When we hold up the hands of one of our own so high, Europeans will take note. When what applies to some of our frontline books also apply to a book like Obinkaram Echewa’s I Saw The Sky Catch Fire, then we can talk about clear perceptions by African writers and critics. Standards must be maintained but African critics must employ new tactics in their criticisms. African scholars must endeavour to free Africans, Europeans, Asians and everybody from neo-colonialism. A lot cannot be reversed, but we must decolonize everybody’s mind. The result will be Africans bankrolling events like the late Zimbabwean Book Fair; organs like the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) and the African Book Collective will have to be strengthened.

 

Your work was not published in Nigeria. Is there any form of collaboration with a Nigerian publisher to have the book adequately exposed to Nigerian readers? 

 

It hasn’t been published in Nigeria. I wish the second one would first make its appearance in Nigeria, before making the trip outside. There is no collaboration to do that. I would have received a call from my publishers if there has been any interest emanating from Nigeria. Though insignificant, there has been an uninterrupted flow of copies to Nigeria. This shows that the people over there are not unaware of the book. The publishers also have this information. They have to bring the book home.

 

 

When last did you re-read your novel? Did you have any cause to feel it could do with some form of revision, or even editorial input?

 

Last time was late last year. I take it off the shelf occasionally to read it in a critical way. No considerable length at a time. Definitely, aspects responsible for some scary remarks about the novel have to be revised. It‘s sad if the book has to suffer more for those lapses than it is considered worthy of acclaim. There have been criticisms I consider unhelpful. One critic, Professor Shuiabu Oba AbdulRaheem, a former vice chancellor of University of Ilorin, passed a judgment on the novel with which I agree. He developed an argument using especially my novel in a paper he delivered at an annual Lecture of the Nigerian Academy of Letters (NAL) in 2005. His assessment of the novel included very severe criticisms. The judgment I find interesting was his observation that “Although Chinedu Ogoke does write vividly, the same kind of critical fate which excluded the likes of Cyprian Ekwensi’s Jagua Nana from the ranks of the great Nigerian novels will, regrettably, overtake this exciting, juvenile novel.“ I know it is necessary that the book emerges from that rear position, where it wasn‘t intended to be in the first place. Identifying its weaknesses personally isn‘t easy, though. But I am aware I still have some work to do to make it catch up with those other works. Other things have my attention now, like the one about to join the small family, which is the second novel.

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Mr. Ogoke can be reached with: inuuka@yahoo.com

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By Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye

(scruples2006@yahoo.com)

www.ugochukwu.blog.com

April 2007

 

Will Obasanjo Explode President Yar’Adua’s Anti-Graft Balloon?

April 2, 2008

By Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye  

If you were carrying out an employment exercise in your company, and one of the jobseekers  showed up with a letter of  recommendation duly written and signed by Mr. Nuhu Ribadu, the former Chair of the Economic And Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), would that impress you?  

Well, the strength and credibility of any   recommendation should flow from the performance of the person earlier recommended by the same person. For instance, Mr. Ribadu had told the nation that he had deployed the full force of his prodigious intellect, experience and thoroughness to carefully examine the eight-year nightmare prosecuted by Gen Olusegun Obasanjo but could not detect the slightest hint of corruption in all that the man did while in office!  

Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye

Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye

But, for the past few weeks now, Nigerians have witnessed with utter disbelief and deep pain horrifying details of the worst form of heartless plunder this nation had ever witnessed, perpetrated with utmost impunity and even fanfare, under the direct supervision of the same man Nuhu Ribadu had told us was above board.  

About $16 billion was callously squandered under the pretext of fixing the nation’s problematic power sector, plunging the country and   its hapless citizens deeper into thicker and more suffocating darkness.  As sordid revelations ooze from the House of Representatives Probe into the management of the power sector under the Obasanjo regime, where, for instance, it was revealed that a contract worth about N88 billion was verbally awarded, Nigerians are shocked that human beings with hearts and blood running in their veins are capable of such prehistoric greed and cruelty.

While Nigerians groaned under the punishing effect of the protracted energy crises in the country, the very resources meant for the alleviation of their harrowing pain was being primitively plundered.  

 In a decent country, Mr. Liyel Imoke would have since resigned as Governor of Cross River State with shame and haste, while awaiting his well-earned trail alongside his big uncle, Obasanjo. But, this is Nigeria, where something called Immunity Clause exists to provide very formidable protection for unrepentant enemies of the people from the just consequences of their hideous actions in office.                                                      yaradua3.jpg                                                 President Yar’Adua

Only last week, former Finance Minster, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, told the House Committee probing the mindless brigandage that flourished in the power sector that it was Mr. Imoke and Obasanjo  that concocted the “Due Process Waiver” that enabled them bypass all statutory roadblocks to prosecute their unparalleled clean out of the public treasury to build phantom power plants.  

In 1999 when Obasanjo became president, total power generation within the national grid stood at 2,400 Mega Watts. But by the time he was leaving office in 2007 (and till date), the whole thing had come down to 2,100 MW, despite the billions of dollars said to have been poured into the obviously phantom efforts to give Nigerians stable power supply.  

To sensible Nigerians, that is hardly surprising. Among the companies awarded juicy contracts, and paid jumbo mobilisation fees, which in some cases were as high as 70 percent of the whole contract value, thirty-three (which got N6.2 billion contracts) were not registered at the Corporate Affairs Commission, which means that they were non-existent companies! Even when identifiable companies got contracts and were fully mobilized, several of them vanished into thin air or managed to show some form of presence at the project site. 

 The only believable reason those in charge of the whole obscene profligacy had refused to bother themselves with whether those contracts were executed or not may be that, perhaps, those “companies” were either theirs or belonged to their cronies and agents.

                                                                         ribadu1.jpg

                                            Former EFCC Boss, Nuhu Ribadu                      

According to Daily Independent editorial of March 27, 2008, “Energo Limited, a company in which a former military head of state is Chairman, [was paid] over N13 billion … without any job done to date … Obasanjo, according to disclosures by the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC), even commissioned an empty site in Odukpani, Cross River State, as a power station last year.  Top managers of PHCN [also awarded] contracts worth US$142 million to non-existent firms. PHCN was shown to have paid out various sums – N2.1 billion, 2.1million Euros and 1.1billion Yen — for hydropower projects whose existence is unknown to chief executives of the stations.”

According to the Minster for Energy (Power), Mrs. Fatimah Ibrahim, $13.3 billion was squandered in the power sector, under very close, direct supervision of Imoke and Obasanjo with nothing on ground to show for the huge expenditure.

Certainly, this is enough to put these fellows behind bars for the rest of their lives, if President Umar Musa Yar’Adua is serious about all the noise he makes about rule of law and due process.  Well, how Yar’Adua responds to this challenge will help define the image of his administration in the days ahead.

Last week, former Health Minister, Prof Adenike Grange, was sacked or forced to resign, or both, for refusing to heed the Presidential directive to return to the treasury the unspent fund from the allocation to her ministry. The amount involved is N300 million naira, which the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) accused her, her deputy, Gabriel Aduku, and 14 senior civil servants of the ministry of attempting to embezzle.    

Also starring in the slimy scandal is Obasanjo’s first daughter, Dr. Iyabo Obasanjo-Bello, who is the Chairman, Senate Committee on Health.  It may appear uncharitable to view Prof Grange’s sack or resignation, given its timing, as aimed at diverting significant attention from the earth-shaking revelations rolling out from the Public Hearing on the Power Sector which has provoked widespread demand for the immediate arrest and trial of Obasanjo and all those who had joined hands with him to enact the unprecedented corruption. But then, the whole thing reeks of just that! 

                                                             obasanjo1.jpg

                               Former President Obasanjo

On Monday (March 31, 2008), General Jeremiah Useni, the unrepentant alter ego of the late ruthless dictator, Gen Sani Abacha, was quoted as saying that the boundless brigandage that flourished in the power sector has made whatever Abacha was accused of looting to appear like “a child’s play.” He even expressed doubt that the once famous Abacha Loot recovered from several sources were deployed to execute any venture that would benefit the Nigerian people, because, according to him, there was “no bill [that] went to the National Assembly to approve its expenditure.” In other words, Abacha’s may have been looted by those who recovered it!  

Also, on the same Monday, the papers reported that Prof Grange may be charged to court this week. Now, if we consider that what Grange and Co were accused of “attempting to embezzle” was mere “change” when compared with the $16 or $13 billion that was siphoned off thought phantom power projects, we will then begin to ask ourselves whether, under Yar’Adua, different rules apply to different people? 

 Now, some ex-Governors are, justifiably, being dragged about by the EFCC for allegedly stealing N1 billion or N2 billion or even less. If these ex-Governors or Mrs. Grange and Co are found guilty, they should be hastened off to jail, to isolate them from the assembly decent beings, because they have proved themselves to be unrepentant enemies of Nigeria.

But should the alleged bigger thieves be spared? 

 Nigerians and the rest of world are watching to see what President Yar’Adua would do with the fellows who awarded N88 billion contract by mere word of mouth. They would want to know what would be done to the man who gave out juicy contracts to 33 non-existent companies, and commissioned empty lands as power plants, to cover up the squandered fund.

Yes, they would want to know whether the fellow who had bled his country pale to become one of the richest billionaires in Africa is, in the thinking of Yar’Adua, above the laws of the land, and deserves to be celebrated, while the poor clerk somewhere who was driven by hunger to mismanage N5, 000 is sent to jail.  

It must be clear to Yar’Adua that injustice and double standards, especially of this magnitude, can only create fertile grounds for defiance, rebellion and anarchy.

Already, a former Governor standing trial for corrupt enrichment is threatening to make the country ungovernable if big thieves are left to move about undisturbed while mere pickpockets are haunted and harassed with extreme zeal.  

Yar’Adua must be wary of allowing seeds of destabilisation germinate in the country just because of his determination not to “embarrass” some fellows whose only contribution to their fatherland is the ruin and stagnation they had brought to it by their conscious unethical acts.  

By the way, where was Saint Ribadu when the nation was being gang-raped with such unparalleled violence? To what extent did the National Assembly under Ken Nnamani and his brother Aminu Bello Masari exercise its oversight functions when this insane plundering was flourishing?

Well, former Vice-President, Atiku Abubakar can gloat today, but would this brazen prodigality have been exposed if Obasanjo had not parted ways with, and handed over to him as he had expected?   Now, we have seen the stench in the power sector, but when will the long-awaited probe of the NNPC commence? 

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Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye’s current articles appear on this blog: www.ugowrite.blogspot.com

scruples2006@yahoo.com