Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Power of the Printed Word

With the weapon of words the writer unmans emperors. The creative artist alive to his craft almost always has the last word in the march of civilization and history. The Nigerian writer of today is poised at the crossroads of profound societal re-engineering, and capturing the daily flux of activities can indeed be quite tasking to even the most gifted of writers. As Chinua Achebe deposed in Anthills of the Savannah, what survives after the epic battle is the story. Creating a platform for the many stories of our epoch is a splendid generational statement.

            There is so much writing going on in Nigeria in this age. The argument has been raised in some quarters that Nigerian writing thrives more in exile. Publishing outlets are said to be few and far between within the shores of Nigeria as opposed to the teeming outlets in the Western world as exemplified by, say, London and New York. The truth of course is that many masterpieces are lying dormant in drawers because of this lack of well-organized publishing ventures. Literary magazines are needed as they will go a long way in filling the void. A short story or poem or critique that stands out may eventually prove the forerunner of a fruitful literary career.

            When Achebe in 1981, at Nsukka, initiated the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), there was the palpable fear that the body might die in infancy, as writers all over the world do not have sterling qualities of leadership and communal bonding. Creative writing happens to be the loneliest of occupations, and it is always a war getting the writer out of his hermitage to bond with others. ANA has famously survived through the years. The writers’ body has had its share of ups and downs, and it is not uncommon to hear detractors mouthing “ANA for anarchy”, but the fact remains that in 28 years of existence ANA has given voice to the voiceless and meaning to a polity that others would have scoffed at.

            The many novels, plays, poems and sundry literary works that have appeared over the years have learnt needed meaning to the Nigerian experience and the larger human condition. The coveted literary prizes are highly regarded, though controversial in some instances. It is praiseworthy that ANA at no time championed a literary orthodoxy. The diverse ideologies have a ready playground on the hallowed altar of ANA. The major aim has always been to celebrate literary excellence rather than political correctness. Of course nobody is talking of celebrating meaninglessness for the heck of it. Great art has to be married to the milieu to merit the ranks.

            Nigerian writing has garnered all the major prizes across the globe. In winning the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature, Wole Soyinka served a powerful reminder to the world that the body of work created by African writers, especially Nigerian wordsmiths ought to represent the necessary future for world writing. To cement the authority of Nigeria in the matter, sundry writers such as Ben Okri, Helon Habila, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Sefi Attah etc have followed up ever since, winning esteemed prizes like the Booker, the Caine Prize for African Writing, the Wole Soyinka Prize respectively. Even so, as Achebe did argue in first collection of essays, it is morning yet on creation day.

            The absence of requisite criticism has been cited as a major drawback of the new literature. Time was when renowned Nigerian critics, notably, Abiola Irele, Ben Obumselu, Dan Izebvaye, Michael Echeruo, Biodun Jeyifo, Charles Nnolim, Ime Ikiddeh, Sunday Anozie, Theo Vincent, Emmanuel Obiechina, Sam Asein, Ernest Emenyonu etc were all the rage. It would appear these days that too many poetry collections, novels and plays are chasing too few critics. This way, most of the eminent writers of today are bogged down doing literary criticism instead of concentrating on the major function of literary creation. With the emergence of literary magazines it is hoped that the new critics of the age will now have a platform to launch themselves onto the stratosphere.

            The joy is that that the grand old men of Nigerian letters are still very much around to partake of the imminent spring. Octogenarian Gabriel Okara is still waxing strong as the inimitable poet, author of The Fisherman’s Invocation and the 2005 joint winner of the $20,000 Nigerian Prize for Literature administered by the NLNG. Elechi Amadi is still hard at work, as well as Achebe and Soyinka.

            Through the power of the printed word we hope to give voice to the veteran and the tyro, the guru and the innocent. What will unite the company is the esteemed goal of literary excellence, for it is from the virginal that the world grows to celebrate the original.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Going to the Slave Castle in Ghana

Going to Ghana for me is always a special joy. Curiously the matter that excites me the most is making a tour of the Elmina Slave Castle in the Central Region of Ghana. The place is steeped in the history of the slave trade. It was from this point that millions of Africans were sent into slavery. There is the particular place known as “Point Of No Return” from whence the captured slave learns the grave truth that he can no longer come back to his dear homeland. 

Imagine what would be in the mind of a captured slave when he reaches that point of no return in which he must perforce board a ship to the New World! The hapless fellow of course comes to the harsh reality that he would no longer set his eyes on his own people ever again. It is akin to the highest point of man’s inhumanity to man.  

The Portuguese reputedly captured the first African slaves in Elmina in 1441 AD. By 1471 the trade had grown and the Portuguese settled in the land. The Slave Castle was built by the Portuguese in 1482. Some 600 Portuguese soldiers built the castle. The Portuguese held the place for all of 155 years before they were displaced by the Dutch invaders.

            The Dutch took effective occupation in 1637 and stayed on for 251 years. The fort on the hill of Elmina was built for the Dutch soldiers in 1665. By 1872 the place fell to the British who ruled for 85 years before Ghana got her independence in 1957.

            It was not a pretty sight beholding the cells for the male and female slaves. The top floor was reserved for the white administrator to have a good view of choosing the best female slave to have for each night! A dark windowless room was reserved as punishment place for disobedient slaves to stay there until they die. The only peephole into the horrendously dark place was for the soldiers to see when the punished slave had died! 

            The white administrator has Psalm 132:4 emblazoned in the castle: “This is my rest for ever: here will I dwell; for I have desired it.”

            The Africans have since put up a plaque of their own at the entrance of the castle on which is written:

In Everlasting Memory

Of the anguish of our ancestors

May those who died rest in peace

May those who returned find their roots

May humanity never again perpetrate

Such injustice against humanity

We the living vow to uphold this

            Slavery has been a very controversial matter in the annals of Africa. There are those that would argue that the African notables who sold their brothers and sisters as slaves should take more of the blame than the white slavers. Whoever is to take the blame, the point is that slavery is inhuman. The relics of slavery that I saw at Elmina was so revolting as to make one question the idea of complementary humanity.

            Even as slavery is unarguably bad, the reality of life in Africa today has led to the issue of Africans today willfully asking to be taken as slaves in Europe and America. It is no longer a case of getting to a point of no return literally at gunpoint. Now scores of youths brave the elements wandering through the desert to get away from Africa. It is against this background that one recalls the quip of the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali: “Thank God, my great grandfather got a place in that slave ship!”

            The colonization of the African mind these days happens to be the worst point of no return as opposed to setting eyes on the slave ship of yore. The rampant corruption all over the land unleashed by conscienceless leaders has made the citizens to lose all hope of achievement within the continent. It is becoming a given that one is doomed to sure death unless one steps out of the shores of Africa.

            The enslaved mind is of course worse than a body bound up in chains. The chains can always be broken especially with the example of slaves like Olaudah Equiano who bought over their freedom and prospered in life. There is a crying need to address the slave mentality currently holding sway all over Africa. God, give us leaders!       

Friday, December 9, 2011

Deathless Fela

With the recent sacking of Madam Farida Waziri as the boss of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), a dear friend of mine said that he wished that Fela Anikulapo-Kuti were still alive so as to listen to his take on the scale of corruption in the country now. I told my friend that Fela had seen it all ahead of his time and needed to add nothing new. It is only left for us to learn from what Fela has left for all eternity. 

There can be nobody else like Fela. The icon is quite simply indescribable and can never ever be written about in the past tense. He lives forever as evidenced by his show on Broadway in America that broke all the records. FELA LIVE!, as a musical, set the world stage on fire on Broadway.

            There was a time we were doing a story on the Kuti brothers for the defunct THISWEEK magazine, and we asked the eldest Kuti daughter, Dolupo, to describe each of her three brothers. She said Olikoye was a gentleman while Beko was a diplomat. As for Fela, all she could yell was “yayoyoyooooo!”, because there was no word in English language to describe the phenomenon!

            On August 3, 1997 Olikoye Ransome-Kuti addressed a press conference at Fela’s Afrika Shrine at Pepple Street, Ikeja to announce to a startled world that Fela died of AIDS-related complications the previous day. After the press conference, my great buddy and brother, Adewale Maja-Pearce and I decided to take some of Fela’s band boys who were our friends out to drink. In the course of the drinks one of Fela’s boys unaccountably exclaimed: “Na God go punish that Fela sef!” We were shocked at his utterance and asked him to explain what he meant. The distraught fellow lamented that Fela had no business dying thus leaving them, his band boys, stranded on earth. The guy explained that Fela ought to have taken the Western medicines that could have saved his life; after all, the saxophone he was fond of blowing was equally made by the white man!

            I write now against the background of the beats of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s album ITT, where the iconic musician starts out by stressing that from the very beginning Africans never used to “carry shit”. The corruption of Africa’s original values that came with the arrival of the white man led to Africans staining their hands with shit. Fela makes his case by giving the names of the original shit-holes used by a very diverse range of the ethnic nations of Africa.

The advent of colonialism elicited in its sweep the abandonment of the old African way of passing faeces. Metaphorically, the “carrying of shit” has progressively led to the corruption of the entire cosmos of the African peoples. To underscore his conviction, Fela had to swear by most of the deities across Africa such as Edumare. Fela of course does not kowtow to the Godhead of Christianity as can be seen in his many songs such as Shuffering and Shmiling.

The local comprador elite would in the course of time team up with the white colonisers to loot their own country as exemplified by Obasanjo and Abiola whom Fela audaciously named in the music. The failure of the society is therefore anchored on the lack of rootedness to the real values of the traditional society, Fela powerfully argues.

It can be said that the great man died for his beliefs. Fela was not afraid to dare and die, believing that what is not worth dying for is not worth living for.

Fela can be an uncommon fun to be with. How can one ever forget the nightly rides with Fela in his Brother Beko’s ambulance upon his release from prison in 1986? Those days, I would always accompany my friend Abdul Okwechime - who used to live with Fela in Kalakuta Republic - to visit with the music maestro at the Imaria Close, Anthony Village place of his younger brother Beko, where Fela had his temporary abode then. Fela would give us a ride in the ambulance all over Lagos at night, before ending up at his cousin, Frances Kuboye’s Jazz 38 club on Awolowo Road, Ikoyi. At every police checkpoint the policemen on duty would hail and rejoice on seeing who was behind the steering-wheel! Then Fela would tell them: “Yeye people, una dey here dey suffer cold for night while oga dey deal with una wives for house!” The policemen would then give him more ovations for insulting them! That’s Fela for you.

Many of Fela’s ideas are simply out of this world. He once told me that Nigeria could win the World Cup by placing a very mighty drum behind the opposing goalkeeper! I told him FIFA would not allow that, and he replied me thusly: “But how would FIFA see it?” I kept my mouth shut, not knowing how to argue with him any further.  


Thursday, December 8, 2011

Atmosphere of wonder

The False Truth; by Bisi Daniels; Austen & Macauley Publishers Ltd, London; 2011; 310pp

The thriller tradition in Nigerian fiction needs a breakthrough blockbuster. The early thrillers of the likes of Cyprian Ekwensi and Adaora Lily Ulasi did not create much of a tradition at a time the earnest novels of Chinua Achebe and the African Writers Series (AWS) held sway. Later practitioners such as Eddie Iroh (48 Guns for the General, The Siren in the Night) and Kole Omotoso (Fella’s Choice) did not enjoy the publishing clout to carry through their initiatives. Iroh’s novels, published within the ambit of Heinemann’s AWS, appeared at a time the Nigerian economy was collapsing and books could not be successfully distributed from Britain because returns from the Nigerian end could no longer be guaranteed. Omotoso’s book, published locally, suffered the fate of all locals: unseen. Macmillan London remarkably initiated the landmark Pacesetters Series but the collapse of the Nigerian economy put paid to the bloom.

            Fast-paced fiction does the reading culture of all countries of the world a world of good. The trail being blazed by Bisi Daniels as a prolific author of thrillers deserves countrywide attention. The False Truth is indeed “a compelling and atmospheric story…” that should pave the way to a greater comprehension of the narratives of our lives and times.

            A celebrated journalist and columnist who had stints in two of Nigeria’s biggest newspapers, The Guardian and ThisDay, Bisi Daniels has authored well over 20 books, including seven novels, plays, inspirational books and children’s books. The False Truth is inspirited by the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels-like dictum, to wit: “Any lies repeated often enough can eventually be accepted as truth.” Dedicated in bold capitals to Dr. Mo Ibrahim of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation for promoting good governance in Africa,” The False Truth is a hip and contemporary account of Africa in the cusp of change.

            Reviewing a thriller is a very delicate matter because revealing the twist in the tale is akin to removing the stuffing from the matter. It suffices to stress that The False Truth extends the narrative in a manner that the spectacle is only secondary to the idea and craft. To that extent, the essence trumps the accident.

            Bisi Daniels’ special agent is of course Peter Abel, the irrepressible media advisor to President Robert Suweri of Mubonde. The False Truth is set against the background of the recent upheavals in Africa where despots glued to the thrones of various countries are coming unstuck. High-wire suspense is established from the very beginning as President Suweri addresses his countrymen and women: “A silence fell on the huge crowd, over 100,000 Mubondians crammed into the Victoria Square – a space designed for 75,000 people. After the frenzy of drumming and dancing, the silence was so heavy that, for a moment, it suggested danger. But Abel knew that the heavy security surrounding President Suweri’s team would protect the man.”

            Peter Abel - who had only some years before “left his high-profile job at The Zodiac Newspapers in Lagos to work for President Suweri, as his Senior Media Advisor and speechwriter” - could always sniff danger once it manifested in any precincts. Even as the vast majority of Mubondians feasted on and rejoiced over President Suweri’s words there was one dissenting voice, screaming back at the people: “You deserve what you get! You have bought into their lies! You refuse to see the truth! You are all fools! Suweri’s agenda is right before your eyes and you refuse to see it! You will be enslaved – and you deserve it! You are whores for Suweri and you don’t even know it! You can quote me. Taye Momson.”

            The protesting Taye Momson ends up being beaten up and arrested. Much as he tried, Peter Abel could not save him from sure death in the hands of his captors.

            In the Mubonde house of power at Victoria Villa there are more webs than spiders could muster. With his conscience suffering from the killing of Taye Momson, Peter Abel cannot find any soul-remedying poser to the charge: “You used to be one of us… now you are one of them!”

            The cabal surrounding President Suweri, led by the sinister Songa, is at odds with Peter Abel. Some interesting statistics come to the fore in the sweep of the story such as the revelation that “between 1960 and 1969, twenty-eight of the thirty-seven African leaders who left office had to be forced out.”

            In the scheme of the plot of the cabal term limits cannot be respected.  Tenure elongation becomes the rule rather than the exception. Anybody standing in the way must perforce be eliminated. This way, Peter Abel dies! Or, did he? It all comes to a shattering climax at a reception for President Suweri in the United States where his drink gets poisoned and a dead man wakes…

            Bisi Daniels has told a spellbinding tale in The False Truth. He deserves many readers in the tradition of Frederick Forsyth, the inimitable author of The Day of the Jackal. A well-packaged reader-friendly book, The False Truth however suffers some editing errors in some places such as at Page 14: “The 73-year-old Mubonde was reticent and extremely calm…” I believe “Suweri” ought to have been there instead of “Mubonde”.

            Even so, The False Truth deserves to be celebrated as a breakthrough thriller in Nigerian genre fiction. Bisi Daniels is indeed a pathfinder.