Thursday, 22 August 2013

My Ghana Trip on CNN

Here's a piece I did on my trip to Accra for CNN:

'With only a 45 minute flight separating Lagos and Accra, you'd think I'd have been to Ghana at least once in my 22-year existence. Unfortunately until July 2013, the concepts holiday and Africa have never gone together in my head.

Holiday was Italy and structurally unsound towers; or America and discount shopping or France and baguettes. Not Ghana, longstanding "frenemy "of Nigeria, with the football team we all rooted for in the last World Cup. Yet, that's no reason to actually visit the place.'

Read the rest here. Also below is the promo video we did for the tour which for some reason I forgot to post here.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Telephone Conversation

I read Wole Soyinka’s poem, Telephone Conversation when I was fourteen. I liked it so much I made it the desktop background on my laptop. Each time I turned on this shiny new device, I would read the words, ‘The price seemed reasonable, location indifferent. The landlady swore she lived off premises.’ The poem struck me. Perhaps it was because I was in an English boarding school, discovering for the first time my ‘blackness.’

‘How dark?’ Soyinka ‘s landlady asked the character who I assumed was Soyinka himself. ‘Facially, I’m brunette.’ Facially I was... I had never stopped to consider. I was Nigerian. My classmates, sensitive to but ignorant of the nature of my dislocation, would sometimes say as if in reassurance, ‘I think black people are cool.’ Why are you telling me, I would wonder but never ask?

My spine weakened a little when I moved to England. Confident, boisterous, perhaps overbearing in Nigeria, I became unsure in England: unsure of my accent, unsure of the value of what I knew, flabbergasted by my ignorance of Jack Wills and lacrosse. Soyinka’s poem put some calcium back in my bones.  Every time my eyes wandered to the bottom of the screen and read, ‘Friction, caused- foolishly, madam- by sitting down, has turned my bottom raven black,’ I would shake with laughter, the punch line new again. A new country was to be met with this verve, this panache, this style, this trademark Soyinka wit. No apologies for where I was coming from. None at all.     

A young Soyinka, harassed by landladies.

Telephone Conversation 
Wole Soyinka 

            The price seemed reasonable, location
            Indifferent. The landlady swore she lived
            Off premises. Nothing remained
            But self-confession. “Madam,” I warned,
5         “I hate a wasted journey—I am African.”
            Silence. Silenced transmission of
            Pressurized good-breeding. Voice, when it came,
            Lipstick coated, long gold-rolled
            Cigarette-holder pipped. Caught I was, foully.
10         “HOW DARK?” . . . I had not misheard . . . “ARE YOU LIGHT
            OR VERY DARK?” Button B. Button A. Stench
            Of rancid breath of public hide-and-speak.
            Red booth. Red pillar-box. Red double-tiered
            Omnibus squelching tar. It was real! Shamed
15         By ill-mannered silence, surrender
            Pushed dumbfoundment to beg simplification.
            Considerate she was, varying the emphasis—
            “ARE YOU DARK? OR VERY LIGHT?” Revelation came.
            “You mean—like plain or milk chocolate?”
20         Her assent was clinical, crushing in its light
            Impersonality. Rapidly, wavelength adjusted,
            I chose. “West African sepia”—and as an afterthought,
            “Down in my passport.” Silence for spectroscopic
            Flight of fancy, till truthfulness clanged her accent
25         Hard on the mouthpiece. “WHAT’S THAT?” conceding,
            “DON’T KNOW WHAT THAT IS.” “Like brunette.”
            “THAT’S DARK, ISN’T IT?” “Not altogether.
            Facially, I am brunette, but madam, you should see
            The rest of me. Palm of my hand, soles of my feet
30         Are a peroxide blonde. Friction, caused—
            Foolishly, madam—by sitting down, has turned
            My bottom raven black—One moment madam!”—sensing
            Her receiver rearing on the thunderclap
            About my ears—“Madam,” I pleaded, “wouldn’t you rather
35         See for yourself?”

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Tribute to Chinua Achebe

For me, “Things Fall Apart” was just a novel. I came to it with no baggage, my shoulders unweighted by the colonial portmanteau of my parent’s generation, my mind decolonised and unintimidated by crinolines, English accents and bread and butter pudding. At fifteen, I read the novel in one sitting. Okonkowo threw Amalinze in my bedroom, murdered Ikemefuna in my kitchen and rather bathetically, swung from a tree in my toilet, oblivious to my sister’s knocking and shouting, “Chibundu come out. I need the bathroom.”

I had been running away from ‘Thing’s Fall Apart’ for many years. Its reputation preceded it, outdistanced it, ruined it in my opinion. A book about which there was so much hype could not but disappoint. And so I walked past Achebe whenever I saw him on a shelf until I reached that age when I started reading certain books because you ‘had to read them.’ Certain Victorian novelists, or certain Nobel Laureates, or certain ‘masters of the form.’ I would trudge through pages of text, understanding little, glad to finally reach the end so I could say, ‘Oh I’ve read so and so.’ Thus I came to Chinua Achebe as one would come to some traditional rite of passage. Not particularly enjoyable but you had to get on with it.

And then I read it and realised that Things Fall Apart was that rare and wonderful thing: a book that needed no reputation. The author’s background was irrelevant, his awards and accolades and sales figures and reviews and book club listings and Amazon rankings, all this was immaterial.  All you needed to do was pick up Things Fall Apart as a novel, just a novel, nothing more, nothing less and it would deliver on that. Save context for a second reading.

Yet, for those like my parents who lived closer to the slights and condescensions of imperialism, Things Fall Apart could never be just a novel. I asked my father what the book meant to him. The distance between my father and I is not just one of age or generation. Coups, pogroms, civil wars, structural adjustment programmes, Festac 77, wars against indiscipline, first republics, second republics, Federal Republics, Federal Democratic Republics: all these lie between my father and myself. For him, Things Fall Apart was bound up with identity. ‘He showed the good. He showed the bad.’ That was how my father put his thoughts. There were good things in Igbo culture before colonialism came and there were bad things. Just like in any society, in any culture, in any civilization. For a generation like my fathers, that had to prove that they were as good as, as smart as, as human as, Things Fall Apart was seminal. 

It’s a privilege to be able to put aside the context of Achebe’s work if I so choose and revel in nothing more than the words on the page. Yet I salute him for what he meant to a generation, the confidence he added to their stride and the assurance he gave them about their past. And then I salute him again, for what he did for many African writers, the inspiration he gave us, the doors he opened, into publishing houses and into the recesses of our imagination, as we drew on images and stories that we once thought bush, boring and unsophisticated. And finally, I salute Chinua Achebe, for what he meant and will mean to the world. For when those readers who understood the context of his times are long dead and when their children are long dead, there will still be those who will delight in the throwing of Amalinze and weep for the death of Ikemefuna.   

Read at the Africa Writes Literary festival in the British Library. Photos courtesy Carmen McCain.
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