Wednesday 22 December 2010

Do They Know It's Christmas Time At All?

And there won't be snow in Africa this Christmas time

It would have been disastrous if it snowed in Ubulu at Christmas. One night we would have gone to sleep in the soothing warmth of a Harmattan evening, the next morning, only half the village would wake up, the old dead dead from frost, the young coughing and wheezing. No,I am glad snow never came near my village in December. How would we have gone to see the masquerades sway in their raffia clothes, bending to the drum beats, flicking their canes at those passersby that got carried away and came too close. If there was snow, the masquerades would have caught pneumonia in their flimsy dress. If there was snow, we would have slipped on the ice and broken bones as we ran in squealing terror from the canes of the mmou. This white snow that Bing Crosby was dreaming of would surely have been a curse to us in Ubulu. So I am glad it never came.I wonder why the songwriters never worried that there wouldn't be snow in Kuwait, or Barbados, or Dubai?

The greatest gift they'll get this year is life

I suppose this is the greatest gift we all get every year. Presumably the Play Station, the bicycle and the Kindle are of no use if you're dead. Presumably. Maybe this is why my parents never bothered with gifts and maybe this is why we never missed them. Truly, it was gift enough to be alive in a December when my whole extended family converged on a small village in South Eastern Nigeria called Ubulu. About thirty cousins, ten Uncles and Aunties and others of various description, drivers, maids, cooks, would cram themselves into the family 'villa' and proceed to live together for about seven days. We would play and fight and sing and pray and cuss how boring the village was and gist and walk to the village market and run from masquerades and go to Church in our Christmas clothes and occupy at least seven pews of the Anglican Cathedral. They were the best days of the whole year and not even presents could have made them better.

Where nothing ever grows, No rain or rivers flow

This line I have never understood. I wish Bob Geldof and friends could have come to Ubulu in 1984 to see the thick bush that surrounded our house. It was always threatening to creep up to the door step and it had to be cleared continually. All over Eastern Nigeria, there were thickets and thickets of bush in that year of 1984. If only they had stopped by before they penned this opus so they could have corrected the lines to, "Where nothing ever grows, except in South Eastern Nigeria, and parts of Lagos, and Uganda and Kenya and Zimbabwe and South Africa and all those other places where Europeans colonised because they were so fertile." Maybe that was too much of a mouthful and maybe they visited the Sahara and thought in its vastness it encompassed the whole of Africa so I can forgive them but what is this about rivers never flowing? Nigeria is named after a river, the river Niger and last time I checked it hadn't dried up. If only they had google earth then, they could have checked.

Here's to them underneath that burning sun

I quite like the burning sun. In fact as ice covers my garden and the runways of Heathrow freeze over and my skin puckers into goosebumps every time someone opens the front door, my longing for the burning sun triples and quadruples until I have to shine a torch in my face to calm myself.

Do they know it's Christmas time at all

We didn't have Christmas trees and we didn't have snow and we didn't have stockings or elves or plump burglars that crawled down chimneys or reindeer with viral noses or turkeys or stuffing or cranberry sauce but we had bangers and jollof rice and family and masquerades and we did know that Christmas was to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ the son of God who came to a manger instead of landing in a palace, so yes Mr. Geldof, I suppose I cannot speak for the whole of Africa but yes, in South Eastern Nigeria, my little village of Ubulu, when the 25th of December came, we knew it was Christmas time.

I suppose their hearts were in the right places. Merry Christmas all. Have a great one.

Monday 20 December 2010

Big Boned

Nowadays, there is an ideal body type for women: skinny. If you are not skinny, you are fat and if you are neither skinny nor fat, then you are this curious hybrid thing between carrot and chocolate, anorexic and sybarite, desirable and undesired, big boned.

Big boned. I have been called that by well meaning relatives defending me in the face of criticism . "No she's not fat. She's just-- You know it's her body type-- She's um--You know that thing-- Big boned."

Big boned is not just a physical description, like tall or brunette or blue-eyed. Big boned is a description with connotations like gangly, or pimply or black. Attached to gangly is the impression of awkwardness, attached to pimply is ugliness and with the juxtaposition of big and boned, a sense of lack is conveyed. Not loss, like when you are called fat, no hope for you but lack, not quite there. Your cells were too calcium efficient, over producing this vital mineral until your bones stretched and widened you into something that was neither fat nor skinny, chocolate nor carrot. And the worst thing about being in this limbo land was it could only get worse. As a relative of mine once kindly informed me when in a flurry of insecurity and self consciousness I decided to go on a diet, "Your body type is not made to be skinny. You can get to like a size 8 but don't try for a six. It won't be normal."

I am certain it was a woman that coined the phrase big-boned. Seeing that there were not enough ways to put down her sex, ugly was not enough, fat was not enough, big boned had to be born. Perhaps it is because humans are socialised to always be physically in competition with one other, men want bigger biceps, girls want smaller thighs.

In the past I've been on a few 'diets.' Me and a friend, another 'big boned' individual who incidentally was never more than a size ten, made a pact to eat only apples, carrots, cucumbers and soy sauce for a week in order to 'detox.' Another time, I was a gymaholic, every night for an hour pounding away on the cross trainer, doing sit ups and swinging weights in my hands. Thankfully, these phases didn't last long. My laziness/elastic confidence/other things I cannot articulate always meant that I was back to reading on the couch and eating normally [N.B my foray into anorexia lasted two days.]

It could easily have swung the other way. After all I saw the reaction the smaller boned relatives and friends had when I shaved a a little flesh off my large bones, took a step towards joining their private party, they were happy that some of that flesh was gone even when they knew I was 'detoxing.'

It's funny, the other day, a relative of mine said to me, "You're so slim." To which I burst out laughing. Me! Big-boned me! Slim!

It seems like many things, this big boned/fat/gangly/ugly/beautiful/skinny thing is relative and as long as you're happy with where your standing, don't ever let anyone tell you different.

Pardon the erratic blogging behaviour. End of term deadlines loomed.

Tuesday 14 December 2010

More Girl Power

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani discussing why she is glad Ngugi wa Thiong'o didn't win the Nobel Prize. Here.

Saturday 11 December 2010

Girl Power

Really good article by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in the Financial Times. Check it out

Wednesday 8 December 2010

Future Awards

Hey guys. I've been nominated for the Creative Artist of the Year at the Future Awards. So if you check the nomination list and think I should win then vote for me. :)

Here's the link. You can vote online or by SMS if you're in England or Nigeria. Let the voting begin.

Saturday 4 December 2010

The Store

In my house in Lagos, there is a room that is always locked and for this reason, throughout my childhood, this room was endlessly fascinating to me. I would squint at the mosquito netting that dust had rendered opaque, I would press my face to the cracks in the door, I would turn the handle every time I walked past in the hope that today was the day the door would let me in. Not surprisingly, I was always asking about the store.

"Mummy what's in the store. Mummy what's in the store."
"There are books there. Books from my childhood and books from your brother and sister's childhood. And books that the house didn't have room for."
Books! To think that there was a room in my house that was full of books I'd never read. To think that all that separated me from these treasures was a flimsy wooden door. I would break it down. I would ram through it to get to those books.

"What else is there?" I knew but I wanted her to say.

"There are toys also. Toy cars and dolls that your sister and brother grew too old to play with."
"But why didn't you give them to me ?" I whined.
"Because you weren't born yet."
Toys! To think that there was a room in my house filled with dolls I hadn't played with. To think that all that separated me was this chipped wooden door.

But here the story always turned sour.

"Lets go and open it then!"
"I don't know where the key is."
"Can't you try and remember the last place you saw it."
"It was too long ago. I've forgotten."

So the locked room with the lost key remained locked until one day my mother said, "I'm going to go through the store this weekend."

I didn't bother to ask where she had found the key, I didn't bother to find out why she had finally decided to open the store, all I knew was that the store was opening and on Saturday, I would be united with the books and the toys. I wouldn't be greedy, I wouldn't take all, I would leave two or three books for a future brother or sister.

Saturday came and my mother handed me a white surgical mask.
"What's this for?"
"The store might be dusty."
I slipped it over my face irritated by its paperiness.

At first the key would not turn because the lock was stiff with age and decay.
"Let me try," I said. "Let me try." We had not come this far to give up.

Finally the key turned with a stiff click and I pushed the door open. A fog of dust descended on me.
"Come out first, let the room air a bit."
I stepped back a little, still looking into the store. Where were the toys? And the books? It was cluttered, dusty and damp at the same time. Where were my toys?

And then I spotted a lock of synthetic blond hair peeking out from under a carton box. A doll! I gripped the hair and pulled a Barbie with spotted black mold covering the front of her face and her dress.

I flung her to the end of the room and ran out screaming. "Iyama! Iyama! Iyama!"

I didn't enter the store after that but waited outside, watching my mother bin one mouldy book after the other, one broken plastic toy after the other. When my mother locked the store that day, I would never ask about it again.

As I've grown older, I've found that life is full of locked stores that we dream of breaking into. Sex, good grades, drugs, money, fame, rock and roll but once we open the room, the things inside never live up to the expectations we had while we were locked outside.

A relationship with God is the only store I know of that not only lives up to our expectations but exceeds them and this store is the only one for which everyone has been granted a key.

Thursday 25 November 2010

The Editor

My first editor was M. Before her, the people that read my work, (mostly family members) had been cheerleaders. It wasn't that they never criticised me but their criticism of my writing was mild, like soy sauce.

"It's really good. The writing is wonderful. Best thing since sliced bread but I don't like the end."

The thing was the criticism came so late that all I remembered in my head was praise. I never once gave a piece of writing to a family member and went away feeling bad. I always left them feeling like the Nobel was just around the corner; after JSSCEs and summer vacation.

Cue M.

She wasn't the first friend I'd shown my work to. The first was F. We were in primary 5 together; I was eleven; a little older than her; a little bigger than her and I was class Captain, with the force of law behind me. Maybe that's why when I showed her the opening pages of a novel I had scribbled in a chequered exercise book meant for Maths, she smiled widely and said "I really like it."
"Do you think I should continue?" I asked, probing for more praise.
"Yes, yes," she said, "It's really good."

M was not like F.

I showed her the first few pages of the book I was writing at the time. I had written twenty three, slow, painstaking twenty three pages and I expected her to read them all. When I asked, "Will you read the first few pages and tell me what you think?" I meant will your read all of it because you will like it so much that you will finish it and ask for more, more, more.

M stood up after page 5.

"The writing is really nice but nothing is happening."
"What do you mean?" I asked, wondering how she would turn this into a compliment.
"It's boring."

Point blank. No drenching in praise that made me forget the criticism tacked on at the end; no running over the sections that she liked and brushing lightly over the gaping holes. Point blank.

"But what's boring about it?"
"Nothing is happening. It's well written but there is nothing happening."

And that was all M would say.

I stopped writing that book because of M. She was right. There was no plot. The characters meandered around in painstakingly described settings, they thought interesting thoughts, they saw interesting things but they did absolutely nada. There was no point to that novel and my prose wasn't strong enough to carry this wandering aimlessness and so I gave this book the axe.

Of course you can't just allow anyone to be your editor. You can't just delete a book everytime somebody says it is boring. After all writing is a subjective thing. What's good for Peter can never be good for Paul but it's good to have a yardstick. Someone whose judgement you will trust, sometimes even at the expense of your own.

Funny enough, M doesn't read much, neither does she read novels for the purpose of criticism But out of the 3 books she reads in a year, all of them are quality and though she does not critique in the language of criticism, she cuts to the chase. In short, M is an intelligent reader. She didn't have to say there was no pacing or plot structure. Boring did it. She knew what she read and she knew how to express her opinions succinctly and directly.

Everybody needs an editor like M. An intelligent reader who not so much disregards your feelings but cares about your writing more.

About a two and a half years later, M read the first thirty pages of the draft of The Spider King's Daughter that I sent to my agent. She didn't stop after page 5. She read right up to where I would allow her to and then she breathed in deeply and said,

"Yaaaaaaah Chibs, this is very good."
"Why do you say so?"
"It the way you... Mmmm and in that bit where you... Ahhhhhh and that part where you almost... Ohhh I don't know how to say it."
Unfortunately when it came to compliments, M's usual succinctness deserted her.

Of course, you can only take being told your manuscript is boring so many times - my ideal ratio is about a thousand cheerleaders to one editor. However, you must, must, must have at least one person whose eye is on the book and not your feelings. You might not like it that the time but it will serve you well in the end. Trust me.

Wednesday 17 November 2010

My Life is Readable?

Chimamanda Adichie often speaks (most famously in this Ted Talk) about how reading Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, gave her permission to tell her own stories. Hitherto she had written about white children playing in white snow and drinking tan ginger beer but after reading Achebe, she realised that Africans were worthy of their own fiction and so set off on her journey to becoming the writer we all know today.

My story is somewhat different.I too was prone to writing the characters that I read in popular Western fiction. Thus all my books were set in America, in a landscape gleaned from my brief summer holidays there. My characters were white middle class, then African American middle class, then because my mother once told me to 'write what I know,' I bowed to her wisdom and made the father of this African American family of Nigerian extract. Like Chimamanda, I didn't think African people should be in books but not because I felt this was somehow taboo but because I just didn't think they could be fictionalised in an interesting way.

Nigeria was not exotic. It wasn't interesting. You could, if you wanted to, write novels with scenes of the traffic I sat in everyday, and the rice and stew I ate everyday and the mosquitoes that bit me in the night but Eze Goes To School would never be as sweet as Malory Towers and The Bottled Leopard only a dark flimsy retelling of Tom Brown's School Days.

It was only after I'd travelled four thousand miles and eaten apples everyday, and seen the lacrosse that Enid Blyton was always talking about, and tasted the famous fish and chips (fat and oil), that I realised that if English writers could fictionalize Sunday Roast in a way that made me want to taste it, then I could try and write about Ijebu garri, sugar and water in way that would make a Chinese man want to drink it. The longer I stayed away, the more interesting, and exotic, and readable my country became. After all Nigeria is a nation of hyperbole that even the wildest fiction cannot dream up. It is a place of police men arresting goats and women begging in traffic with borrowed babies and of politicians cross dressing to cross borders. If writers block should ever knack, then all one had to do was look outside their window.

So 4,ooo miles away, sitting in my cold room in school, I began to type away at the nucleus for what would eventually become my novel. For the first time, it would be set in Nigeria, with Nigerian characters, with Nigerian accents. For the first time the hero would be Nigerian, the villain Nigerian, the clown Nigerian, the battered, bruised, humoured, abused, loved, hated, laughed at, all would be Nigerian. It took me four thousand miles to believe that my country was interesting and complex enough to be read about at home, talk less of on a world stage. It was a while but I am glad I made it in the end. Some are still travelling.

Tuesday 9 November 2010

Writing A Novel is Like....


I suffered from severe bouts of constipation when I was a child. My mother blamed it on the lack of fibre in my diet; she blamed it on the fact I hated drinking water; she blamed it on my stubborn nature. Whatever reason, every two or three months, I found myself straining on the porcelain throne, then leaving my position to suck balefully on an orange, then resuming duty, then leaving to down a glass of water, then going in again, then coming out for some garri and water, then in again, then out again and back and forth, and back and forth.

Now anyone who has ever had serious constipation will know that you don't expel very much on your first few tries and this is very similar to the first stage of a novel. You have a great idea, a large, chunky piece of novel that is shoved inside you, waiting to come out. So you pick up a note pad, a typewriter, a laptop and you sit down, pen in hand, fingers poised and nothing comes out. Hopefully, not literally nothing but just very tiny, minute shavings of the great mass that is inside you that might as well be nothing.

I started the Spider Kings Daughter, two years and a few months ago. I remember the day clearly. It was the last day of my AS Level exams and I was relieved, a little stark eyed from cramming the functions of T-cells and lymphocytes into my head but I had promised myself that I would start writing this novel that had a title and a vague plot, the very day I finished my last paper so I turned on my lap top.

I sat down to write at around 4 o'clock and didn't get up for about five, six hours, and when I was done, I had a page long prologue that was about 600 words in length. I don't know if that sounds good to you, but six hundred words in 6 hours seemed frustratingly ridiculous. I mean I was happy with my six hundred words and very excited that I had started but when you did the Math, that was a hundred words an hour, fifty words every half hour, 25 words in 15 minutes and just over one word a minute which included words like but and 'and.' It only got worse. Two weeks later, I had five pages, three months later only 30, as you can see, this was an exponential decrease in pace.

What I'm trying to say is that just as in the first few days of constipation (my worst bouts lasted that long) very little comes out, in the first few months of writing a novel, very little might come out, painfully little, painfully little that is painful to push out.

However, take heart ladies and gentlemen because the one thing I learnt from my childhood years of constipation is that eventually, it has to come out. There comes a point where your body cannot endure any more. It has to make space for the next batch, your mind has to make room for new ideas and products, and so you go back in, you turn on your computer, and you shake, and you shudder, and you lose sleep, until you can say honestly, that it is all out and you can sleep properly now.

It took me a while to reach this point. I was about two thirds through when something just clicked, my mind had, had enough and literally the rest of the book just shuddered out of me. I was up every night till around 3am, writing in days, volumes that would have taken me weeks and before I knew it, it was The End. I wasn't finished. There was still editing and polishing and garnishing to do, but the novel was out; I could rest properly... until the next one.

So take heart ladies and gentlemen if any of you are in the process of writing a novel or knows someone writing a novel. It will come out ;)

Onyeka Nwelue the author of Abyssinian Boy was kind enough to mention me in a list of influential Nigerians under 20. Here's the link.

Tuesday 2 November 2010


Apparently, the month of Novemeber is the National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo as it is called in more literary savvy circles. Themes work for me (as seen from Nigeria Month) so I officially declare the month of November creative writing month on this blog. Yay!

I will talk about my writing experiences and anything and everything I can think of that has to do with creative writing. Stay tuned for more folks. NaNoWriMo should be fun.

Friday 29 October 2010


I don't really understand what people mean when they ask what tribe are you from? I mean of course I know what they literally mean. Are you Igbo? Or Hausa? Or Yoruba? Or Ijaw? Or Ibibio? Or Itsekiri? Or Nupe? Or one of those lines along which Nigeria is divided. But I don't know what they mean in concrete terms. It's all very well and good to label me Igbo because my father is Igbo or mixed tribe, because my mother is Yoruba, but what does this actually mean?

"It's your blood," a relative of mine once said to me when I denied that I was Igbo. "How can you deny your blood?"
This relative of mine is generally quite lucid so I knew he didn't mean if you spilled my blood on the ground it would start singing the theme tune to Things Fall Apart.

"What do you mean?" I asked and he replied something along the lines of, "There are certain things that will show up in your character that will make people know you are Igbo."

"So even if I don't speak Igbo and I don't understand the symbols in a traditional wedding, I'm still Igbo."

"All those things are superficial."

"What do you mean?" I asked.
"I'm talking about the Igbo character."

"And what is that?"

"Like," he paused to gather his thoughts. "Like... like, Igbo people are naturally sharp."

And then he went on to list a few of the other general 'characteristics' of Igbo people. Money savvy, smooth talkers. The traits he gave were positive but there are the more negative ones. Stingy, bourgeois, grabbing, tacky.

"And what about Yoruba people?" I asked. "What are their characteristics?"

"They always know where things are happening. "

"And Hausas?"

"They are gentle."

And the more he talked and the more you listen to many Nigerians talk, the more apparent it becomes that what we call tribe is actually stereotype and has very little to do with culture. Of course there are cultural differences between an Itsekiri man and an Igbo man. Language, food and dress are a few of these but the fact of the matter is that most people speak English in addition to their native language, most people eat rice, few people turn up to work in their full traditional regalia. The more urbanised we become and the faster we move into the 21st century (willingly or unwillingly) the more desperately we try to cling to what we see as our 'tribal identity'. We can no longer identify our ethnic group by markings on our faces or secret hand shakes and so we run behind these stereotypes. Yoruba men are this, Nupe women are that.

And this thing of classifying people along stereotypes just to preserve our identity and sense of apartness, is very dangerous. It led to the Holocaust; it led to genocide in Rwanda and it has led in more recent times to this idiotic thing that the PDP call 'zoning.' As if there is any difference between an Igbo thief and a Hausa one.

I am Nigerian first. Any day and everyday, Nigerian first. Then Lagosian (not Yoruba). I make the distinction because Lagos is a cosmopolitan city that time and time again defies tribe. Then I suppose if I had to fill a form that didn't allow me to explain my lengthy views on tribe, I would tick Igbo and Yoruba.

This is the last post in Nigeria month. It is not the last time I will blog about Nigeria but perhaps I will retire from this topic for a while. Hope you enjoyed.

Tuesday 26 October 2010

The Death of A Strong Man

I still remember where I was when he died or the news of his death reached our ears: half way between upstairs and downstairs, dawdling for reasons I have now forgotten. My left hand trailed along the wooden banister, my feet dragged over marble chipped stairs, my school bag hung to the ground and it would have taken me double my usual time to climb the stairs if I hadn’t heard screaming from my parent’s room.




I bounded up the stairs but before I could reach the room, my aunt came running out of the door. “Yey!”

“What happened? What happened?”

She ignored me.



By now fear or some strange, clutching feeling gripped me and I entered my parent’s room slowly. My mother lay on her side of the bed, staring at the TV. Whatever the news, it was not shocking enough to get her out of bed but her usual position was drastically altered: her hands instead of lying in her lap were balanced on her head.

“Mummy what happened?”

She shook her head slowly.

“Mummy what happened?”

“He’s dead.”



And with that one word, I joined my aunty outside, screaming and spinning in a circle and clapping. I couldn’t have been more than eight but even then, I knew that the death of a strong man could only elicit rejoicing and shouting and screaming. All over the news, images of thousands and millions of people, rejoicing at the death of this one man, were beamed from all over the country. In one afternoon, Nigerians from different tribes, different backgrounds, different religions, were united in their joy over the death of General Sani Abacha.

He was one of the so called ‘strong men of Africa’ that dominated the continent’s politics in the 90s. Dictators like Idia Amin and Mobutu were cut from the same rags as him. He committed atrocity after atrocity, filling the country with rumours of journalists killed, opponents killed, women and children killed; causing a smog like fear to cloak my country.

It was an apple that did it. A poisoned apple they say and never since the fall of man have the connotations of this fruit been so positive.

And so Nigeria rejoiced at the death of this strong man. And my aunty rejoiced at the death of this strong man. And I rejoiced at the death of this strong man.

The still living strong men of African politics should take heed. For too many, the best we will be able to say of their lives is in death, they made us happy.

Tuesday 19 October 2010

From the Passenger Seat

In my childhood, most of what I saw of ugly Lagos (the one plastered over the international media despite middle class protest) I saw from the passenger seat of my father's old, square, blue Mercedes. We never took public transport. We rarely walked not even when our school was fifteen minutes away. Public Transport in Lagos can be a dangerous thing, walking on the road is arguably even more dangerous, so everywhere we went, we went in the old, square, blue Mercedes.

We travelled Lagos in that car and on our travels, I couldn't help seeing ugly Lagos because you see, the more you travel around Lagos, the more you realise that quite a large chunk of Lagos is ugly Lagos. The houses with gaping tooth windows, the gutters swilling into the street, the holes that stretch from left to right side of the road: they are everywhere.

"Show them Lekki!" the insulters of the BBC's 'anti-Nigerian' documentaries cry, "show them VGC! Show them the nice areas that have good roads and big houses and milk and honey not mud and slime flowing through their streets. Show them!"

I know Lekki; I know VGC,;I know old Ikoyi and it is true, they are beautiful places. But before I can reach Ikoyi and taste its bourgeois pleasures, I must first pass Isaleko and its slum housing. Before my shoes stride across the painstakingly cobbled streets of VGC, I must glide past the villagers of Osapa and their electricity free, water free, noise plenty shacks.

Ugly Lagos is everywhere even right in the heart of bourgeois Lagos, right in the centre of Ikoyi herself.

And so I saw ugly Lagos in the passenger seat of my father's old, square, blue Merc as I drove from one middle class play ground to another. I rarely stopped to get down and see except when visiting a relative of mine who lived in ugly Lagos.

She lived there by accident (if such a thing is possible). Her house had once been on prime property, belonging to respectable, pristine, Lagos society but slowly, without anyone noticing, not even her, ugly Lagos, crept, and crept, and crept closer until one day, she woke up in the middle of a slum.

This relative of mine has moved now -the neighbours were giving her headache- and she is once more firmly ensconced in good looking Lagos. The old, square, blue Merc is gone now. It died of old age. Still the passenger seat remains, albeit in another vehicle and still, I see ugly Lagos from its comfort.

Maybe I should start thinking more about how to clean up ugly Lagos or one day I will wake up in the middle of ugly Lagos and there will be nowhere to move to.

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Boarding School: Contraband Wars

When one uses the term 'boarding school' in England, the images conjured are of horse riding, lacrosse sticks and tartan. My Nigerian reality was slightly different. The only horses we saw were in Agricultural Science text books, a lacrosse stick would have been seized for looking like a weapon and I'm not sure I even knew what tartan was back then.

Some of the most vivid memories I have are of the contraband wars that we students fought with our housemistresses and housemasters. The contention rose from this. Since time immemorial, students have been allowed to bring food, tuck, provisions to school. A few sweets here, a little garri, some Milo, a packet of biscuits nothing major or harmful. But in my second term of boarding, the authorities decided that the established practice of substistuting horrid school meals with tuck was unacceptable so all provisions were banned.

We were furious! How dare they take away our rights to eat biscuits in break time? How dare they stop us from slurping garri and water and sugar in the middle of the night? So we rebelled in the only way we knew. Not by protests or walking out of class or shouting down our teachers (all these tactics were for our more advanced brethren overseas). Instead, we resorted to subterfuge: smuggling. And our teachers resorted to human rights violations: searches.

At first the authorities tried to counter this wave of smuggling by searching our boxes at the beginning of each term. Before we were allowed into the boarding house, we would line up with our boxes waiting to be searched by the zealous housemistresses and their minions.

"On the table," one housemother would bark and we would be forced to hoist our heavy boxes onto these tables. Then unceremoniously they would unzip our boxes and begin to rifle through, poking our underwear, shaking out our carefully folded shirts to make sure that no bars of chocolate were hidden away in the sleeves. Nothing was sacred. Underwear, pads, even pat searches for those who thought they could escape by stuffing some sweets in their pockets.

We students grew wise. We bought boxes that had bottoms that you could unzip to reveal another layer underneath. We got parents (willing conspirators in the war against injustice) to drive to the back of the boarding house before they left and pass goods through the windows.

We grew wise but the authorities grew wiser. Though we managed to get the food in we always had to be on the alert because you never knew when your room would be chosen for a shock search. You would come back from school and see your locker scattered or your bed overturned all in the quest for illegal garri and groundnuts. Some stuffed food in their pillows. They were discovered. Some stuffed food in their bathing buckets. They were discovered. The most horrid memory I have of the contraband wars is of a girl standing beside her upset wardrobe and the house mother clutching a small bag of garri in her hand triumphantly.

But we students had our victories too. We still managed to keep some provisions from the grabbing hands of the housemistresses and we ate our forbidden tuck late into the night, knowing that we might have lost many battles but we would never lose the war.

I too must confess that I smuggled and whenever I undergo the mandatory box search at Murtala Mohamed Airport and see how the guards avoid my underwear and slide their hands gently through my clothes, I chuckle to myself. The Nigerian security force has nothing on my Head Matron. Nothing at all.

Saturday 9 October 2010

I Weep For Nigeria

I weep for Nigeria because I do not know how to fix her. If a car is broken you take it to the mechanic; if a switch is broken, you send for an electrician but what if a country is broken? What then? Dial 118-China or wait for 911-America to respond?

And if something is spoilt beyond repair, why not bin it? Except a country is not like a tattered bag, easily replaced. Where do you buy a new nation when Europe has stopped manufacturing them? Where do you find the manual for making a DIY state? Do you bin the leaders and keep the people? Do you save the poor and kill the rich? Or is it only the middle that is good for nothing?

And so I weep for Nigeria because there is no handbook for Return to the Good Old Sixties. 50 years later, I would rather live 50 years ago. I would rather live in that time when things were possible, doable; when new horizons were spreading before the budding Giant of Africa.

Or was the giant still born? Or worse was it born prematurely and consigned to a life of futility because of its hurry to get out of Mother Britain’s womb. Maybe our colonisers left too early. Maybe they didn’t have enough time to fully explain to us what a DE-MO-CRA-CY was. Maybe they never finished their classes on Leadership is for the Good of the Led – repeat after me.

Or maybe they set us up to fail. Vindictively, they stirred tribes against each other, carved an area of discontent into the map and left with a salute and good luck. But 50 years later, can we still blame them?

And so I weep for Nigeria still pointing fingers fifty years later. I weep because the best leaders still do us bad but we praise them because it is better than the worse of yesterday. I weep for Nigeria because in the 21st century, who can expect beyond light, clean water and real drugs. I weep because my tears are futile and my action is needed. I weep because I do not know where to start. I weep because my country is broken and I do not know how to fix her.

I weep.

Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted. (Matt. 5:4)

Friday 8 October 2010


I have resumed school and to my surprise, I have found that second year is more difficult that first year. The reading is more, the more is more difficult, the classes are more, the more is more difficult, the teachers speak the same English, but even the same is more difficult.

Nevertheless, I will soldier on with my blogging, though not as often as before. While I'm here, I might as well announce that from henceforth, October will be Nigeria month on this blog. I don't know what this means as I've never celebrated an October month on ASBTW before. I suppose I'll soon find out.

Wednesday 29 September 2010

Nigeria At 50

I've known Nigeria for 19 years and I still don't understand her. She's a bit too temperamental for my liking.

When I first met her she loved me. I'm sure of it because whenever my parents gave me a little money to buy sweets, Nigeria would make sure that money stretched a long way. Just 5 Naira could buy me a whole bag of sweets and let me not even start on the wonders that 10 Naira could perform.

But then as I grew older, Nigeria's love for me cooled because whenever my parents gave me 5 Naira, she wouldn't stretch it for me and all I could come back with was one measly strip of chewing gum.

Or maybe Nigeria was just concerned for my teeth that's why she kept making the price of sweets go up and up and higher and up. Maybe she loved me after all?

But what about the time when she allowed the bombs explode outside my house. True she said it was an accident but what kind of accident is that? Hundreds of my siblings died because of her stupid accident. Or the time she made my father queue six hours to buy half a tank of petrol True, she said she was working on it but she's been working on it for years!

Please don't think I'm a pushover in this relationship and I just take Nigeria's rubbish lying down. I get angry with her. I rant. I rave. Then she promises she will do better, she even shows me some of the things she's doing to change. Like the time I spent a ten day vacation with her and she showed me the road she's widened to reduce the traffic.

"But it doesn't stretch far enough," I said. "You've only widened part of it and the rest of it is the same. It's still too narrow."
"I know," she said, "I know but I've started and I'm working on it," she whined, "I'm working on it."

Then she showed me a rail road that had been clogged by traders who had built their stalls on the tracks. Nigeria had broken up their stalls and chased them away to make way for her new train system that would revolutionise transport.

"But what about the people that used to work here," I shouted. "What have you done to compensate them?"
"What do you mean nothing?"
"I'm working on it," she said, taking my hand and showing me the tracks that were empty for the first time in years.
"You said I should make progress didn't you?" she said cutting me off. "Well this is progress."
"But what about the people who don't have jobs because you've kicked them out?"
"I'm working on it," she said. "At least say well done for the one I've done."

So on the eve of Nigeria's 50th, I say well done for the one you've done. It is not enough. It is nowhere near enough but it's your birthday so I'll relax because it's rude to point out flaws on a friend's birthday. Come October 2nd, we'll discuss.

Monday 27 September 2010

My First Interview

It was with CNN and it was on the phone and thankfully, it was nothing like Hardtalk. I've pasted the link in case you want to check it out.

:) We thank God.
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