Wednesday 29 February 2012

An Evening with Chika Unigwe

Photo Courtesy Ike Anya
The reading was in a swanky South Kensignton hotel called The Gore. The event was organised by the Dutch Embassy and was billed to start at 7pm. At 7:15 I rushed breathless into the hotel lobby and was  pleased to discover that the Dutch are as flexible with their time as their Nigerian counterparts. There was a nice, dim waiting area and the main event was downstairs.

It was an informal space, with a few sofas against the walls and a wide floor space in the middle. Nigerian that I am, I sharply found a sofa arm to perch on. Sitting on the floor outside your house is just not done. Before the reading began, Chika mingled with her fans. She was gracious, greeting people like me who she's only met once, very warmly. By the time we were ready to start the room had filled up.

She read from a short story called The Love of a Fat Woman. It was about a Nigeriam man who'd married a woman he found unattractively and nauseatingly fat, in order to get immigration papers in the Netherlands. It's a common story that most Africans are familiar with. Interesting, however, was the manner in which this story was told. Chika neither condemned nor condoned the practice but rather wished to humanise it and did so in a very humorous way. The anti-hero prefers his fiance's svelte and attractive friend but she doesn't not notice him. So he settles for the papers that unfortunately come with a corpulent bride attached to them. When he takes her home he promises his mother that he will marry a 'real wife' later on.

 We felt for the main character's over weight and insecure fiancĂ© who believed that their love was genuine. But we also understood why the main character felt that this deception was the only way. We were moved by his close relationship with his family and because of that, it wasn't so easy to write him off as a cruel and unfeeling paper hunter.

The next story she read was  told from the perspective of his relatives at home and their reaction to the Agaracha's new wife. I found this different outlook on events hilarious. His brother's wife, speaking of the Dutch bride's size, described her as a 'room and parlour.' Her earrings which were wooden had to be African because they did not look like they came from anywhere else and there was a lot of wood in Africa. They tried to offer her Western food but she refused insisting on eating pounded yam and even worse, insisting on eating it with her hands. Her in-laws rather uncharitably concluded that she was trying too hard.

Chika and her fans. :) Photo courtesy Tokunboh @toksy27
Too soon the reading segment ended and we had reached the QandA. In the second short story she read, she had written in English, Dutch and Igbo and one member of the audience asked how she found the process of moving through those languages in her writing. She spoke of how and why she learnt Dutch. She used to suffer panic attacks because after she moved to Belgium with her husband, she couldn't go anywhere by herself because she didn't understand a word of the language. And when she met her in-laws, she couldn't understand them either. So she had to pick up the language quickly.

She spoke about Belgium and why she had felt compelled to write 'On Black Sisters Street', her novel about Nigerian prostitutes working in the red light district. She described the Catholic home she had grown up as one where sex was rarely talked about. One of her favourite songs in her childhood was 'Let's Talk About Sex' by Salt and Pepper. However, the word sex was such a taboo that she substituted it with 'bread.' So whenever she sang it, the song became,  "Let's talk about bread baby." I can imagine that the next line would be, "Let's talk about yeast and dough."
 I know.

So anyway, coming from this background, to get to Belgium and see sex everywhere was certainly a different experience. She described women in their lingerie, posing in glass windows waiting for their customers and she discovered that many of the girls were Nigerian and in particular from Benin. So at first, she tried to write the story without meeting the girls and on showing it to someone, they advised her to meet the women if she wanted an authentic story. So she put on her mini-skirt and took her husband with her to the red light district to meet them. The stories she heard were harrowing. One girl had been invited to Germany by her estranged father who had then sent her to live with a 'friend' in another European country. This 'friend' had run a brothel and the proceeds of her work had been sent to her father in Germany. She told of women without papers arrested by police and allowed to leave on the condition that they slept with the police men first.

She also, very excitingly, said that her next book was coming out in June. It's set in Nigeria and is about a relationship between a mother and a daughter. And her next-next book is going to be a work historical fiction set in the eighteenth century. I'm very, very excited about that one, being a history student et al. It's just been delivered to her agent so hopefully, we'll see that on the shelves soon as well.

And then just like that the evening was over and it was time to go and face the more mundane things of life like grocery shopping and dissertation writing. Chika closed to applause and flowers, which was exactly what you would expect.   

Monday 27 February 2012

Black Book Swap

So this Saturday I'm going to be reading at the first ever Black Book Swap. It's free, so do come along if you're not busy this weekend between 1 and 5pm. There's a great line up, including Colin Grant, Sonja Lewis and Bim Adewunmi of Diane Abbott twitter fame among other things. It's going to be in the fabulous Jamaican restaurant Cottons, (70 Exmouth Market, London EC1R 4QP) so come if only for the jerk chicken. To reserve a place email I've updated the events page on the blog to show all my upcoming events so even if you can't make this Saturday, there'll be other readings. Hope to see you at one of them.  

Full details here.

Thursday 23 February 2012

Awoof Tales

I do not intend that this post serve as an analysis of  the Nigerian behavioural pattern known as 'awoof'.' Neither do I want to discover the etymology of this word, interesting though such a process might be. What I am concerned in documenting, is three instances where this behaviour has risen to the surface of the cultivated exterior that I and my close ones often try to exhibit. I leave analysis and explanation for another more appropriate forum.

1. A few weeks ago, whilst perambulating down my university corridors, I noticed a rather large crowd gathered in a rather large room appropriately called the Great Hall.
"What's going on?" I asked the lady making sure that only those who attended King's were admitted access into the usually unmanned Great Hall.
"It's a law careers fair."

I was on my way somewhere but hearing that a careers fair was in town, my plans for the day were suspended. This of course would make sense if I was interested in pursuing a career in the law. But I am not. I rescheduled my plans for the day because I knew that wherever a careers fair is, freebies must also be there. So I presented my student ID and was let into the hall.

And what a hubbub of law firms all welcoming passing students to their stalls. In the corner, I spied some snazzy pens. On the far right were mugs. To my left were water bottles. Where to begin? I took a step forward and stopped. What was my strategy? After all, I couldn't just walk up to a stall, grab its free goods and run off to the next one, only to do the same. A pattern would soon be observed. A girl of African descent, sidling up to a desk, snatching a highlighter and then making a dash to the next table two feet away. I realised that I would have to strike up conversation at every law firm whose freebies caught my eye in order not to give my people back home a bad name.

What a boring task it was. These lawyers can talk. And talk. And talk. At first I just made mmmm sounds, waiting for their monologues to be over so I could ask,"Please may I have a five-headed highlighter?"

Quite by accident, I struck on a way to make these talks more interesting. One lady, who intended to make me work for my gel pen, asked at the end of her speech, 'Do you have any questions?"
 "Umm. Do you have-- Umm, do you guys do any human rights law?"
"Umm. No. Not really. We have some clients in Africa though."

Each law firm rep, took a different approach to this question. Some, like the first lady were embarrassed by their firm's lack of altruism. Others looked at me like I was stupid before replying, "Of course not." And one lady said to me, when I had walked through the halls and by this time was laden with my loot and a little weary, "To be honest, you won't find anyone who does human rights law here. I wanted to go into that for a while and the best thing to do is to look online." Ah, honesty from a lawyer. How refreshing.

Eventually, I struggled my way through the doors, carrying almost half my weight in freebies and law brochures. I left the brochures on a College Bench for anyone who was interested and went on my merry way, eating my giant lollipop.

2. My sister was fortunate enough to get to the final stages of an interview with a large multinational. Lucky for her, the interview was in luxury hotel in the country. She gushed about how beautiful the place was. The large rooms, the excellent breakfast and of course, the bathroom. For some reason, of all rooms in the house, Nigerians are most enamoured with the bathroom. Perhaps it is because our heavy diets ensure that we spend large portions of our time in there. Anyway, my sister oohed and aahed over the wide mirrors, the deep tub, the towels and then she spotted the soap. It was the same colour as cognac: dark liquid orange and it was kept in a glass carafe.

Needless to say, my sister came back with one. Now before you start shouting and saying, "We knew it! Awoof runs in their family!" let me explain how my sister returned with this rather weighty souvenir. At the end of her stay, she had considered taking the carafe. It was beautiful, stylish, just the right thing to improve the tone of our bathroom at home. But then she thought better about it. This was not like taking a plastic bottle of shampoo or a face flannel, this was more akin to stealing. So she left the hotel as she came, awoof free.

On the train journey back however, she sat with her Nigerian friend from primary school who had also incidentally been called for the interview. Of course, they spent ten minutes gushing about the room. Then the breakfast, those scrambled ehn, freshly laid by a chicken that morning.Then they got to the bathroom. Oh the bathroom. That wonderful place. My sister expressed regret at the morals that stopped her from permanently borrowing the hotel's beautifully packaged shower gel.

Her friend laughed long and hard and then opened her bag. Inside were not one but two glass bottles. One with shampoo, one with shower gel. This friend was generous however, and gave one bottle to my sister. It still sits on our bathroom rim till this day and we refill it and ooh and ahh over the lovely way the glass displays the different colours of shower gel we have poured into it.

3. I have an aunt who was on extended stay in America. We visited her and at some point, went shopping at a well-heeled supermarket. When we got to the till, she declined the woman's offer of bagging and said that we would do it ourselves. Meaning I would do the bagging. As the goods were passed to me, I began to put them in a single bag.
"Double bag them," she said. Some of the goods were quite heavy, so her request was understandable.
I double bagged, and moved on to the next items.
"You're putting too many things in one bag."
I thought the amount of around five items per bag was quite reasonable but clearly my aunt didn't think so. She shoved me aside and I watched as she put a tin of sweetcorn in a plastic bag and then double bagged that. A cabbage was triple bagged, a pack of chewing disappeared into four plastic bags.

The till lady was staring at us but my aunt did not seem to notice. When all the items had been scanned she paid. I went behind the trolley, ready to go when she grabbed a handful of about twenty plastic bags and shoved them into a double-bagged bag of peanuts.
"For good measure," she said as we walked back to her black, SUV.

Now that ladies and gentlemen is how you do awoof.

Awoof does not directly translate to freebie but nothing reasonable came up when I google imaged 'awoof Nigeria'.

Saturday 18 February 2012

Black Humour in South Africa

These two comedians are using comedy to address South Africa's racist past and the issues arising today from it.

Here are the first lines of the Reconciliation Song
"Make a white friend, don't be afraid of them,
I know that their great-great-great grandparents....
Probably killed yours
But that was back then."

Too controversial or just the right tone to confront the problems about race in South Africa today.

Wednesday 8 February 2012

Opening a Bank Account in Nigeria

Last summer, I got a writing gig in Nigeria and it was a paying gig. The problem was I didn't have a bank account to cash the cheque. I asked around and the majority of people I spoke to said I should bank with a certain new generation bank.
"They're the best."
"Most modern."
"Most efficient."
 I don't know how comparatively onerous opening a bank account in Nigeria is but as I find all form filling challenging, I knew the experience was not going to be fun. I went to my aunt's office on the fateful day. She was opening a company account so she asked the two men handling that account to bring forms for a current account.

One of the men was dressed in a normal suit and tie get up, the recognisable uniform of most Nigerians who work in the higher end industries of banking, telecoms and petroleum marketing. The other, who would prove the more obnoxious, was wearing a dark blue sweater over his shirt and tie. I don't know why but this really annoyed me. In this heat, somebody was walking around Lagos in such a thick sweater? Rationally, I knew why most office workers in Nigeria dressed for an English autumn day. Often, the air conditioning in their offices was turned down to such goose bumpingly cold temperatures that most carried jumpers, pashminas and extra blazers to work. Why someone didn't just increase the air conditioning temperature has always been beyond me? 

Thus, I understood why this man might have felt the need to wear a sweater in his office. But he was out of that office and the room we were in had only one fan. "Aren't you hot?" I wanted to ask.

I was handed the form. Name: Chibundu Onuzo. DOB: easy enough. Then I got to state of origin and things began to get a little complicated. First of all, why does a bank want to know my state of origin? 
"Aunty S," I said, "Is it ok if I put Lagos?" I had consulted her before I filled most of the preceding lines. 
"No, I don't think so."
"You can't," the sweatered man said. "I've never heard of a Chibundu from Lagos."
I tried to explain to them that I had once heard Governor Fashola say that everyone born in Lagos was from Lagos. They were having none of it. I tried to point out that my Grandfather who hailed from Ijebu Ode originally, collected a National Honour as a Lagosian because he had lived there for so long. They were having none of it. I am sad to say that between my aunt and sweater man, I was cowed into putting Imo as my state of origin. In a way, it is my state of origin because it is where my father is from but then so is Ogun State because that is where my mother is from and so is Lagos state because that is where I was born. Surely I should be allowed to choose which I put on my bank form without interference? 

At some point, sweater man said to me, "You know you need a minimum of 50k to open a current account with us."
"50K are you serious? Isn't that expensive?" I had enough money, just with the skin of my teeth, but I was wondering how the average Nigerian could have such an account when the opening fee was so high.
"Some banks charge more," sweater man said as if to suggest that an opening fee almost triple the minimum wage was generous.
"But how can people who aren't rich afford it? That's too much surely?"
"Well it used to be free to open a current account. Then all these market women came and started opening accounts."
"What's wrong with that?"
"They'll just come to the banks and be making the place smell. They have their own co-operative banks they can use if they want to put their money somewhere."

I could not believe what I was hearing. Really and truly I was speechless. To disregard the informal economy of market women when in its entirety it was worth billions of Naira.  It's the kind of thing you suspect bankers are always thinking about the little fry that deposit small amounts but to here one actually say: we don't want their custom; they're not our kind of customer. He was unperturbed by the shocked look on my face so I went on filling my form in silence.

In the end, after all that wahala, the form bounced. I had failed to fill a section correctly and as I was travelling the next day, I never got a chance to alter my mistake. I'm glad. I want to live in Nigeria one day and I will probably need a bank account but I will try and steer clear of this new generation bank which is too proud to take the money of market women.

Funny video I saw first on Jeremy's naijablog.

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Graduate with a CV

The Minister for Youth Development in Nigeria, Mr. Bolaji Abdullahi has come again. It seems for the Nigerian corper, one week one trouble is the recurring theme. The government has not effectively addressed how corpers can go to the toilet without having to squat over a hole in the ground. Yet, our Minister for Youth Development has come up with a new plan to completely re-design the NYSC scheme. If he is successful, from next year NYSC will 'post corpers to rural areas only with no provision for redeployment.' Mind you, Mr Abdullahi of course is very sympathetic to the plight of the youths. In his own words, 'Corpers would no longer be posted to banks and other organizations where they are always being rejected.' They will now be posted to villages where their main concern will be 'agriculture, rural health, infra structure and education.' Mr Abdullahi's idea it seems is to turn our graduates into farmers using primitive instruments because I for one, have never seen a tractor in my village. 

This talk of reform got me thinking of a conversation I had with my cousin last year about the NYSC. He currently lives and works in America and I asked him when he was going back to serve. Never, he said. He felt the system was useless as it failed to provide students with meaningful work experience. He then continued to detail the direction he wished to see NYSC reforms going in. With a little editing (cutting out the bad bb speak), I'm just going to cut and paste that conversation here. Let me know what you think.

E: NYSC should be incorporated  into the university system. That is where it will be beneficial.
Me: Ehen go on. Explain.
E: It is a form of internship (since the job is not guaranteed)
Me: So when should you do it. Over summer or something?
E: It would be beneficial to incorporate it to a student's major so they can get a taste of what they would be doing when they graduate. Over summer for their third and final year.
Me: So twice. Some universities here do a year out type of thing.
E: We have it here, it is not mandatory but people get it in their third year and intern the whole semester. It also counts as college credit. And you get paid as well.
Me: By who, the job or the university?
E: The job.
Me: But university is already so long in Naija what with strikes etc. Some people just want to graduate sam.
E: The job pays them, the student pays the school and gets credit towards the degree.
Me: Ah I see. If it was added to your degree, you wouldn't have to spend an extra year. Then the options could be: do NYSC for a year as credit for university or graduate and do it, thus spending five years.
E: Well it could be mandated.
Me: That's not fair. In America etc its by choice isn't it. Too much by force tings for Naija.
E: It is, but we don't have NYSC. So if you have to mandate something, mandate it when folks can actually apply what they are learning.
Me: It's not a bad idea. And that way people can actually get relevant work experience because sometimes, you are posted to things you don't have a background in.
E: Exactly. You graduate with a 'CV'
Me: That can be the tagline. 'Graduate with a CV.' But wait! What about the foreign graduates. They must suffer too.
E: Why does it have to be considered suffering? The camps are a waste of time. It is another avenue for politicians to chop. It is not needed.
Me: This is true. But that community development part should be there. It's important. How will foreign students get that?
E: How many people utilise the community development?
Me: You'd be surprised. People in rural areas don't have much choice really. It's the people posted to Lagos etc that skive.
E: The money that would be spent on the upkeep of NYSC should be allocated to specific individuals to perform these tasks.
Me: I don't get.
E: It will create more jobs sef. What does community development entail?
Me: One day a week you do CD and the remaining days are for your job/work experience. So for example, M[another cousin] was posted to work in a school and she was an SS2 English teacher in a state school for a year. Also, another thing about NYSC is its supposed to create national unity.
E: Chibundu you have more sense than this nah. What is supposed to happen and what actually happen are totally different. The sad part is that the actual vision of NYSC has been lost and now we hear all the ills that are going on in these camps.
Me: No but people still get posted all over Nigeria. A new scheme has to incorporate the ideals of the old. Maybe your work experience must be found in a state you don't live in and you can then do community development one day a week during your stay in that state.

That's how far we got before the conversation petered out and moved on to more trivial things. But what do you think about my cousin's 'Graduate with a CV' idea? I think it's excellent. There are still some holes. How does one incorporate foreign graduates into such a system for example? But for the bulk of students who take part in this scheme and are Nigerian graduates, I think such a plan would be a massive improvement. What say ye?
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