Dear Storyteller, We Need New Folktales

 

John Njuguna Guchacha, “Take my hand and live
art by John Njuguna Guchacha,

if
our
children
will have trees,
we must plant them

If we research communal traits like bravery, self-restraint or hospitality, we might find the seeds of those traits in the diet of folktales on which the community was raised. Those stories, shared in childhood, germinate into grown up values that replicate themselves everywhere the folktales are retold. As those tales are translated and adapted, those positive traits cross borders; they become regional, even continental.

Our folktales are still seed, but they are no longer sown in the hearing of our children. Today they are often artefacts in our museum of stories. Yet, the minds of our children are still fertile land, and if they do not find the seed of value-driven folktales, they will grow other more philistine values for the Frankenstein societies of the future.

That is where you come in, dear Storyteller. You have been called to the frontline of the battle for that future. Your challenge is to reimagine a folktale for today’s child – for your son or daughter, niece or nephew – such that they can enjoy tales rooted in their times. This is no mean task, as every adult who has ever been importuned by a child for a story knows. It takes a certain kind of genius to take characters and conflicts from everyday life and tell a tale so indelible that a mother recalls it from her childhood in time to tell her own children. This is not simply a matter of giving the cunning tortoise a mobile phone or giving Anansi the spider an email address. It is not just a matter of transplanting the old tales from village to city. Perhaps it is more about weaving conflicts confronting modern children – along with wise resolutions – into the fabric of a brand new tale that excites even the parents sharing it with their children.

Your challenge is to write a story that will help parents win their children’s attention from television. A tale that will leap from the pages of a book into the oral traditions of communities, so that future generations will contest its ownership much like Jollof rice is contested today – until some researcher discovers how YOU first submitted that story here: http://www.reimaginedstories.com/submit-your-story/  on  the moonlit midnight of 20th May, 2016, and it started its journey into the hearts of a generation of children.

Go on and click, dear Storyteller. The future is waiting on you.

polytheistic nostalgia

 

we
profess
one God, but
miss our idols so:
so we raise altars
for the worship
of our Ogas
at the
top

The Second-Best Reason for Our Lives

We are probably there right now, slaving away at a replacement for our true purpose in life.

What is your pacifier? The baby knows that the plastic teat in its mouth is not the real thing, but it will settle for it – at least until the hunger pangs really begin to gnaw, then it will cry for the real thing. Perhaps you are not yet hungry for the real purpose of your life? Perhaps you have decided to settle for the pacifier for the rest of your life?

Yesterday someone took a decision concerning her career that she will regret for the rest of her life. It was not necessarily a bad decision. Indeed it might well have been a practical, if not lucrative decision, but she will still regret it all the same. It was a decision to settle for the Second-Most-Important Reason for her Life.

She was a hair stylist at heart. The building of nests with hair is her one and consuming passion… but she was also good at Physics, Chemistry and Geography, – and she listened to conventional common sense, and sensible parents and studied Geology at university. She will spend the next four decades drowning her passionate dreams with a fat salary from an oil company. This afterall, is why hobbies were invented: to relieve the rigours of the subsistence farmer with a bit of fun whittling at weekends…. or to give the nine-to-fiver a taste of the real reason for his life, when he comes back exhausted after slaving away at the second-best reason for his life.

There is a principle of Displacement at work here. Often an essential assignment appears so intimidating in scope, so impossible to achieve that we rise from our desk and go and wash the dishes. When the dishes are done, we head back to the desk, remember the difficult assignment, and veer into the garden to mow the grass. We eventually become so efficient at Displacing the Real Purpose for our lives with excellent, useful, lucrative, subsidiary, procrastinations that we will eventually believe what everyone else around us tells us about the successful, useful, lucrative, lives we live, and permanently shut the door on the real purpose for our lives… but deep inside…

We know.

40 Years After; Chinua Achebe in the Global Imagination.

 

Chinua Achebe delivered his seminal lecture on Conrad at the Amherst Interdisciplinary Studies Institute, UMass back in 1975.  Last October, the institute marked the 40th year of that lecture with a symposium. All in all a stimulating conference, with Johnnetta Cole, Rowland Abiodun, Esther Terry, Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, Okey Ndibe, Caz Phillips, Chika Unigwe, Jules Chametzky, Maaza Mengiste, Chinelo Okparanta, Achille Mbembe, Patrick Mensah, Joye Bowman, Sabina Murray and director, Stephen Clingman, among others, in attendance. My own panel with Maaza Mengiste and Chinelo Okparanta was moderated by Sabina Murray. It was titled ‘We shall do Unheard of Things’, and was caught on video:

 

 

In my ‘paper’ I tried to lay a foundation for the ‘bribecode’ as a post-Achebe baton. It was a useful symposium, a contemplative pause to evaluate how much had changed and how much remained the same. For the time- and data-challenged, the Massachusetts Review, which published Achebe’s original paper, should publish some of the provocative papers presented at the 2015 symposium in its Spring Issue. In the meantime, some photographs of the event:

Okey Ndibe, Chika Unuigwe, Caryl Philips Maaza Mengiste, Chinelo Okparanta, & Chuma Nwokolo
Panelists, Okey Ndibe, Chika Unigwe, Caryl Phillips, Maaza Mengiste, Chinelo Okparanta, & Chuma Nwokolo @ the Marriott Center Campus, UMass.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prof. Ekwueme Michael Thelwell
Emeritus Prof. Ekwueme Michael Thelwell delivered a keynote

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Okey Ndibe
Okey Ndibe is an alumnus of ISI so it fell to him, as oga, to serve kolanuts earlier broken by ‘Elder’ Rowland Abiodun

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chika Unigwe
Nice to catch up with Chika. Last meeting was at the Manchester Art Gallery

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Caryl, Chika and Okey
Caryl Phillips, Chika Unigwe and Okey Ndibe, in Panel

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chinelo Okparanta
First meeting with Chinelo Okparanta… she tried to take pouting lessons from Chika Unigwe…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

with Chinelo Okparanta
…but she couldn’t stop smiling…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Achille Mbembe
Achille Mbembe (UWits) delivered a Keynote

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Provost hosted a convivial reception, with more photos at this link to prove it: 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Open Letter to the President on the Death of Citizen Augustine

President Muhammadu Buhari
President Muhammadu Buhari

Dear President Buhari,

Let me tell you about the recent death of a compatriot of ours in the prime of his life.

On Sunday November 15th, Citizen Augustine went to an evening meeting in Asaba. He never returned home. After four days, a search party found his body at the morgue of the Federal Medical Centre. He had been pulled up on Monday morning from the bottom of a manhole on Dennis Osadebey Way.

Now, I must say something about those manholes: they are located on pedestrian walkways and ninety-four of them have neither concrete slabs, metal grates, nor wooden battens. They are open, as they have been since the ‘completion’ of the road a few years ago. From these photos taken on 13th January, 2016, it is easy to see how Citizen Augustine fell to his death that night on a road booby-trapped with man-eating manholes. We can also imagine his ‘road accident’, his sudden six-foot drop from family life as husband and father of seven children into a premature grave dug by his own taxes. We can imagine his fatal injuries, and his lonely vigil, until he died at dawn.

The man-eating manholes of Asaba
Walking to school is a life-and-death adventure. A moment’s distraction could mean death

 

The man-eating manholes of Asaba
‘Remember Six Feet’ every step you take

 

The man-eating manholes of Asaba
Bus Stops are not exempt: a menace to drivers and pedestrians alike.
The man-eating manholes of Asaba
For hawkers, injury and death is a careless step away.

 

The man-eating manholes of Asaba.
Dennis Osadebay Way, Asaba

I have a reputation for fiction, but sadly, this is a true story. All over Nigeria, the homicidal state of public projects and services point to kickbacks and a criminal dereliction that allows contractors to deliver short of specifications, or not at all. Doctors are forced to ‘lie’ on death certificates, whereas the true cause of the premature death of their patient is corruption. Citizen Augustine did not die in a ‘road accident’. He was killed by corruption, at the hands of those who signed off on homicidal infrastructure for private gain. Across Nigerian roads we find thousands of carcasses of cars and trucks wrecked by the ditches excavated on our roads by some twenty-thousand-odd abandoned federal contracts. These accident sites, ultimately traceable to corruption, are the burial grounds of the dreams of thousands of families and they earn Nigeria the highest road traffic death rate in the world.

Dear Mr. President, let me pause to commend your government’s focus on corruption, infrastructure and the economy. If you are successful you will earn a secure berth in history.

Some may take satisfaction from the ongoing prosecution and recovery of loot from corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, including the former National Security Adviser and his co-conspirators. As a young, idealistic, lawyer during your first term as Commander-in-Chief between 1983 and 1985 I both experienced, and applauded, that anti-corruption strategy.  Yet, your tenure in the ’80s was  followed by the most frenetic looting in the history of Nigeria, so that your recoveries were relooted, your prosecutions upturned, and your tenure amounted to nothing more than the detoxification of a glutton about to begin a major binge.

We are all thirty years older, and wiser, and here are some lessons from our collective history:

  • A presidential focus on recoveries is a wasted opportunity if the loot is returned to the same basket it leaked from. Without changing the system, you are merely recycling loot, or building infrastructure for future ‘Commanders-in-Thief’ to ‘privatise’.
  • A presidential focus on prosecutions is a wasted opportunity because your tenure is barely enough to get a single case through the Supreme Court. The fear of HIV does not end sexual infidelity, neither does the fear of jail change the culture of corruption. Even with you at the presidency, Corruption’s message to her disciples is the same as the mother flea’s advice to her daughters: ‘Be patient, this hot water will soon cool down.’
  • Accelerating ‘justice’ by dumping the Rule of Law is counterproductive. Once illegal detention becomes your state policy, state power will be abused by uniformed petty tyrants all over Nigeria to extort from citizens. State governors LGA chairs and future presidents will disobey legitimate court orders, on your example, to perpetuate corruption on an even grander scale. Our best interests as a nation lies in a Rule of Law that is no respecter of persons, that we respect when it favours us, and when it doesn’t.
  • Respecting the Rule of Law does not mean accepting bad laws and ineffective systems, or giving thieves a free pass. It requires us to change bad laws creatively, rather than break them; to investigate and remove corrupt judges by due process, instead of simply ignoring their perverse judgements. No person is better placed than a president to lead a change of law or system. By refusing to obey a perverse judgement, you may achieve ‘justice’ in your cases of interest, but you have sentenced the rest of us Nigerians – who do not have your powers of impunity – to that perversity.
  • By all means support the police and the agencies to do their work of prosecution and recovery- constitutionally – but your presidential attention must be invested in medium- and long-term policy initiatives. Even if we recover 100% of Abacha’s loot today, 100% of the almajiris it could have educated in 1998 are permanently lost to illiteracy and Boko Haram. 100% of the sick it could have saved with new hospitals are 10 years dead. Our solemn duty is therefore to create an anti-corruption system that prevents money from being stolen in the first place.

‘That brings us to the Bribecode, the ‘street-name’ for the proposed Corporate Corruption Act. The Bribecode creates just such a system by focusing on the contract between government and contractor. When the Bribecode comes into force, private companies convicted of serious corruption offences (in excess of a million naira) will be liquidated. Whistleblowers whose evidence helped to secure conviction get 1% of the liquidated assets, guaranteeing that no corrupt transaction stays secret for ever. Furthermore, any Attorney General in Nigeria can sue corrupt companies in their state’s Federal High Court, guaranteeing that no political party, godfather, or clique can protect a corrupt company.

This will help to end Grand Corruption by monetising information, introducing competition into prosecution and self-regulation into anti-corruption enforcement. When you make the penalty for corruption unacceptable to company directors and shareholders alike, you immediately create a new anti-corruption culture based on a private sector with zero tolerance for public sector corruption. Within one budget year, we can expect to see real ‘transformation’ in society.

In  2014, a minister approved the collection of N700 million by an unregistered recruitment company from 700,000 young jobseekers competing for 4,000 jobs. All eyes were on the money, no eye was on the simple logistics, the basic interests of 700,000 customers of government. Twenty citizens lost their lives and thousands more were injured in the resulting fiasco. Similar scandals will be impossible with the Bribecode in place. The law builds a firewall between the bank accounts of contractors and the pockets of public servants, leaving government employees free to focus on the best interests of the nation and the citizen on the street.

Mr. President, your anti-corruption passion is not in doubt, but you must abandon a retail attack on corruption with localised, and temporary results, in favour of a comprehensive and systemic approach that is felt throughout the country, expels godfathers from the political process, and continues to be effective even after your tenure. As public support for the Bribecode grows, with citizens signing up daily at www.bribecode.org/signup, we request the chief resident of Aso Rock to join the Office of the Citizen in supporting this bill in its progress through the 8th National Assembly. This is the key reform that will cement your anti-corruption vision for Nigeria. The Bribecode represents the last true hope of the man in the street – men like Citizen Augustine, streets like Osadebey Way. I therefore call on you as the people’s president, in the name of the posterity of our nation, to take a stand today, for those of us scheduled to die tomorrow.

#SupportBribecode.

Yours Sincerely,

Chuma Nwokolo
www.bribecode.org

An Obituary for Footwear

 

 

To the reader, an apology: this is an obituary for a pair of shoes, and not even an illustrious pair at that, for though purchased in a shop in Ethiopia, they never shod the feet of Emperor Haile Selassie.

I first met them, those shoes, in a duty-free shop at Bole Airport, Addis Ababa. When I left the hotel on a stroll the evening before, I had been wearing a pair of leather slippers custom-crocheted by Crochet Plus – whose owner is better known for her poetry. It was a fine evening on a short layover on my way from Somaliland to Nigeria and I thought I would see the city around my hotel.

I decided to walk.

It is an undulant city, Addis Ababa. The wide street on which my hotel was located ran up a mild mountain and I wandered a quarter-kilometer, browsing shops. The bookshop was a spiritual experience: the mild-manner clerk stood like a priest in a darkened chapel. Around him ran pews of books in a language I was illiterate in, not because they were Spanish or Portuguese or French books, but because they were Amharic – printed in an African language far more ancient that English, French, Portuguese or Spanish, a language spoken by Jesus in his time, by twenty-odd million people today and currently the most widespread Semitic language after Arabic. I browsed the titles, marvelling at the breadth of contemporary literature of which I was completely ignorant. The 6th Hargeysia International Book Fair, from which I was returning home, had similarly opened my eyes to another universe of literature in Somali, yet another indigenous African language that was even more ancient than Amharic. I had met exponents of their written word old and new alike, their national bard, Hadraawi, educators like Siciid Saalax Axmed, young writers like Saddaan Xuseen Carab and Barkhad Maxamed Kaariye. For a moment I reflected on all the wisdom and wit and science and poetry that had been uttered and written and lost to the antiquity of our own languages. And then I walked on.

I was browsing a craft shop when I heard a crack and a rumble. I hurried to the door in time to see a great storm break over the city. In minutes the hitherto brilliant evening was overcast. Preternatural dark clouds scudded across the Addis skies and the rain came hurtling down. I watched pedestrians run into shops for shelter. It was not the kind of rain anyone walked through.

So I extended my window shopping another thirty minutes until the rain was tame enough to brave. There was only one problem: the sewers had flooded and spilled onto the tarmac. The friendly street I had walked was now a shallow stream. As I crossed over into my hotel, fierce floodwaters snatched and swooshed away my right slipper. If I was holding a toddler I’d have lost him too, such was the ferocity of the stream that now had the street for riverbed. I had a broken second in which I could have tried to rescue my slipper, but the relevant proverbial wisdom warned that the chaser of the chicken was guaranteed a fall. That was the same fate, I surmised, of the chaser of slippers snatched by Ethiopian floodwaters. The moment passed and suddenly I was less a slipper on an Addis Ababa street.

i decided it was less silly to go barefoot with the explanatory slipper in hand, rather than walk half-shod. I entered the hotel reception sheepishly, feeling like a writer on really hard times. My luggage was already in the belly of an Ethiopian Jetliner, already checked through to Lagos so I was facing a sudden and serious emergency. I explained my dilemma. The shy receptionists couldn’t stop grinning. This is an emergency, I said, unnecessarily, I need to buy a pair of shoes, or slippers, anything.

And they really tried. It was apparently an exciting assignment because I suddenly found myself assisted by several superfluous Ethiopian hotel staff firing off staccato Amharic. Unfortunately, the proper shops were closed, it being a Sunday evening following a storm. And the gift shops they could find in the vicinity of the hotel had tiny leather slippers that could only accommodate three or four of my toes. it was a comic reversal of the Cinderella story, a desperate man trying to fit his oversized foot into tiny slippers presented by a giggling succession of ladies. In vain.

By dawn, I came downstairs for the bus to the airport wearing a scandalously white pair of bedroom slippers with the name of the hotel blazoned on top. You know the type: effeminate, frivolous… It was tiny too: although my toes were fully hooded, my heels made full contact with the ground. I had taken it with the full blessings of the hotel management, but I kept getting dirty looks from random travellers as I passed through the security queues at Bole International Airport. They looked from my feet to my hand luggage, as though it was crammed with the towels, cutlery and bedsheets of my transit hotel.

As soon as I cleared immigration, I made a beeline for the duty-free shops where I sighted a number of shoe racks. ‘Duty-free’ the prices may have been, but they certainly weren’t mark-up free, yet my size in shoes were not to be seen at any price among the shops that had opened their doors! I was desperate: my flight had been announced, but I fully realised that my reputation would not survive an arrival at Murtala Mohammed International airport in white hotel slippers three sizes too small. That was when I saw the gentle shoes, whose obituary you are now reading.

Dear reader, it was destiny, that meeting between man and shoes. They looked small, those brown, casual shoes, as though they were another waste of time, but they were stitched of a soft patent leather and when my feet slipped magically into their comfortable clasp, when my heels (savaged all morning by the cold Ethiopian floors) docked effortlessly, and my toes wriggled, free, I sighed like a man making the urinal at the last possible moment before disaster. Twenty-five American dollars, I paid, the cheapest of all the shoes I had seen that morning, but certainly the most valuable I had ever had in my wardrobe. Then I was running for my flight.

I caught it too.

Three years have passed. They were never eye-catching shoes, this I must confess. In the world of footwear they were duck, not swan. They were too workaday to be handsome – they were a ‘jeans on a barbecue-night’ kind of knockabout, but they were my lucky shoes, embodying the relief that suffused my last minute rescue in Addis Ababa. Well, I have pushed those Bole shoes, but no longer. Today, it goes to where all good shoes go, for if I turn out in them once more my friends will take a collection for me. So with due apologies for keeping you from your world-saving, bank-rescuing, student-mentoring, NGO-administrating day, I ask you to join me in this moment of silence in memory of my Bole shoes.

May only good termites eat their patent leather.

Why Bola Flung her Daughter’s Novel through the Window

 

images

To help her persistent daughter with her homework, Bola was finally reading David Copperfield. The book had first crossed her path as a recommended text in her own school days, but back then she only ever read a novel when it was impossible to avoid it. Anyway, in the 16th year of an unsatisfactory marriage, she finally read about the character, Barkis, and realised what her secret crush, Bosun, had been ‘willing’ to do, 18 years after his shy note.

That was when she uttered the terrible oath that dropped her daughter’s jaw, and ran to the window.

 

Strictly No Standing (Pixels & Poetry)

#pixelsNpoetry

no standing
No Standing… But feel free to sit dangerously, without helmet, on lorry, car or bike…

‘this is the lion’s prayer:
may tomorrow’s deer dine well today…

hold onto your son…’

– Soothsaying 101 (The Final Testament of a Minor God)

One of the abiding mysteries of the Nigerian road is how a fully-equipped Federal Road Safety Corp team stops you on  a Christmas highway for a grilling on safety, weighing your fire extinguisher, measuring your red triangle… and you go ten kilometres down the road and see something like this…

Okada for Donkeys (Pixels & Poetry)

#pixelsNpoetry

probably not what Donkey had in mind, when she pray for a break from carrying men
probably not what Donkey had in mind, when she prayed for a break from carrying men

‘someday for sure, the child of night’s cry shall cease.
but not tonight

she polished her salaried lie until it shone
and weaved it into a shawl and wore it:
she could do nothing about what
she could do nothing about’

Sometimes, I have pulled over the most egregious offenders of our common humanity, with nothing to flash in their face beyond the authorisation of a human outrage. But the procovations are too many… this image is from the road to Abakiliki.

In another sense, we are donkeys all, who do not dare pray for an end to our sufferings because we realise that only death awaits at that end.

The excerpt is from the poem, A Requiem for Rage, in the volume, The Final Testament of a Minor God.

The Cattle ‘Express’ (Pixels & Poetry)

#pixelsNpoetry

SAMSUNG CSC
the cattle ‘express’

‘upon their goats fall a plague of drought.
upon their firstborns and on all their spawn,
a plague of death. On their harvests a blight.
And on their souls the yoke, the double yoke of oil.’

The Christmas story has this other narrative as well. I had only a few moments to snap off this picture, and I spent most of that time trying to confirm that the cattle express wasn’t actually driven by a goat as well…

The sad lines come from the poem ‘Brother’s Day’ in the volume, Memories of Stone.

Dear Storyteller, We Need New Folktales

 

John Njuguna Guchacha, “Take my hand and live
art by John Njuguna Guchacha,

if
our
children
will have trees,
we must plant them

If we research communal traits like bravery, self-restraint or hospitality, we might find the seeds of those traits in the diet of folktales on which the community was raised. Those stories, shared in childhood, germinate into grown up values that replicate themselves everywhere the folktales are retold. As those tales are translated and adapted, those positive traits cross borders; they become regional, even continental.

Our folktales are still seed, but they are no longer sown in the hearing of our children. Today they are often artefacts in our museum of stories. Yet, the minds of our children are still fertile land, and if they do not find the seed of value-driven folktales, they will grow other more philistine values for the Frankenstein societies of the future.

That is where you come in, dear Storyteller. You have been called to the frontline of the battle for that future. Your challenge is to reimagine a folktale for today’s child – for your son or daughter, niece or nephew – such that they can enjoy tales rooted in their times. This is no mean task, as every adult who has ever been importuned by a child for a story knows. It takes a certain kind of genius to take characters and conflicts from everyday life and tell a tale so indelible that a mother recalls it from her childhood in time to tell her own children. This is not simply a matter of giving the cunning tortoise a mobile phone or giving Anansi the spider an email address. It is not just a matter of transplanting the old tales from village to city. Perhaps it is more about weaving conflicts confronting modern children – along with wise resolutions – into the fabric of a brand new tale that excites even the parents sharing it with their children.

Your challenge is to write a story that will help parents win their children’s attention from television. A tale that will leap from the pages of a book into the oral traditions of communities, so that future generations will contest its ownership much like Jollof rice is contested today – until some researcher discovers how YOU first submitted that story here: http://www.reimaginedstories.com/submit-your-story/  on  the moonlit midnight of 20th May, 2016, and it started its journey into the hearts of a generation of children.

Go on and click, dear Storyteller. The future is waiting on you.

polytheistic nostalgia

 

we
profess
one God, but
miss our idols so:
so we raise altars
for the worship
of our Ogas
at the
top

The Second-Best Reason for Our Lives

We are probably there right now, slaving away at a replacement for our true purpose in life.

What is your pacifier? The baby knows that the plastic teat in its mouth is not the real thing, but it will settle for it – at least until the hunger pangs really begin to gnaw, then it will cry for the real thing. Perhaps you are not yet hungry for the real purpose of your life? Perhaps you have decided to settle for the pacifier for the rest of your life?

Yesterday someone took a decision concerning her career that she will regret for the rest of her life. It was not necessarily a bad decision. Indeed it might well have been a practical, if not lucrative decision, but she will still regret it all the same. It was a decision to settle for the Second-Most-Important Reason for her Life.

She was a hair stylist at heart. The building of nests with hair is her one and consuming passion… but she was also good at Physics, Chemistry and Geography, – and she listened to conventional common sense, and sensible parents and studied Geology at university. She will spend the next four decades drowning her passionate dreams with a fat salary from an oil company. This afterall, is why hobbies were invented: to relieve the rigours of the subsistence farmer with a bit of fun whittling at weekends…. or to give the nine-to-fiver a taste of the real reason for his life, when he comes back exhausted after slaving away at the second-best reason for his life.

There is a principle of Displacement at work here. Often an essential assignment appears so intimidating in scope, so impossible to achieve that we rise from our desk and go and wash the dishes. When the dishes are done, we head back to the desk, remember the difficult assignment, and veer into the garden to mow the grass. We eventually become so efficient at Displacing the Real Purpose for our lives with excellent, useful, lucrative, subsidiary, procrastinations that we will eventually believe what everyone else around us tells us about the successful, useful, lucrative, lives we live, and permanently shut the door on the real purpose for our lives… but deep inside…

We know.

40 Years After; Chinua Achebe in the Global Imagination.

 

Chinua Achebe delivered his seminal lecture on Conrad at the Amherst Interdisciplinary Studies Institute, UMass back in 1975.  Last October, the institute marked the 40th year of that lecture with a symposium. All in all a stimulating conference, with Johnnetta Cole, Rowland Abiodun, Esther Terry, Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, Okey Ndibe, Caz Phillips, Chika Unigwe, Jules Chametzky, Maaza Mengiste, Chinelo Okparanta, Achille Mbembe, Patrick Mensah, Joye Bowman, Sabina Murray and director, Stephen Clingman, among others, in attendance. My own panel with Maaza Mengiste and Chinelo Okparanta was moderated by Sabina Murray. It was titled ‘We shall do Unheard of Things’, and was caught on video:

 

 

In my ‘paper’ I tried to lay a foundation for the ‘bribecode’ as a post-Achebe baton. It was a useful symposium, a contemplative pause to evaluate how much had changed and how much remained the same. For the time- and data-challenged, the Massachusetts Review, which published Achebe’s original paper, should publish some of the provocative papers presented at the 2015 symposium in its Spring Issue. In the meantime, some photographs of the event:

Okey Ndibe, Chika Unuigwe, Caryl Philips Maaza Mengiste, Chinelo Okparanta, & Chuma Nwokolo
Panelists, Okey Ndibe, Chika Unigwe, Caryl Phillips, Maaza Mengiste, Chinelo Okparanta, & Chuma Nwokolo @ the Marriott Center Campus, UMass.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prof. Ekwueme Michael Thelwell
Emeritus Prof. Ekwueme Michael Thelwell delivered a keynote

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Okey Ndibe
Okey Ndibe is an alumnus of ISI so it fell to him, as oga, to serve kolanuts earlier broken by ‘Elder’ Rowland Abiodun

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chika Unigwe
Nice to catch up with Chika. Last meeting was at the Manchester Art Gallery

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Caryl, Chika and Okey
Caryl Phillips, Chika Unigwe and Okey Ndibe, in Panel

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chinelo Okparanta
First meeting with Chinelo Okparanta… she tried to take pouting lessons from Chika Unigwe…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

with Chinelo Okparanta
…but she couldn’t stop smiling…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Achille Mbembe
Achille Mbembe (UWits) delivered a Keynote

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Provost hosted a convivial reception, with more photos at this link to prove it: 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Open Letter to the President on the Death of Citizen Augustine

President Muhammadu Buhari
President Muhammadu Buhari

Dear President Buhari,

Let me tell you about the recent death of a compatriot of ours in the prime of his life.

On Sunday November 15th, Citizen Augustine went to an evening meeting in Asaba. He never returned home. After four days, a search party found his body at the morgue of the Federal Medical Centre. He had been pulled up on Monday morning from the bottom of a manhole on Dennis Osadebey Way.

Now, I must say something about those manholes: they are located on pedestrian walkways and ninety-four of them have neither concrete slabs, metal grates, nor wooden battens. They are open, as they have been since the ‘completion’ of the road a few years ago. From these photos taken on 13th January, 2016, it is easy to see how Citizen Augustine fell to his death that night on a road booby-trapped with man-eating manholes. We can also imagine his ‘road accident’, his sudden six-foot drop from family life as husband and father of seven children into a premature grave dug by his own taxes. We can imagine his fatal injuries, and his lonely vigil, until he died at dawn.

The man-eating manholes of Asaba
Walking to school is a life-and-death adventure. A moment’s distraction could mean death

 

The man-eating manholes of Asaba
‘Remember Six Feet’ every step you take

 

The man-eating manholes of Asaba
Bus Stops are not exempt: a menace to drivers and pedestrians alike.
The man-eating manholes of Asaba
For hawkers, injury and death is a careless step away.

 

The man-eating manholes of Asaba.
Dennis Osadebay Way, Asaba

I have a reputation for fiction, but sadly, this is a true story. All over Nigeria, the homicidal state of public projects and services point to kickbacks and a criminal dereliction that allows contractors to deliver short of specifications, or not at all. Doctors are forced to ‘lie’ on death certificates, whereas the true cause of the premature death of their patient is corruption. Citizen Augustine did not die in a ‘road accident’. He was killed by corruption, at the hands of those who signed off on homicidal infrastructure for private gain. Across Nigerian roads we find thousands of carcasses of cars and trucks wrecked by the ditches excavated on our roads by some twenty-thousand-odd abandoned federal contracts. These accident sites, ultimately traceable to corruption, are the burial grounds of the dreams of thousands of families and they earn Nigeria the highest road traffic death rate in the world.

Dear Mr. President, let me pause to commend your government’s focus on corruption, infrastructure and the economy. If you are successful you will earn a secure berth in history.

Some may take satisfaction from the ongoing prosecution and recovery of loot from corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, including the former National Security Adviser and his co-conspirators. As a young, idealistic, lawyer during your first term as Commander-in-Chief between 1983 and 1985 I both experienced, and applauded, that anti-corruption strategy.  Yet, your tenure in the ’80s was  followed by the most frenetic looting in the history of Nigeria, so that your recoveries were relooted, your prosecutions upturned, and your tenure amounted to nothing more than the detoxification of a glutton about to begin a major binge.

We are all thirty years older, and wiser, and here are some lessons from our collective history:

  • A presidential focus on recoveries is a wasted opportunity if the loot is returned to the same basket it leaked from. Without changing the system, you are merely recycling loot, or building infrastructure for future ‘Commanders-in-Thief’ to ‘privatise’.
  • A presidential focus on prosecutions is a wasted opportunity because your tenure is barely enough to get a single case through the Supreme Court. The fear of HIV does not end sexual infidelity, neither does the fear of jail change the culture of corruption. Even with you at the presidency, Corruption’s message to her disciples is the same as the mother flea’s advice to her daughters: ‘Be patient, this hot water will soon cool down.’
  • Accelerating ‘justice’ by dumping the Rule of Law is counterproductive. Once illegal detention becomes your state policy, state power will be abused by uniformed petty tyrants all over Nigeria to extort from citizens. State governors LGA chairs and future presidents will disobey legitimate court orders, on your example, to perpetuate corruption on an even grander scale. Our best interests as a nation lies in a Rule of Law that is no respecter of persons, that we respect when it favours us, and when it doesn’t.
  • Respecting the Rule of Law does not mean accepting bad laws and ineffective systems, or giving thieves a free pass. It requires us to change bad laws creatively, rather than break them; to investigate and remove corrupt judges by due process, instead of simply ignoring their perverse judgements. No person is better placed than a president to lead a change of law or system. By refusing to obey a perverse judgement, you may achieve ‘justice’ in your cases of interest, but you have sentenced the rest of us Nigerians – who do not have your powers of impunity – to that perversity.
  • By all means support the police and the agencies to do their work of prosecution and recovery- constitutionally – but your presidential attention must be invested in medium- and long-term policy initiatives. Even if we recover 100% of Abacha’s loot today, 100% of the almajiris it could have educated in 1998 are permanently lost to illiteracy and Boko Haram. 100% of the sick it could have saved with new hospitals are 10 years dead. Our solemn duty is therefore to create an anti-corruption system that prevents money from being stolen in the first place.

‘That brings us to the Bribecode, the ‘street-name’ for the proposed Corporate Corruption Act. The Bribecode creates just such a system by focusing on the contract between government and contractor. When the Bribecode comes into force, private companies convicted of serious corruption offences (in excess of a million naira) will be liquidated. Whistleblowers whose evidence helped to secure conviction get 1% of the liquidated assets, guaranteeing that no corrupt transaction stays secret for ever. Furthermore, any Attorney General in Nigeria can sue corrupt companies in their state’s Federal High Court, guaranteeing that no political party, godfather, or clique can protect a corrupt company.

This will help to end Grand Corruption by monetising information, introducing competition into prosecution and self-regulation into anti-corruption enforcement. When you make the penalty for corruption unacceptable to company directors and shareholders alike, you immediately create a new anti-corruption culture based on a private sector with zero tolerance for public sector corruption. Within one budget year, we can expect to see real ‘transformation’ in society.

In  2014, a minister approved the collection of N700 million by an unregistered recruitment company from 700,000 young jobseekers competing for 4,000 jobs. All eyes were on the money, no eye was on the simple logistics, the basic interests of 700,000 customers of government. Twenty citizens lost their lives and thousands more were injured in the resulting fiasco. Similar scandals will be impossible with the Bribecode in place. The law builds a firewall between the bank accounts of contractors and the pockets of public servants, leaving government employees free to focus on the best interests of the nation and the citizen on the street.

Mr. President, your anti-corruption passion is not in doubt, but you must abandon a retail attack on corruption with localised, and temporary results, in favour of a comprehensive and systemic approach that is felt throughout the country, expels godfathers from the political process, and continues to be effective even after your tenure. As public support for the Bribecode grows, with citizens signing up daily at www.bribecode.org/signup, we request the chief resident of Aso Rock to join the Office of the Citizen in supporting this bill in its progress through the 8th National Assembly. This is the key reform that will cement your anti-corruption vision for Nigeria. The Bribecode represents the last true hope of the man in the street – men like Citizen Augustine, streets like Osadebey Way. I therefore call on you as the people’s president, in the name of the posterity of our nation, to take a stand today, for those of us scheduled to die tomorrow.

#SupportBribecode.

Yours Sincerely,

Chuma Nwokolo
www.bribecode.org

An Obituary for Footwear

 

 

To the reader, an apology: this is an obituary for a pair of shoes, and not even an illustrious pair at that, for though purchased in a shop in Ethiopia, they never shod the feet of Emperor Haile Selassie.

I first met them, those shoes, in a duty-free shop at Bole Airport, Addis Ababa. When I left the hotel on a stroll the evening before, I had been wearing a pair of leather slippers custom-crocheted by Crochet Plus – whose owner is better known for her poetry. It was a fine evening on a short layover on my way from Somaliland to Nigeria and I thought I would see the city around my hotel.

I decided to walk.

It is an undulant city, Addis Ababa. The wide street on which my hotel was located ran up a mild mountain and I wandered a quarter-kilometer, browsing shops. The bookshop was a spiritual experience: the mild-manner clerk stood like a priest in a darkened chapel. Around him ran pews of books in a language I was illiterate in, not because they were Spanish or Portuguese or French books, but because they were Amharic – printed in an African language far more ancient that English, French, Portuguese or Spanish, a language spoken by Jesus in his time, by twenty-odd million people today and currently the most widespread Semitic language after Arabic. I browsed the titles, marvelling at the breadth of contemporary literature of which I was completely ignorant. The 6th Hargeysia International Book Fair, from which I was returning home, had similarly opened my eyes to another universe of literature in Somali, yet another indigenous African language that was even more ancient than Amharic. I had met exponents of their written word old and new alike, their national bard, Hadraawi, educators like Siciid Saalax Axmed, young writers like Saddaan Xuseen Carab and Barkhad Maxamed Kaariye. For a moment I reflected on all the wisdom and wit and science and poetry that had been uttered and written and lost to the antiquity of our own languages. And then I walked on.

I was browsing a craft shop when I heard a crack and a rumble. I hurried to the door in time to see a great storm break over the city. In minutes the hitherto brilliant evening was overcast. Preternatural dark clouds scudded across the Addis skies and the rain came hurtling down. I watched pedestrians run into shops for shelter. It was not the kind of rain anyone walked through.

So I extended my window shopping another thirty minutes until the rain was tame enough to brave. There was only one problem: the sewers had flooded and spilled onto the tarmac. The friendly street I had walked was now a shallow stream. As I crossed over into my hotel, fierce floodwaters snatched and swooshed away my right slipper. If I was holding a toddler I’d have lost him too, such was the ferocity of the stream that now had the street for riverbed. I had a broken second in which I could have tried to rescue my slipper, but the relevant proverbial wisdom warned that the chaser of the chicken was guaranteed a fall. That was the same fate, I surmised, of the chaser of slippers snatched by Ethiopian floodwaters. The moment passed and suddenly I was less a slipper on an Addis Ababa street.

i decided it was less silly to go barefoot with the explanatory slipper in hand, rather than walk half-shod. I entered the hotel reception sheepishly, feeling like a writer on really hard times. My luggage was already in the belly of an Ethiopian Jetliner, already checked through to Lagos so I was facing a sudden and serious emergency. I explained my dilemma. The shy receptionists couldn’t stop grinning. This is an emergency, I said, unnecessarily, I need to buy a pair of shoes, or slippers, anything.

And they really tried. It was apparently an exciting assignment because I suddenly found myself assisted by several superfluous Ethiopian hotel staff firing off staccato Amharic. Unfortunately, the proper shops were closed, it being a Sunday evening following a storm. And the gift shops they could find in the vicinity of the hotel had tiny leather slippers that could only accommodate three or four of my toes. it was a comic reversal of the Cinderella story, a desperate man trying to fit his oversized foot into tiny slippers presented by a giggling succession of ladies. In vain.

By dawn, I came downstairs for the bus to the airport wearing a scandalously white pair of bedroom slippers with the name of the hotel blazoned on top. You know the type: effeminate, frivolous… It was tiny too: although my toes were fully hooded, my heels made full contact with the ground. I had taken it with the full blessings of the hotel management, but I kept getting dirty looks from random travellers as I passed through the security queues at Bole International Airport. They looked from my feet to my hand luggage, as though it was crammed with the towels, cutlery and bedsheets of my transit hotel.

As soon as I cleared immigration, I made a beeline for the duty-free shops where I sighted a number of shoe racks. ‘Duty-free’ the prices may have been, but they certainly weren’t mark-up free, yet my size in shoes were not to be seen at any price among the shops that had opened their doors! I was desperate: my flight had been announced, but I fully realised that my reputation would not survive an arrival at Murtala Mohammed International airport in white hotel slippers three sizes too small. That was when I saw the gentle shoes, whose obituary you are now reading.

Dear reader, it was destiny, that meeting between man and shoes. They looked small, those brown, casual shoes, as though they were another waste of time, but they were stitched of a soft patent leather and when my feet slipped magically into their comfortable clasp, when my heels (savaged all morning by the cold Ethiopian floors) docked effortlessly, and my toes wriggled, free, I sighed like a man making the urinal at the last possible moment before disaster. Twenty-five American dollars, I paid, the cheapest of all the shoes I had seen that morning, but certainly the most valuable I had ever had in my wardrobe. Then I was running for my flight.

I caught it too.

Three years have passed. They were never eye-catching shoes, this I must confess. In the world of footwear they were duck, not swan. They were too workaday to be handsome – they were a ‘jeans on a barbecue-night’ kind of knockabout, but they were my lucky shoes, embodying the relief that suffused my last minute rescue in Addis Ababa. Well, I have pushed those Bole shoes, but no longer. Today, it goes to where all good shoes go, for if I turn out in them once more my friends will take a collection for me. So with due apologies for keeping you from your world-saving, bank-rescuing, student-mentoring, NGO-administrating day, I ask you to join me in this moment of silence in memory of my Bole shoes.

May only good termites eat their patent leather.

Why Bola Flung her Daughter’s Novel through the Window

 

images

To help her persistent daughter with her homework, Bola was finally reading David Copperfield. The book had first crossed her path as a recommended text in her own school days, but back then she only ever read a novel when it was impossible to avoid it. Anyway, in the 16th year of an unsatisfactory marriage, she finally read about the character, Barkis, and realised what her secret crush, Bosun, had been ‘willing’ to do, 18 years after his shy note.

That was when she uttered the terrible oath that dropped her daughter’s jaw, and ran to the window.

 

Strictly No Standing (Pixels & Poetry)

#pixelsNpoetry

no standing
No Standing… But feel free to sit dangerously, without helmet, on lorry, car or bike…

‘this is the lion’s prayer:
may tomorrow’s deer dine well today…

hold onto your son…’

– Soothsaying 101 (The Final Testament of a Minor God)

One of the abiding mysteries of the Nigerian road is how a fully-equipped Federal Road Safety Corp team stops you on  a Christmas highway for a grilling on safety, weighing your fire extinguisher, measuring your red triangle… and you go ten kilometres down the road and see something like this…

Okada for Donkeys (Pixels & Poetry)

#pixelsNpoetry

probably not what Donkey had in mind, when she pray for a break from carrying men
probably not what Donkey had in mind, when she prayed for a break from carrying men

‘someday for sure, the child of night’s cry shall cease.
but not tonight

she polished her salaried lie until it shone
and weaved it into a shawl and wore it:
she could do nothing about what
she could do nothing about’

Sometimes, I have pulled over the most egregious offenders of our common humanity, with nothing to flash in their face beyond the authorisation of a human outrage. But the procovations are too many… this image is from the road to Abakiliki.

In another sense, we are donkeys all, who do not dare pray for an end to our sufferings because we realise that only death awaits at that end.

The excerpt is from the poem, A Requiem for Rage, in the volume, The Final Testament of a Minor God.

The Cattle ‘Express’ (Pixels & Poetry)

#pixelsNpoetry

SAMSUNG CSC
the cattle ‘express’

‘upon their goats fall a plague of drought.
upon their firstborns and on all their spawn,
a plague of death. On their harvests a blight.
And on their souls the yoke, the double yoke of oil.’

The Christmas story has this other narrative as well. I had only a few moments to snap off this picture, and I spent most of that time trying to confirm that the cattle express wasn’t actually driven by a goat as well…

The sad lines come from the poem ‘Brother’s Day’ in the volume, Memories of Stone.