Premiere of Nowhere to Run: Nigeria’s Climate and Environmental Crisis

At 6pm in Abuja at the Yar’Adua Centre today, 17 November, there will be a “green carpet” premiere of the documentary film Nowhere to Run: Nigeria’s Climate and Environmental crisis. Watch the trailer here:


The film was sponsored by the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation, narrated by Ken Saro Wiwa Jr., and directed (shot, partially edited, etc) by my brother Dan McCain, who is the Managing Director of the Lagos-based Core Productions. I have also worked with Dan last year and this year on the project and came up with the first part of the title “nowhere to run,” which is a sentiment we heard over and over again in the interviews of people who talked about the effects of environmental degradation on their communities. Dan and his production team travelled all over Nigeria gathering stories about the environmental devastation in Nigeria and interviews with Nigeria-based experts and professionals such as Nnimmo Bassey, Ken Wiwa, Liza Gadsby and Peter Jenkins, Muhammad Kabir Isa, Paul Adeogun, Hannah Kabir, Saleh B. Momale, Michael Egbebike, Fatima Akilu, Joseph Hurst Croft, Alagoa Morris, Inemo Samiama, Ekaette Ukobong, Michael Uwemedimo, Godknows Boladei Igali, and others. What we came to find over the process of making the documentary is that as climate change creates global changes in the environment, many of the natural defense mechanisms that could alleviate some of the harm done by the changing environment are being destroyed through human activity.

For example, flaring is a major contributor of greenhouse gases that are contributing to global warming. Although flaring is illegal in Nigeria, oil companies continue to flare because the fines are lower than the cost of capping off the flares and redirecting the gas (and if the gas were captured, it could do a lot to contribute to Nigeria’s massive need for electricity).  The mangroves and rain forests that absorb the greenhouse gases that cause global warming are being destroyed through oil pollution, logging and construction. These same mangroves and wetlands could also help absorb and manage the sea level rise that is occurring as polar ice caps melt, and yet they are shrinking every year. So, there is ocean encroachment along the coast, massive erosion in the southeast related to heavy rains and forest clearing, and desertification in the north. Environmental crises also contribute to conflict. For example, as Mohammad Kabir Isa of Ahmadu Bello University points out in the film and in this interview, the shrinking of Lake Chad (caused both by human interventions that remove massive amounts of water for irrigation and changing rainfall patterns that no longer fill the lake as they used to) has caused massive migration into Maiduguri in the past 20 years. Once people get to Maiduguri, there were few jobs available so the social welfare provided by Boko Haram attracted members. Desertification is also pushing people further south, and the expansion of farming into migration routes formerly used by pastoralists is behind some of the conflict we are seeing between pastoralists and farmers.

This is not a simple story, but instead one of multiple diverse complications both on a global and local level that are contributing to much of the environmental and political crises in Nigeria today. We made a point of making this a “Nigerian” documentary, and the interviews in the documentary are all with people based in Nigeria.

There are some things being done to reduce dependence on oil and to better use the land, such as wind energy project in Katsina and cook stoves and ovens that reduce dependence on firewood. But much more needs to be done.

You need a ticket to get into the premiere, but you can get them for free at this link. Unfortunately, because of a family emergency, I am unable to be there, but I hope it goes well and does some work to raise awareness among those who have the power to make the kinds of infrastructural changes in Nigeria that are needed to reduce the pressure on Nigeria’s environment. Another reason to go is to see my brother’s gorgeous cinematography, which captures the environmental devastation in Nigeria as well as the great beauty that still remains. If you miss the premiere, the Yar’Adua Centre is planning to sponsor a series of screenings around the country, and I will try to post updates here.

Some Core Productions images taken during the shooting for the documentary:



Jos Theatre Comes to Abuja: Jos Repertory Theatre’s Queen Amina of Zazzau opens in Abuja on 13 November, and I archive my review of Africa Ukoh’s play 54 Silhouettes

Jos-based theatre director Patrick-Jude Odeh just sent me an email asking me to pass around information about the Jos Repertory Theatre’s production of

The Jos Repertory Theatre's performance of Wale Ogunyemi's Queen Amina of Zazzau, in Jos, February 2013 (c) Jos Repertory Theatre, used by permission

The Jos Repertory Theatre’s performance of Wale Ogunyemi’s Queen Amina of Zazzau, in Jos, February 2013 (c) Jos Repertory Theatre, used by permission

Wale Ogunyemi’s play Queen Amina of Zazzau in Abuja. There will be two performances a day, at 4pm and 7pm, on the 13th and 14th of November at the Abuja Sheraton. I love the Jos Repertory Theatre’s productions and I have actually seen them perform Queen Amina of Zazzau several years ago, so Abuja people should check it out. The tickets are N5,000 regular and N150,000 for a table for six. For reservations, please call 0703-246-0159 and 0905-365-2544 or call Eniola at 0909-287-3099. Tickets are available at Silverbird Galleria and at the gate. The production is supported by the Center for Arts Management, Nigeria.

But the primary reason for this post was to follow up on Noah Tsika’s recent review of the Netflicks distributed film Beasts of No Nation based on the novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala, and a subsequent twitter conversation I had with playwright Africa Ukoh. Tsika’s review of Beasts of No Nation, a film which I have not yet seen, argues that the film fits into a “child soldier” movie genre that is often presented to largely Western audiences.

[…] the film evokes the type of Tarzanism by which Western cultural producers perpetually seek to gain artistic legitimacy, proffering a cinematic vision of reflexive violence (couched as inherently, ahistorically “African”) as well as an especially aggrandizing, extratextual portrait of an American male director who made a “risky,” malarial, downright Conradian trek into the darkness of the global South.

Tsika points out that the film, like the novel, is set in an unnamed African country, but is shot in Ghana (and…em…Brazil….) and the characters speak Twi:

That Twi goes unmentioned in the publicity surrounding Beasts is a measure of the filmmakers’ commitment to their gimmick—to the coy presentation of an ill-defined “Africa” as a screen on which spectators might project their assumptions.

Tsika also critiques Netflicks, the distributor of the film, for bypassing distribution units most easily accessible in Africa.

Scholar Amatoritsero Ede, in a recent article in Research in African Literatures, has critiqued the original novel for similar reasons, claiming that it demonstrates a “self-anthropologizing impulse”:

Iweala’s work is a sweeping allegory of a war-torn continent with its retinue of child soldiers. Due to the absence of a specific geographical setting, the whole of Africa becomes a war zone and is symbolic of conflict—especially war at its most bestial, considering the ghoulish boy-narrator’s automatic, almost psychopathic killing instincts.

Ede points out that it is not the subject matter that is the problem. As I argued previously, we are faced with very real and brutal stories of war that affect very real people–most recently in Nigeria, the stories that have come out of the Boko Haram conflict. Instead, Ede critiques the language in which the story is told:

Beasts of No Nation replicates that African inarticulacy in Agu, who is given, instead of proper speech, “a violent babble of uncouth sounds” much like Conrad’s black characters in Heart of Darkness (Conrad 84). […] Nigeria alone has over 250 languages, apart from a universal Pidgin English spoken by the uneducated mass across indigenous language barriers. In such a context, Agu’s inarticulacy becomes symbolic of “a return to origins.” This is because it is not explained by plot or yoked to any important narrative insight more than to the fact that this boy-soldier is uneducated and even incapable of the simplest thought in clear pidgin, a language so universal that every child and most uneducated adults take refuge in it. Nor could Agu speak his own native tongue. Instead he descends into a Conradian incoherence, alleviated by a “gerunding”: “It is starting like this . . . I am opening my eyes and there is light all around me coming into the dark through hole in the roof, crossing like net above my body. Then I am feeling my body crunched up like one small mouse in the corner when the light is coming on” (1, emphasis added). All that, even though he says, “I am learning how to read very early in my life from my mother and my father” (24, emphasis added). And this child-soldier who sings, “Soldier Soldier / Kill Kill Kill. / That is how you live. / That is how you die” (31), in order to remind himself of his fate, motivate himself against remorse, does indeed seem to understand the difference between a verb and a gerund after all.

Thinking of Beasts of No Nation, especially after Africa Ukoh tweeted me a review so egregious I initially thought it was satire, reminded me of his play 54 Silhuettes, the premiere of which I saw performed in Jos in November 2013. The play was a critique of the very sort of one-dimensional Hollywood representations of Africa at war that Tsika implies Beasts of No Nation continues. In the play, a struggling Nigerian actor in Hollywood, Chimezie, faces a crisis of conscious over playing an African soldier to Hollywood specifications. I published a review of the premiere performance in my column in Weekly Trust on 23 November 2013. Because Trust has, for some reason, “beheaded” all of my archived articles, cutting off the first paragraph, I am slowly trying to archive them here on my blog, with their heads retrieved from my pre-edit file and pasted back on.

I thought that the conversation surrounding the “Hollywood” production of this Nigerian novel, was a good time to revisit Africa Ukoh’s play. Please find my original review after the premier copied below.

IMG_5171 (c) Carmen McCain

Premiere stage performance of Africa Ukoh’s play 54 Silhouettes skewers Hollywood

“I’m not really in the mood to do any raping today.” One of the best one-liners I’ve heard ends Africa Ukoh’s brilliant play 54 Silhouettes, a satire about Hollywood’s imagination of Africa. The Stratford East/30 Nigeria House prize-winning play was originally produced for radio by BBC after coming first runner up in BBC’s 2011 African Performance competition. The first stage performance by the African Renaissance Theatre, directed by the playwright Africa Ukoh, premiered on 16 November at the Jos Alliance Francaise.

The story revolves around a Nigerian actor Victor Chimezie (Promise Ebichi), who is trying to break into Hollywood. When his Nigerian agent Sonny Chuks (Williams Obasi) gets him a role as a lieutenant named “Tiger” in a film set in Africa, Sonny thinks he has made Chimezie’s career. Chimezie and the scriptwriter/director Larry Singer (Idris Sagir) hit it off in the beginning, as both turn out to be Wole Soyinka fans: Larry once directed Death and the King’s Horseman and Chimezie once acted the king’s horseman Elesin. In Soyinka’s play, a patronizing colonial district officer Pilkings denounces as savage the tradition of ritual suicide by the oba’s companion after an oba’s death, but in “saving” Elesin he contributes to the death of Elesin’s son Olunde, who takes his father’s place. Chimezie and Larry recite dialogue from the scene where Elesin tells Pilkings, “You have shattered the peace of the world forever. There is no sleep in the world tonight.”

This symbolic tribute to Soyinka’s play resonates throughout 54 Silhouettes: Chimezie, like Elesin, faces great temptation to betray his people for a good life, and the well-meaning Larry, like Pilkings, is so blinded by his prejudices that he undermines (through his writing) the cultures he tries to represent. For a man who directed Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, Larry knows very little about Nigeria. In fact, he’s a hack. His film script is about an American journalist pursuing a ghost story in a “war-torn” Nigeria, somewhere in the Niger Delta. Larry manages to, as Chimezie points out, include “voodoo priests, a wrestling match with a lion, cannibalism, and half-naked dancing women” all in one film. The section we get to see performed features a warlord with a non-Nigerian name, played by an actor with a butchered “African” accent, who orders a child soldier kill a saintly Irish priest with lines like this: “You are an African. There is beastliness in your blood, and I shall unleash it.” Or “This is Africa. We are already in Hell.”

Chimezie grows more and more disturbed by the part he is being asked to perform and gradually makes enemies of most of his Hollywood contacts. Although Larry is smitten with Chimezie and seems to be open to suggestions, the swaggering cigarette-smoking “big-shot” producer Howard Flynn (played by the playwright and director himself Africa Ukoh) is irritated by Chimezie’s challenges to the script, telling him he knows “Africa is a big country.” He is also irritated that Chimezie does not seem “jubilant” enough at the news that Denzel Washington will star in the film. Flynn seasons his speech with racist slurs, calling Chimezie “Boy” and “Chimpanzee” and asking him if “you require jungle drums in order to express yourself.”

IMG_5150 (c) Carmen McCain

Sparks also fly between Chimezie and Kayode Adetoba (brilliantly played by Charles Etubiebi), the Brighton-born British-Nigerian actor whom everyone calls Tobi. He speaks with a South London accent, mispronounces Chimezie’s name just as Larry and Flynn do, and when he plays a warlord speaks with what internet critics call a “generic African accent.” When Chimezie protests, “That name is not from anywhere in Nigeria” and “That is not a Nigerian accent,” Flynn forces him to speak with the generic African accent too. When Tobi performs the hammy role in Larry’s script, asking Chimezie’s character what he is “insinuating,” Flynn asks “isn’t that too fluent?” Despite Flynn’s racist treatment—at one point saying “Down, Tobi” as if he were a dog—Tobi sides with the producer over his fellow actor from Nigeria. Tobi becomes increasingly incensed at Chimezie’s insistence on responsibility to “his people”—what Tobi calls “romantic idealism.” He tells Chimezie, “I was born in Brighton, I live in London. The closest I’ve ever been to Africa is in a plane flying over it.”

IMG_5141 (c) Carmen McCain

The tension also grows between Chimezie and his agent and friend Sonny Chuks, who has cashed in on a favour Flynn owes him to get Chimezie the role. When the two Nigerians get particularly passionate in their argument, they break into Igbo. Chimezie recites a proverb about the tortoise, “They say he is strong and wise, but when he sits for too long, he is seen as a stone. Who is to blame?” “I have a proverb for you,” Sonny counters, “Money, Make money.”

54 Silhouettes brilliantly skewers Hollywood representations of Africa in movies like Tears of the Sun or Sahara and even slyly weighs in on the casting of non-Nigerian “Hollywood” stars and British-born Nigerians who can’t get the accent right in films set in Nigeria, as in the recent film Half of a Yellow Sun. (See my critique of the casting here: first paragraph, rest of column.) Complementing the ethical questions at the heart of the play are a multitude of biting one-liners. The satirical dialogue reveals the subtle and not so subtle bigotry of the characters: “I make movies to make money, not to promote foreign relations,” Howard Flynn says. “The budget alone could feed a third world country,” Larry quips. “The only reason I kept this bizarre excuse of a name is because the sheer oddity of it gets me attention and makes me stand out,” Tobi seethes.

Of course, what looms over the play but is never spoken is the word “Nollywood,” and the absence of Nollywood here is perhaps the major hole in the play. While the first act pops with biting humour, in the second act, Chimezie enumerates in long monologues the invisibility of the African voice and his ethical problems with performing in the film. Here the play begins to drag a bit and seems repetitious—a flaw that could perhaps have been solved by looking to the new possibilities open to actors in Africa. The choice is not between suffering in anonymity, as Sonny puts it, or acting in a compromising Hollywood film. In a BBC interview with Ethiopian-American filmmaker Nnegest Likké about Africans in Hollywood, she emphasized the need to build an alternative African tradition, as if this was something that should be built within Hollywood. But while there is certainly a need to improve the chances of Africans and African-Americans in Hollywood, there is also a thriving alternate film tradition on the ground in Africa, from Accra to Lagos to Nairobi, which could be enriched by the passions and skills of actors like Chimezie.

IMG_5179 (c) Carmen McCain

Despite the perhaps false dichotomy presented here, the acting in the premiere stage performance of 54 Silhouettes was brilliant. I listened to the BBC radio performance online and, with a few exceptions, I thought that the character interpretation in the live performance was better, perhaps because the playwright Africa Ukoh was directing this production. The actor Idris Sagir who plays Larry Singer butchers his Hollywood character’s American (?) accent with a mixture of an American southern accent and some odd unplaceable accent full of “r’s.” But since so much of the politics of the play was about bad African accents by non-African performers, the (perhaps intentionally?) bad accent felt like poetic justice to me. The bad American accent like the caricatured Hollywood icons, and the over-the-top racism were all subversive gestures that mock and undermine Hollywood’s dominance, and the character of Chimezie becomes the ultimate deconstructor.

“I’m not really in the mood to do any raping today,” says Chimezie, effectively committing professional suicide. And in this moment, his resolve seems more like a satirical version of Elesin’s son Olunde in Death and the King’s Horseman, who killed himself so that tradition could live. What follows in my imagination is a “Part 2,” where Chimezie resurrects in Nollywood, moving beyond anxieties about Hollywood to tell stories his own way.

The play will be performed at the French Institut in Wuse 2, Abuja on December 5-6, and will be back in Jos on 7 December at a venue yet to be confirmed. Go see it.

Translation Conference in Kano and Glenna Gordon’s exhibition of photographs of Hausa novelists opens this evening at New York’s Open Society

Glenna Gordon's photo book Diagram of a Heart advertised on her site.

Glenna Gordon’s photo book Diagram of a Heart advertised on her site.

I’ve just finished attending a translation conference at Bayero University, Kano, hosted by the Centre for Research in Nigerian Languages & Folklore and the Nigerian Institute of Translators & Interpreters (NITI).  I heard papers on translation from Hausa, Fulfulde, Igbo, Yoruba, and Swahili, and on proverbs, poetry, film subtitles, and novels, as well as papers looking at more technical translations in the media and the efficacy of google translate Hausa. It was an academic conference, but there were also dozens of journalists there, who regularly translate news from English into Hausa. As Hafizu Miko Yakasai, the current president of NITI pointed out, translation is particularly important to “national development” in Nigeria because of Nigeria’s diversity of languages and cultures “with over three hundred language groups.”

NITI is a useful resource for translators, although I was a little worried by the proposed legislation in the National Assembly that would require translators to be a part of the organization before doing this work.

In a document passed out at today’s Congress, entitled “Nigerian Institute of Translators and Interpreters (NITI) International Translation Day (ITD) 2015,” the Secretary General/Registrar of NITI Joachim Okeke writes that in 2008 NITI’s bill “passed the second Reading at the National Assembly and, shortly after that, we were invited to the House for the public hearing.” Although the bill has not been passed,

When the bill is passed and it becomes law, it will make the practice of translation and interpretation regulated in such a way that it would be an offence for those not authorized to claim to be members of the profession to practice, exactly like in other professions: accountancy, law, medicine, engineering etc.

Of course, such associations are excellent resources and can do much to “professionalize” the industry. Translators should be as respected as accountants, for example and renumerated accordingly. As such, it is a good idea to have a respected body that can vouch for the skill of translators and advocate for them. However, I am concerned about creating laws that force creative professionals to be certified to practice their craft, especially as it seems that so far NITI has been more focused on linguistics, interpretation, and technical translations than literary translation, which is much more closely related to creative writing. When someone commented that the translations of advertisements on the radio about birthdays were wrong because “there is no birthday in Hausa culture,” I worried that the forum could become more about policing narrow ideas about culture than supporting people interested in doing creative translations. That said, it is good to have an association to belong for that is looking out for the rights of translators and setting standard rates and skill levels that both translators and those who commission them are encouraged to meet.

It was literary translation that brought me to the conference. I wanted to find out more about who else was doing it and whether anyone else was translating contemporary Hausa literature. Abdulaziz A. Abdulaziz presented the only paper on translations of what he called “contemporary Hausa prose fiction” but which he pointed out has been

“variously described as Kano Market Literature (Malumfashi: 1994 cited in Adamu 2002; Whitsitt: 2000, 2003), Hausa Literary Movement (Adamu 2002), Hausa Popular Literature (Furniss: nd) or the ‘littattafan soyayya, love stories” (Larkin: 1997).”

The fact that he was the only one at a translation conference in Kano to talk about translating the thousands of novels that have built up one of the largest indigenous-language reading publics in Africa, indicates that there is a serious gap between the intellectual translators in the academy and the readers and writers creating the work. Several professors made condescending comments about contemporary literature after his presentation, even proposing that the novels were all “translations” from Western novels. Clearly, there  is much more work that needs to be done. And at the moment, much of this work is being done outside of the university.

Coincidentally, this conference comes at the same time as the opening of an exhibition in New York featuring photographs of several Hausa novelists, including several  of my translations of short novel excerpts.

A few years ago, photojournalist Glenna Gordon got in touch with me and asked if she could talk with me over Skype about culture in northern Nigeria. She had been doing a series of photographs on Nigerian weddings, but thus far most of the weddings she had photographed had been in the south. She was planning to go to Kano and wanted to know about northern Nigerian culture.

I told her about my own research on Hausa novels and films and sent her several academic articles on Hausa literature and culture. But I told her that the best thing for her to do would be to read Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel translated as Sin is a Puppy by Aliyu Kamal. Glenna read it and was enchanted, featuring it as  her “springtime read” at Guernica, where she is photo editor. And later when she came to stay with me for a week in Jos while working on her wedding project, she photographed some of my collection of “soyayya” novels and told me she wanted to do a photography project on Hausa women who wrote. Although I had started my own project writing about Hausa novelists several years before, and had given an editor a brief chapter in a book to be published in Nigeria that has yet to come out, I was in the middle of the slough of despond that is ABD, trying to finish my dissertation. And I thought it would be a fine thing for Hausa novelists to receive publicity in the kind of publications Glenna had access to like Time and New York Times. So, I contacted several writers’ groups asking women if they would be interested in being photographed for the project, and I put her in touch with a few other writers I knew. She took it from there, visiting Kano, Kaduna, and other parts of the north off and on for two years taking photographs of writers, weddings, and other things.

Earlier this year, she told me she would be exhibiting the photos with the Open Society’s “Moving Walls” series in New York and asked me if I would travel to Kano to purchase some novels from the market for the exhibition, as well as help

My own non-artistic photo of the books I was sending her before I shipped them off.

My own non-artistic photo of some of the books I was sending her before I shipped them off.

with summarizing some of the novels and translating excerpts for them for the exhibition. I did this in July, spending a week visiting writers, buying their novels and other novels in markets and at used book stalls, and interviewing them about their writing. As I read Hausa slowly, I recruited my friend Sa’adatu Baba Ahmad, a journalist and also one of the novelists Glenna has photographed to help me read and summarize some of the novels. She gave me ten summaries in Hausa, and then I wrote up the rest, depending (probably too heavily) on my interviews with the novelists about their books and from my own readings. I also translated five excerpts from novels by the authors Glenna was featuring: Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, Farida Ado Gachi, Hadiza Sani Garba, Jamila Umar, and Sa’adatu Baba Ahmad. After the exhibition has been up for a while, I will put up a few excerpts here.

The Open Society exhibition is opening this evening in New York  from 6-9pm and will be open until 13 May 2016. Glenna has also put together a book Diagram of the Heart featuring 75 photos and a few of my translations, which is currently available for pre-order on her site. Her photos were also earlier featured in the exhibition Photoville in Brooklyn. If you are in New York, check out the exhibit at Open Society at 224 W 57th St, New York, NY 10019. If you are not in New York, consider pre-ordering the book.

Lola Shoneyin polygamist satire in The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives

Nigerian writer Lola Shoneyin at the Leselenz 2015 in Hausach (c) Harald Krichel, via Wikipedia

Last week, I was chatting with a colleague recently moved to Nigeria about  contemporary Nigerian literature. She was enchanted by Lola Shoneyin’s novel The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. I mentioned to her that I had written a review of the novel, which reminded me that I have dozens of reviews I wrote in my column at Weekly Trust from 2010 to 2014 that I need to archive on this blog. Sadly, there is something wrong with the Weekly Trust archive, and now every single one of my articles has been “beheaded,” ie. they are all missing their first paragraph.

I am going to begin slowly re-posting my favourite columns, first paragraph reconstructed from my file of drafts I submitted to my editor, onto this blog. This week I will begin with my piece on Shoneyin’s novel.

As I re-read my review while editing this blog post, Shoneyin’s description of Baba Segi reminds me a great deal of the character of Ibrahima Dieng, in Ousmane Sembene’s 1968 film Mandabi that I showed my students a few weeks ago. For those who’ve seen the film and read the book, what do you think? There’s a similarity there, no? In both the caricature and ultimately the sympathy with which these rather vain and silly men are treated.

Lola Shoneyin polygamist satire in The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives

(courtesy of Cassava Republic Press)

By Carmen McCain | Publish Date: Nov 10 2012 5:00AM | Updated Date: Nov 10 2012 5:00AM (Weekly Trust)
Re-reading and reviewing Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s translated novel Sin is a Puppy… (Blaft, 2012/1990) last week, which presents a woman’s perspective on life in a polygamous household, reminded me of a book I had been meaning to read for two years, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin (Cassava Republic, 2010). Shoneyin’s novel was long-listed for the Orange Prize for fiction in 2011 and for the NLNG prize this year. Once I started the 245-page Secret Lives…, I couldn’t put it down. The novel is stunning—one of the best novels I’ve read this year. This week while working on this article, I picked it up again, meaning to just flip through and find the passages I needed for the review. Instead, I found myself re-reading the entire book again.

The novel, set in Ibadan, is extraordinarily well crafted, immersing the reader in a world so vivid that it takes some time to emerge out of it. Shoneyin has a sharp satirical eye. She captures the foolishness and hypocrisy in the polygamous household of the title with a biting precision; however, she also has a tender touch. As I was reading, I came to care for the characters despite their flaws.
Although there are a few chapters told with third person narration, most of the chapters are told in the powerful distinct voices of Baba Segi, his four wives, and his driver. There is Iya Segi, the first wife, a fat entrepreneurial woman who loves money more than nearly anything else. She is the real force behind the household. There is Iya Tope, a kind and sincere but easily intimidated farm girl who loves simple meticulous tasks like weeding or braiding her daughters’ hair. There is Iya Femi, a vain, vindictive woman who bleaches her hands yellow and spoils her children but loves cooking and cleaning. There is the fourth wife Bolanle, a graduate, who is haunted by a trauma in her past. She loves children but is having trouble conceiving any of her own. Finally there is Baba Segi, a big-hearted man whose greatest joy in life is fathering children.

Shoneyin devotes this brilliant piece of characterization to her title character:

“Baba Segi could never keep things in. He was open-ended. His senses were directly connected to his gut and anything that didn’t agree with him had a way of accelerating his digestive system. Bad smells, bad news and the sight of anything vaguely repulsive had an expulsive effect: what went in through his mouth recently shot out through his mouth and what was already settled in his belly sped through his intestines and out of his rear end. Only after clearing his digestive system could Baba Segi regain his calm.”

While Baba Segi is a vain, and sometimes absurd, character, he is also generous. His household becomes a shelter where wives find refuge from hard backgrounds and cultivate their secret fantasies and desires. Iya Segi puts it more cynically: “Women are my husband’s weakness. He cannot resist them, especially when they are low and downcast like puppies prematurely snatched from their mother’s breasts.” While, Baba Segi celebrates his sexual prowess and is proud of his kindness to the women he takes in, he eventually becomes as disillusioned by polygamy as any of his wives, telling his son “When the time comes for you to marry, take one wife and one wife alone. And when she causes you pain, as all women do, remember it is better that your pain comes from one source alone.”

The story, woven together from these multiple perspectives, emerges with this portrait of a family: a smug head of the household oblivious to the intrigues in his house; his wives with their secret passions, hidden tragedies, and private goals of which their husband knows nothing. Despite tensions, the household runs fairly smoothly under Iya Segi’s firm hand, until the educated Bolanle arrives as fourth wife. Bolanle’s presence causes a crisis in the household and changes the lives of Baba Segi and his wives forever. The other wives resent her education and accuse her of being arrogant. Iya Segi and Iya Femi turn down all of her overtures of friendship and threaten Iya Tope when she timidly responds.

In the meantime, we begin to get more of Bolanle’s backstory: her ambitious youth, her nagging mother and drunken father, the tragedy that destroys her dreams and eats away her personality, until finally she thinks she has found peace in Baba Segi, the man with many wives who initially accepts her as she is. Although her mother calls him an “overfed orang-utan,” Bolanle sees him as “a large but kindly generous soul.”

Although Bolanle’s marriage to Baba Segi is pivotal to the plot of the novel (and is actually based on a true story), it left me unsettled. Despite the description of Bolanle’s psychological woundedness and her gratefulness for his acceptance, I couldn’t quite believe that such a sensitive, un-materialistic degree-holder would actually agree to marry an illiterate man as ridiculous as Baba Segi.

Shoneyin caricatures polygamy as a relic of another time, an institution that Bolanle finds difficult to reconcile with her education and sophistication. Bolanle initially sees herself as a self-sacrificial missionary to a backwards field: “Living with them has taught me the value of education, of enlightenment. I have seen the dark side of illiteracy. […] I will not give up on them. I will bring light to their darkness.” She is embarrassed by Baba Segi’s behaviour at the teaching hospital where they go to investigate her inability to conceive. The doctors treat her with pity and her husband with condescension. Eventually, Bolanle realizes that she has been living in “a dream of unspeakable self-flagellation.” Bolanle’s description of being with “people from a different time in history, a different world” draws a distinct boundary between the world of education and hospitals and modernity and the world of polygamy.

But this presentation of polygamy as an institution of illiterates, while it works well in the novel, oversimplifies the choices educated professionals often make in entering such marriages. I think of Ghanaian novelist Ama Ata Aidoo’s novel Changes: a Love Story (Women’s Press, 1991), which describes an educated career woman, who falls for the charms of a married man and agrees to be his wife. While she, too, becomes disillusioned with polygamy, her initial attraction to her dashing husband seems more understandable than Bolanle’s marriage to the awkward Baba Segi. Hausa novels also present the complex decisions of characters who decide to enter into such marriages. Alhaji Abubakar, in Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Sin is a Puppy…, for example, is described as a charming, romantic suitor of the girl he makes his third bride. The young woman eventually finds out that living with rivals complicates the romance. In real life, educated men and educated women choose to enter such households. They are not all buffoons.

Ultimately, however, the novel, as satire, slyly questions the vanity of men who think they can satisfy more than one woman. Women willing to share a husband, the novel implies, might do so more out of a need for security than genuine love for their husband.

Remembering September 11 through a lens of fourteen years

Even all these years later, seeing the date September 11 still gives me a small jolt. Last night I was up past midnight trying to put up a course syllabus online. When I glanced at the date in the top right-hand corner of my screen, I jumped a little. I was chatting with my brother online about a documentary on climate change we are working on, and I said, “oh my goodness I just saw that it was Sept 11.” “Yeah,” he said.

I forgot again today until I saw this tweet from President Obama

I responded

Because remembering September 11, now, through a lens of fourteen years, I think of how America’s knee-jerk response, the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq, the years of bombings that often killed people as innocent as the ones working in those towers, ultimately led to rise of ISIS, maybe even Boko Haram. If we could go back to that time, if America had not gone to war, if we had investigated better, if we had responded less violently, what would the world look like now? Perhaps it is futile to play “what if” games, perhaps even worse things would have happened. But despite all the trauma of the day, since September 11, 2001, the world has been filled with bombs. Hundreds of them have gone off in Nigeria since 2010. I was closer to the Boko Haram bomb at the COCIN Headquarters Church in Jos on 26 February 2012 than I was to the World Trade Centre on September 11. Americans are loud in their grief, but elsewhere far more people have been killed than were in the towers, the planes, and the Pentagon on that blue-skied day in September fourteen years ago.

Yet it remains an epochal day in the history of the world, the scale of it, and by what it precipitated in the world. I’ll post here a few of the other articles I’ve written about my experiences on September 11. I’ve revisited those memories many times over the years. Reading back over them, I am struck by how each time I remember, other details emerge, while others fade away. Here are three columns I wrote in 2011, around the ten year anniversary of the tragedy.

Daily Trust has recently updated their website. The dedicated site for my column is gone, and almost all of my articles have their introductory paragraphs cut off now. I will try to slowly begin to archive them here on my blog from pre-edited copies that I submitted to my editor. The first article I will post here is on the event of the 10-year anniversary of the attack on New York published on 10 September 2011 and the second and third are from articles I had published in January of 2011.

2011-9-10-Weekly Trust-column-Sept 11 10 yrs later

September 2001, ten years later

(published in Weekly Trust on 10 September 2011)

Ten years ago, September 11, 2011, my flat mate and I arose to a crisp, clear-skied Tuesday morning in the New York City borough of Brooklyn and began preparing for the day. I had recently quit my job as an editor at a small children’s book publishing company in order to return on a Fulbright scholarship to Nigeria, where I planned to live in Jos for the year, doing research before applying to PhD programmes. I hoped to spend that Tuesday packing. While my flatmate got ready for work, I made tea and turned on the radio to listen to the news on New York’s National Public Radio (NPR) station. A crisis had begun in Jos on September 7, where both my flatmate and I had gone to school. NPR had begun to cover it in previous days, and we were anxious to hear the news. But when I turned on the radio, all I could hear was static. Strange, I thought, and turned the dial trying to find a signal. I tuned in to a different radio station, where the news was being reported of a plane flying into the World Trade Centre in lower Manhattan. I imagined that it was a freak accident involving a small private plane that held only a few people, like the one JFK Jr. had crashed in two years earlier. But as we ate breakfast, a school friend of ours from Jos now living in the U.S. called, her voice high and worried. “I just saw a plane flying into the World Trade Centre,” she said. “On TV. Are you Ok?” This was the second plane. The story became clearer. Both planes had been commercial flights. Both towers of the World Trade Centre were on fire and seemed to be structurally damaged. The news was unthinkable. Neither of us knew how to process the information. I had been in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics and had visited the Olympic park the day before American domestic terrorist Eric Rudolph set off a bomb there, but this was larger and more frightening than anything I had ever heard of. “Are you sure you should go to work?” I asked my flatmate, as she prepared to walk out the door. “Do you think the subways will be running?” “My meeting is in Brooklyn, not in Manhattan,” she said. “I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

We were very young, and neither of us had any idea of the world that day was christening us into. As she proceeded to the subway, I quickly dressed and ran down to the pier on the Hudson River only a few blocks from where we lived, which had a clear view of lower Manhattan. In previous columns I have written about standing on the pier with other New Yorkers, mouths agape as we watched hot fire devour the centre of towers, white smoke pouring across the blue sky into Brooklyn. I’ve described how a ripple of smoke ran down the South Tower before we saw it collapse into dust, how I walked numbly away from the water back towards my apartment, through deserted streets, televisions blaring through open windows. By the time I got back home to the radio, the second tower had also fallen. I lay on my bed, hot tears trickling into my ears trying to calling my flatmate, another friend I thought had been in the tower, my aunts and uncles. All networks were busy. My flatmate got home around noon, covered in soot. She had not yet arrived at work when the train stopped. She had walked about 70 city blocks back home through the ash blowing across Brooklyn, holding a paper serviette from a deli across her mouth and nose. Later, we went back out together, down to the pier where I had seen the first tower fall. The sky was clear and blue and the afternoon sun, hot. Where the gleaming silver twin towers had once loomed over the skyline of lower Manhattan, there was nothing but smoke. Suddenly, we heard the sound of planes overhead. My body tensed. There was a no-fly order imposed. There were not supposed to be any planes in the sky. When we looked up, they were fighter planes. It was a symbol of what was to come.

The next few days, we stayed at home and listened to the radio with two other friends who came to stay with us because they didn’t want to be alone. The couple who lived below us in the brownstone house were both newspaper editors, and one day I stayed with their children while they both went in to work. The children asked me why someone would fly planes into the World Trade Centre. I didn’t know what to tell them. “There are crazy people in the world,” I said. “There are bad people.” Around the city, family members posted photos of missing loved ones on subway walls and lamp posts. Small shrines sprung up around them, with candles and ribbons and letters. A bagpipe procession went past our window, as a funeral was held for a fireman at the Catholic church down the street. The Muslim shop owner around the corner from my house put up a gigantic American flag.

Two weeks later I boarded my plane back to Nigeria, on my way to another wounded city, where my parents had hosted a refugee camp at their house, churches and mosques had been burnt, and one of my father’s students had been found murdered, washed up on the banks of a river. It felt, in those days, as if the whole world were on fire.

Ten years later, both countries I call home are harsher more violent places. The U.S. has turned on itself. American extremists lash out against Muslims, who they blame en-masse for the attacks, filling the internet and airwaves with hatred. Al-Jazeera reports that in the past ten years the FBI has “investigated more than 800 violent acts against Muslims, Arab Americans, or people perceived to be of Middle Eastern origin.” The violent rhetoric in the U.S. does not stop at American borders. Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, who killed seventy-seven people in a bomb and a shooting this July, cited American bloggers in his online manifesto. In the countries the U.S. invaded following the 9-11 attack the death toll is much higher, and such actions are used by violent extremists as justification for further violence.

In Nigeria, the entity popularly called Boko Haram has, this year, initiated Nigeria’s first suicide bombs, only a few weeks ago attacking the UN building, which, like the World Trade Centre, represented the existing global system. Ten years after the first large crisis, Jos has become an appalling place. The first few crises may have been instigated by politicians, by “bad, crazy people” as I told my landlord’s children in the wake of 9-11, but is continued through communities seeking revenge. Those who were children at the time of the first crisis have grown up to become murderers, committing atrocities against those with whom they might have been friends had they lived in a different city, but whom they have been taught to despise. Parents and clerics and leaders who should be restraining them, encourage hate, or else refuse to speak because they are afraid their children will turn on them.

One of my favourite writers C.S. Lewis imagines in his novel The Great Divorce, Hell, as a place where people continue for an eternity in the path they decided to follow on earth. Unforgiveness, hatred, and arrogance eat away all their good characteristics till they become shadows, left with nothing but the sins they refuse to give up. Given a chance to go to heaven, most of the ghosts in the novel return voluntarily to hell. In heaven they are unable to hold on to their hatred, and they’d rather live in hell than forgive.

Ten years after the Jos crisis and the 9-11 attacks, I am only left with questions and fear for the future. What are our children learning? What are they becoming? What kind of world will we leave them? Where will we be in another ten years? Are we willing to do the hard thing, forgive those who have killed our loved ones and teach our children peace, or do we want to take revenge after revenge, until we have made for ourselves hell on earth?

2011-1-8-Weekly Trust-column-Anger Revolutionary Love

Anger and the Revolutionary Ideal of Love

(published in Weekly Trust on 8 January 2011)

Nearly ten years ago now, I stood with fifty or sixty other people on a Brooklyn pier looking over the water towards downtown Manhattan, in New York City. It was a crisp September day. The sky was clear and blue, except for the white smoke that streamed over Brooklyn. The iconic twin towers were burning. When the first ripple of smoke travelled down the first tower and it collapsed into dust, I stood with the others gaping. There was a stunned silence. We could hear nothing but the sound of people shouting on megaphones over the water. And then the people around me began to scream. “It’s falling.” “It’s fallen.” “That’s it. He’s going to war,” one man said. “He’s going to war.”

I thought I had just seen a friend die. I walked away, my hands on my head, dry eyed, my mind blank. As I walked back to my apartment, the streets were deserted. I could hear nothing but the sound of television news blaring out of open windows. Two construction workers I had passed on my way down to the water, ran past me. One dropped his helmet. “Leave it. Leave it,” screamed his parter. By the time I reached my apartment, I heard on the radio that the second tower had fallen. I lay on my bed, the sun travelling over me, trying to call my family (all networks were busy), waiting for my roommate to come home.

I lost a friend that day—but not to the towers. The friend who had worked in the world trade centre complex was fine. I lost my friend to anger. “I hope they hunt down who has done this,” I emailed my friend living in distant Midwestern America. “And kill them.” “Why do you want to respond to violence with more violence?” he asked me. “If you couldn’t look them in the eyes and kill them yourself, you shouldn’t say you want them to be killed.” I was furious. What did he know, living far away in an untouched city where he couldn’t smell the smoke, where he couldn’t feel the grit of pulverized buildings and burned bodies floating through the windows and settling on everything like harmattan dust, where he hadn’t suffered the agony of thinking a friend had died, a neighbor had died. His pacifist ideas felt namby-pamby, ideal without experience. How could he preach to me, when he didn’t understand my grief. I wasn’t saying we should go out and kill innocent people. I was saying we should kill terrorists. I never wrote him back. I never spoke to him again.

I flashed back to that day this week on New Year’s Eve, when I heard of the bomb that exploded in Abuja and the rumours of other bombs that turned out not to be true. I can understand now that there may have been more sense to my friend’s words than I gave him credit for. I regret losing a long friendship to anger. In anger, America went into a war they didn’t understand. They geared their action towards stereotypes rather than intelligence, and their actions have caused mass suffering and deaths far beyond what we Americans suffered on September 11.

Yet, although I never supported the war in Iraq, I can understand the anger that made other Americans support it. I do believe that international law should be followed in bringing justice, but I still understand why I reacted so violently to my friends glib pacifism, which did not seem to take seriously the massive suffering caused by those who hijacked planes and brought down towers.

It is true. I am white and the citizen of a superpower. My country has thrown its weight around the world. I can never completely understand the feeling of powerlessness, the feeling that there is nowhere else to go—or the very personal history of oppression. But I do know what it feels like to live in a city under attack, both in New York and in Jos. I have experienced terror attacks in America and lived through multiple crises in Nigeria. I have close friends who are Christians and Muslims in Jos, Kano, Abuja, Kaduna. I have seen the anger on both sides. And I know that it is not my friends, it is not the ordinary people who have committed acts of terror. But it is the ordinary people who suffer when angry people take the law into their own hands. It is the ordinary people whose houses are burnt and brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers and children are killed in the violence of retaliation.

Following my repeated reading of American civil right’s leader Martin Luther King Jr’s 1957 Christmas sermon “Loving Your Enemies” this week, I read excerpts from his book Stride Toward Freedom that describe how he developed his philosophy of nonviolent resistance, from influences as diverse as Marx and Ghandi. He has sometimes been accused of being too peaceful, of being a passive resister, of collaborating too much with the majority in power. Yet, Martin Luther King did not advocate sitting around and letting things happen. He advocated resistance and disobedience to injust laws and to corrupt law enforcers but a resistance that was based in nonviolence and ultimately love—a resistance that helped transform the American justice system and bring change to corrupt and injust policies. In his own words, “True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to evil power, as Niebuhr contends. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflicter of it, since the latter only multiplied the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart.” And while King’s fellow civil rights activist Malcom X is often viewed as having more violent solutions to injustice, his turn to Sunni Islam and his trip to Mecca near the end of his life revolutionized his approach. “I was no less angry than I had been,” he told Alex Haley, in their collaboration The Autobiography of Malcom X, “ but at the same time the true brotherhood I had seen in the Holy World had influenced me to recognize that anger can blind human vision” (410). Malcom X anticipated his death, speaking with his brother about martyrs. “If I’m to be one, it will be in the cause of brotherhood” (467).

Both Martin Luther King and Malcom X were assassinated by hateful extremists, and injustice has certainly not completely ended in American society. [UPDATE: In 2015, with the constantly reported killings of young black men at the hands of the police, this becomes particularly clear.] But the peaceful yet passionate forms of protest espoused by both men towards the end of their lives provides a powerful model of how change can be effected. Nigeria is not America. And no outside solution will ever work to bring peace. It must be a peace that come from within. But we can look, as both of these American leaders did, to other models of transformation as examples of ways in which peace can be built, and remember that the deepest ideals can sometimes be the most revolutionary.

2011-1-22-Weekly Trust-column-Sad consequences of hate

The Sad Consequences of Hate

(published in Weekly Trust on 22 January 2011)

In September 2001, my flatmate and I were closely following the events in Jos. We had both grown up in Jos and had moved to New York together after finishing university. Each morning we would turn on New York public radio to listen for coverage of the crisis raging across what we remembered as a peaceful, quiet city. Then, on September 11, two jets slammed into the twin towers in New York, and Jos fell off the international news radar. Although my parents didn’t have a mobile phone in those days, I was able to get through to some other friends in Jos, who had a landline. My parents got word that I was fine when someone came to deliver a bag of garri for the several hundred people camped out in and around their house. They later told me they hadn’t really had time to be worried about me. They had heard the news but figured I wouldn’t have been in the World Trade Centre. In the meantime, there was gunfire on the streets of Jos and hundreds of refugees to find food for.

As New York draped itself in American flags, distraught family members plastered photos of their missing loved ones on subway walls. All over the city, candles were lit in little makeshift shrines to the dead. Two weeks after September 11, I left New York to fly to Jos. My trip back had been planned for almost half a year. I had quit my job in anticipation of spending a year in Jos, and now I was flying from one city in mourning to another. I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay in New York and heal with the city. But I thought that if I let the attacks change my plans, I would be giving in to the terrorists. So, half in defiance, half because I’d already quit my job, I travelled back to my other home where people went about with haunted eyes, trading stories of where they had been, what they had seen during the crisis. “Happy Survival,” they said. It was an apt greeting for the time.

Those first few months back in Jos, I’d spend hours watching CNN, wincing at the endless replays of the jets slamming into silver buildings, eagerly following the cleanup in New York, listening to stories of the families of those who had been killed in the planes and the towers. A few months after I had settled, the cultural affairs section of the US embassy brought an exhibit to the University of Jos of “Ground Zero” photos taken by a New Yorker photographer—beautiful abstracts of fallen beams, of light rays defined by dust, and portraits of firemen and clean-up workers at the site where the towers had collapsed. I was hungry for images of New York, but as I walked through the rows of photos, I was struck by how the other people around me shook their heads at photos of smoke and ash and weeping people. “This is terrible, this is terrible,” they said. I felt a sense of vertigo. The same people who had just lived through nearly a week of war, of smoke on the horizon and shootings in the streets, the same people who had neighbors gone missing, never to be seen again, these same people were shaking their heads in sympathy for the tragedy in America.

Yet what did America know about what had happened in Jos. CNN was not covering it then. There were no international exhibits of photography travelling around to educate the globe on the thousands of deaths Jos had suffered. In that moment, my world shifted further on its axis. I still grieved New York. But now I wanted to collect the stories of those not constantly on global television, make heard the voices buried under the loud mourning of my homeland.

Sadly, almost ten years later, Jos does rise to the top of African headlines. The shock that a peaceful city would erupt into violence is no longer there. News coming out of the Jos is increasingly more horrifying. “God forbid,” wrote one of my Hausa actor friends on Facebook, when someone invited him to shoot a film in Jos, the home of the National Film Corporation, the National Film Institute and once a booming centre of Hausa films. Jos is now one of the Nigerian cities most likely to make international headlines for violence.

Living in Nigeria with emotional investments both here and in the United States, I continue to recognize eerie parallels between my two homes. The first week of 2011, there was an upsurge of violence in Jos between rival factions, after a car-load of people returning from a wedding party were killed and a bus passing through Jos from Lagos to Yola was burnt. The second week of 2011, a gunman in Tucson, Arizona, shot American Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and eighteen others. Following the shooting, there was the kind of partisan bickering and casting of blame that has become usual in American public discourse. But whether the kind of violent metaphors and imagery used by “teaparty” political agitators against their political rivals had anything to do with the motivations behind the shootings or not, the rhetoric of hatred that is used regularly in American political discourse contributes to a general atmosphere of dehumanizing “the Other.” The consequences of such hateful rhetoric are seen even more tragically in Jos, where people seem to be killed on an almost weekly basis.

There is a long history of how dehumanizing rhetoric is used to justify violence. In the United States, Americans excused their enslavement and brutal treatment of Africans and their descendents by reasoning that they were not actually human beings. In the genocide in Turkey against the Armenians at the beginning of the 20th century, Armenians were called dogs and swine. In Nazi Germany as death camps were set up, propagandists repeated the old poisonous libel used during pogroms throughout the centuries that Jews drank the blood of Christian babies. In Rwanda the Tutsi were called cockroaches as they were being slaughtered.

I am, thus, horrified and apprehensive when I hear similar kinds of dehumanizing rhetoric in America or Nigeria. In America, extremist members of the conservative “teaparty” movement question the citizenship of President Obama, and make calls to “take America back.” Members of Congress have been called by racial epithets, spat on, had doors and windows of their offices smashed in, and had their home addresses published by opposition parties. In Nigeria, I’ve heard Beroms called “arna” and “blood-thirsty savages.” I’ve seen Fulanis called “dirty/stinking”, “hoards” and “marauders.” I’ve seen calls urging “indigenes” to “drive away the settler,” with violence if necessary. Such rhetoric is followed by attacks, which while also seemingly political in origin, take an even more dramatic toll on ordinary people. Hundreds of people in Plateau State have been killed in the past year, thousands in the past ten.

Right before sending in this article, I received an email telling how two nephews of a Muslim friend “were killed in Anguwan Rukuba. They were machine drivers. The wife of the one killed got a cell phone call. ‘They have me, they’re about to kill me.’ Somebody in the background said, ‘tell them Anguwan Rukuba.’ His people went with soldiers the next day and found the bodies.”

Those in both countries I hold dear would do well to take heed to the warning Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords made in March 2010 after her office was vandalized. In a chilling anticipation of the attack in January 2011, where she would be shot in the head, she said: “The rhetoric is incredibly heated. Not just the calls, but the emails, the slurs.[…]I think it’s important for […] community leaders, figures in our community to say, ‘Look, we can’t stand for this.’ […] For example, we’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list, but the thing is, the way she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gunsight over our district. And when people do that, they’ve gotta realize there’s consequences to that action.”

Wa Zai Auri Jahila? Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel on Child Marriage

The novel was published in two parts. This is the second part, of 164 pages.

The novel was published in two parts. This is the second part, of 164 pages.

In 2013, Abuja-based Cassava Republic Press asked me to choose a September 2013 “Book of the Month.” I wrote about Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Hausa novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila (Who Will Marry an Illiterate Woman?). Unfortunately, Cassava Republic took down the piece the next month to make way for their next book of the month. I was recently reminded of the short essay as I have been working with my friend Hausa novelist and journalist Sa’adatu Baba Ahmed on summaries and short translations of Hausa novels for an exhibition of photographs by photographer Glenna Gordon at the Open Society. I thought it was about time to make the piece available online again through my blog. Note I am reproducing it as it was originally published with updates in brackets.

Wa Zai Auri Jahila? Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel on Child Marriage

Much of the public discourse about literature in Nigeria is about literature written in English. According to most African literary prize-giving institutions, English is the language of literature. Yet, Nigeria also has a rich heritage of literature written in languages such as Arabic, Efik, Fulfulde [see here and here], Ibibio, Igbo [see here and here], Tiv, and Yoruba [see here and here], among others. Hausa literature is, however, currently the largest indigenous-language publishing movement in Nigeria, if not in Africa. According to scholar Abdalla Uba Adamu, between the 1930s and mid-1980s, fifty-four Hausa-language novels were published mostly by government-subsidized publishers. The upsurge in literacy promoted by the UPE (Universal Primary Education) initiative from 1976 and the advance in personal computer in the 1980s led to an explosion in Hausa self-publication in the early 1980s. Since that time, thousands of novels in Hausa have been published. The School of Oriental and African Studies in London has over 2000 of these novels in their collection.

Called variously Kano Market Literature, or “Soyayya” (romance) novels, scholar and author Yusuf Adamu’s suggestion of the term “Adabin Hausa na Zamani/Contemporary Hausa literature” is probably more appropriate. These novels cover a wide range of genres and themes, from crime fiction and romance, to muckraking social critique and fantasy adventure. While they are often printed in multiple parts in 80-120 page pamphlets to make it affordable for students and housewives, most are not novellas but serialized novels that sometimes run to 700 pages or beyond. And they are wildly popular. According to the author’s print run records, the bestselling novel of the movement, Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino’s two part novel, In da So da Kauna, published in 1990, sold over 100,000 copies—200,000, if you count sales of individual parts. Gidan Dabino is currently preparing to release a new edition of the novel in a single three hundred page volume. Other exciting developments in Hausa publishing include the opening last month of an online shop for Hausa novels,, by the Mace Mutum women writers association led by novelist Rahma Abdulmajid. [Unfortunately, in 2015, this site is no longer viable.]

Rahma Abdul Majid and Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino with me in 2005.

Recently, I have been reading the novels of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, one of the pioneers of the so-called “soyayya” movement (and also the younger sister of the former head of state Murtala Muhammad). She was part of the Raina Kama writing club that began in the late 1980s, which also included authors, Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino, Dan Azimi Baba, Aminu Hassan Yakasai, Alkhamees D. Bature, Aminu Abdu Na’inna, and Badamasi Shu’aibu Burji.

Raina Kama literary Association photograph duplicated in many of their books

Raina Kama literary Association photograph duplicated in many of their books

Married at 12 to a 48 year old man and quickly divorced, [as she recounts in this short autobiographical text], Hajiya Balaraba was finally able to access education through adult education offered in Kano. She began by writing plays as class assignments and published her first novel, Budurwar Zuciya in 1988. She has written over nine books, including novels and plays. She has also produced several films and writes popular radio plays. Her novels are generally muckraking exposés of the corruption of hypocritical men and they critique polygamy, forced marriage, and other issues of concern to northern women. While she was not the first woman to publish a novel in Hausa—that honour goes to Hafsat Abdulwaheed, whose short novel So Aljannar Duniya won a 1979 Northern Nigerian Publishing Company (NNPC) writing competition and was published in 1980—Hajiya Balaraba is the first woman to have a novel translated from Hausa to English.

Hausa novelists Balaraba Ramat Yakubu and Hafsat Abdulwaheed at an event celebrating the work of literary critic Ibrahim Malumfashi, Kaduna, December 2012 (c) Carmen McCain

Hausa novelists Balaraba Ramat Yakubu and Hafsat Abdulwaheed at an event celebrating the work of literary critic Ibrahim Malumfashi, Kaduna, December 2012 (c) Carmen McCain

In 2012, the Indian publisher Blaft sponsored and published Aliyu Kamal’s English-language translation of Hajiya Balaraba’s 1990 novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne…Ubangidansa Yakan Bi as Sin is a Puppy… that Follows you Home.

The translation of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu's novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne published in 2013 by Blaft Publishers.

The translation of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne published in 2013 by Blaft Publishers.

Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne published in 1990.

The novel tells the story of a wealthy but womanising trader, who spends most of  his salary chasing prostitutes, only giving a fraction to his wife Rabi for the upkeep of the nine children in the house. When he marries an old prostitute who picks a fight with Rabi, he divorces his wife and sends her and her children away. Although Rabi finds life independent of her selfish husband liberating, she is eventually forced by her brothers and her son-in-law back into a more traditional home. The novel critiques the patriarchal society in which Rabi and her daughters are caught with bitter irony rather than explicit condemnation. [For my longer review of the translated novel, see this blog post.]

Wane Kare ba Bare ba is perhaps Hajiya Balaraba’s most controversial novel,

Balaraba Ramat Yakubu's novel Is the Man a Dog or Just an Outcast? published in 1995.

Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Is the Man a Dog or Just an Outcast? published in 1995.

and it quickly went out of print shortly after publication in 1995. It is about the outwardly respectable Alhaji Gagarau, who in private is a predatory sexual deviant. He molests almost every young girl he comes into contact with, including most of his daughters and his wives’ sisters. As in Sin is a puppy…., however, Alhaji Gagarau’s sins will follow him home; this time in the form of a hand wounded while committing a rape, which turns gangrenous and begins to rot. Like Oscar Wilde’s picture of Dorian Gray which shows the secret corruption of its owner, Alhaji Gagarau may be able to hide his sins but he cannot hide the smell of his rotting hand, which eventually exposes his secret.

Amidst these muckraking tales of corruption in the home, my favourite is the tender novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila?/Who will Marry an Illiterate Woman? in which Hajiya Balaraba draws on her own experiences as a bride of 12. Published in 1990 [and soon to be adapted into a mini-series produced by Hajiya Balaraba], the novel is relevant to the ongoing debate of child marriage, recently brought back to public attention by Senator Yerima’s vociferous insistence that he has the religious right to marry a wife or give out his daughters in marriage whenever they start menstruation, whether “at the age of nine, 13, 14.” In Wa Zai Auri Jahila?, Hajiya Balaraba counters this male narrative with the woman’s side of the story. Thirteen-year-old bookworm Abu is withdrawn from school when her Qur’anic teacher tells her father it is no longer appropriate for a grown girl to be out in public. Embarrassed, Abu’s father quickly seeks to marry her off to her childhood sweetheart, her cousin Ahmadu, to whom she has been promised for years. But Ahmadu, now in university in Kano, has had a taste of city life and city women and will have no more of his young village cousin, whom he calls illiterate and backward. Meanwhile, a local aristocrat, the potbellied, red-eyed fifty-two year old Sarkin Noma has been plotting to marry Abu before he has even seen her, as a way to subdue his three other quarrelling wives. The headstrong Abu makes no secret of her disgust for him, but her father, humiliated by the immature Ahmadu’s rejection of his daughter, forces his young daughter to marry the old man. Sarkin Noma, initially just in search of fresh new blood, continues his pursuit of Abu as revenge for disrespecting him, telling her, “No matter how much you refuse me, I will marry you.” The first part of the novel traces the ever more wretched conditions Abu faces, as a child bride facing brutal rape by her old husband.

However, Abu is not a subservient victim, and she takes her fate into her own hands, running away to Kano to make a new life for herself. The second part of the novel traces Abu’s maturity and knowledge as she enrolls in adult education classes and begins a career, first as a teacher and later as a nurse. Like the corrupt men in Hajiya Balaraba’s other novels, as Abu grows in power, Sarkin Noma dwindles away and becomes impotent. But he is the only one in the book who

part 1 of the novel, 182 pages.

Part 1 of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila.

is not changed for the better by Abu’s self-improvement. As the other men in the novel learn humility and respect for their female companions, they find much sweeter lives. Ultimately, Abu is allowed the happiness that escapes many of Hajiya Balaraba’s other heroines—having redefined her value, not just as an illiterate girl to be given away but an educated woman who has much to give back to her family. The title is thus ironic, the real question is not “Who will marry an Illiterate Woman?” but rather “Who is good enough to marry an Educated Woman?”

Wa Zai Auri Jahila? challenges the stereotype of the northern woman as merely silent and oppressed and gives her an agency of her own. Unfortunately for those who read only English, Wa Zai Auri Jahila? is available only in Hausa. However, if you want a taste of Hajiya Balaraba’s writing you can read her novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne, published in translation as Sin is a Puppy… by Blaft. If more effort were put into building up an infrastructure to support translators, perhaps a wider public would be able to access more of these striking stories written by women and young people in northern Nigeria. Instead of awarding a single author with $100,000 every year, the administrators of the NLNG prize may want to consider that.

Read my previous reviews of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novels Sin is a Puppy… and Wa Zai Auri Jahila? here.

Global Reach?

Several times I have proposed keeping up with the blog by posting photos from my vast archive and writing a quick memory of the context behind the photograph, and today I intend to start that–begin the rhythm of a new blog posting schedule.

I went into my photos folder and picked a date at random. And this is the first photo that came up.


Taken on 26 February 2012 after the Boko Haram bomb at COCIN Headquarters church in Jos, Nigeria (c) Carmen McCain, all rights reserved

The date: 26 February 2012

The photo: A bank flier amidst broken glass from a Boko Haram bomb at COCIN Headquarters church. I had been living in Jos at the time, while writing my dissertation, and the church was only a block and a half from my house. It was around 7:15am. I was lying in bed, procrastinating getting up, when suddenly an ear-splitting BOOM came, shaking the house. I lept out of bed, tangling in the mosquito netting. I couldn’t find my keys to run out of the front door, so I ran out the side door. In the sky were thousands of bats.

The closed windows in my neighbour’s houses had shattered. We all sat on the ground in a neighbour’s house, listening to the shouting outside the wall. Later that afternoon, when tensions cooled, I walked over to the church to take a few photos. I later wrote about the experience in more detail.

With the recent attacks on mosques in Jos and Kano, church in Potiskum, and during a biometric verification exercise for state workers in Zaria, it felt like a the right photograph to post today, expressive of multiple ironies. It expresses the uncertainty that we continue to face about the “global reach” of terror, in a time when ISIS, Al Shabaab, and Boko Haram often seem to work in conjunction (and in a time when more stories of terror against minority populations in the U.S. and Europe are being heard); the tensions of Nigeria’s economic expansion and attempts to join marketplaces of global capital in a time of Boko Haram. And so on.

Hopefully, my next photo will be a little more cheerful.