Category Archives: Column

Africa Ukoh’s brilliant play 54 Silhouettes Takes on Hollywood in Jos and Abuja (and Photos of the Premiere Performance in Jos)

publicity poster used by permission of Africa Ukoh

Africa Ukoh’s brilliant play 54 Silhouettes is ongoing right now in Abuja at the French Institut in Wuse II, off Aminu Kano Crescent (Beside Mr. Biggs) and it will also be performed tomorrow, Friday same place. The pre-show activities start at 6pm and the play itself at 7pm. The tickets are N2000.

I am sadly late with this post. I was going to do it this morning latest so as to have it in time for the performance tonight, but I was having such a good dissertation writing day that I figured that the dissertation took precedence over the blog. (It was a really, really good writing day. It helps that it was just rewriting a piece that has already been published…) Then when I finally got on, my Glo internet has been atrocious and is refusing to upload my photos of the premiere performance [update: they finally uploaded] or even keep a steady connection to WordPress, so my apologies. (Come back for the photos, which will hopefully upload sometime before next week… :-P It has currently been trying to upload one photo for over an hour)

Anyway, I was honoured to be able to attend the premiere stage performance of Africa Ukoh‘s play 54 Silhouettes in Jos on 16 November 2013. The play, which won the Stratford East/30 Nigeria House Award also won first runner up in the BBC African Performance Prize and was performed for radio on BBC, which you can listen to here. I thought the stage performance was even better than the radio performance. I liked the character interpretation better in the stage performance, perhaps because the playwright Africa Ukoh himself was directing it. (And I must admit that Chimezie’s accent in the radio performance kind of irritated me…. I thought Promise Ebichi, who played Chimezie in the stage performance, was much better.) I had gone because I saw that the performance was about a Nigerian actor trying to make it in Hollywood, and I am (and have been for years) obsessed with metafiction, that is self-reflexive fiction that is in someway about the creative process. I am so delighted that my random interest in the theme (well… not completely random, because I have been working all week on a “metafiction” chapter in my dissertation) landed me at the premiere stage performance of a really fantastic play.

I reviewed the play for my column in Weekly Trust, which you can read by following this link. I generally archive my reviews on this blog, but recently my blog traffic has dropped dramatically, by around 70%, and I think the google-bots are penalizing me for “scraping content.” Unfortunately, there is no way for me to let google know that I am the copyright owner of this content and that when I archive my articles on my blog, I improve it with links and photos. It’s very frustrating, especially when blogs, which clearly steal almost all of their content are on the first search page–where my blog used to be. (This has made me aware that the Internet is a whole lot less “free” and “fair” than I used to think it was.) Nevertheless, as I am trying to get back on google’s good side, check out my review on the Weekly Trust site. Africa Ukoh has also copied it over onto his Art Theatre blog. He has also put up a post with a lot of positive audience reactions from the Jos performance. Please note that the posters I use in this piece are promotional photos taken by Victor Audu for publicity purposes. (They are therefore used here under fair use laws.)

The play revolves around 5 characters:

Publicity photo by Victor Audu, used by permission of Africa Ukoh

(c) Victor Audu, used by permission of Africa Ukoh

The principled Victor Chimezie, a Nigerian actor played by Promise Ebichi. Chimezie has played Elesin in Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman

(c) Victor Audu, used by permission of Africa Ukoh

and is looking for a break in Hollywood. But all he seems to get are racist roles like “Monkey Man” found by his agent,

Sonny Chuks (Obasi Williams), who has hustled his way into the big league and is cashing in on a favour a big-time producer owes him to get Chimezie a role in a film about Africa, written by

Larry Singer (Idris Sagir), a well meaning Hollywood hack who has directed

(c) Victor Audu, used by permission of Africa Ukoh

Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, but whose own representations of Africa include ““voodoo priests, a wrestling match with a lion, cannibalism, and half-naked dancing women” all in one film. Nevertheless, despite his obliviousness, he is a much nicer guy than

(c) Victor Audu used by permission of Africa Ukoh

The Big Time Hollywood Producer Howard Flynn, played with zest by Africa Ukoh himself, who drops racist slurs like they’re hot. This cigar-smoking Hollywood icon doesn’t care about pronouncing Chimezie’s name correctly. He could be “Chimpanzee” for all he cares. Chimezie irritates the hell out of him, in fact. He is too noble. He doesn’t get excited enough when Flynn announces that Denzel Washington has agreed to play the lead in the film and he is too “fluent.” All Howard Flynn really wants is for Chimezie to act like

Tobi , the Brighton born actor of Nigerian ancestry, who does a mean generic

(c) Victor Audu, used by permission of Africa Ukoh

African Accent, though he cannot or will not correctly pronounce Chimezie’s name. He only keeps his real name “Kayode Adetoba” because “the sheer oddity of it gets me attention and makes me stand out.” Tobi also becomes more and more incensed at Chimezie’s challenge to his acting skills. Playing a deep-voiced warlord with a name of ambiguous origin who says things like “You are an African. There is beastliness in your blood, and I shall unleash it” is fine by him, as long as he maintains his career as Hollywood’s token African.

As you can see from these brief character sketches, the play is filled with biting dialogue that satirizes Hollywood representations of Africa. It slyly mocks everything from the generic African accents, to the focus on the suffering of white characters in Africa (in this case a saintly Irish priest about to be murdered by a child soldier), to the violence of “African” characters set in Nigeria with no precise identifying name, history, or location, to the casting of “Hollywood” actors in Nigerian roles, that is remniscent of the whole brouhaha surrounding the casting of Thandie Newton as Olanna in the recent film adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s bestselling novel Half of a Yellow Sun.

The only thing that was missing was Nollywood, and as I said in my review, I imagine a “a ‘Part 2,’ where Chimezie resurrects in Nollywood, moving beyond anxieties about Hollywood to tell stories his own way.”

If you are in Abuja tomorrow, go see it. The play is supposed to come back to Jos sometime in January. I’ll update this blog when I find out the date, but it is definitely worth it. In the meantime follow Africa Ukoh’s Art Theatre blog for updates.

Stay tuned also for my own photos of the premiere performance whenever in the next century they upload.

[Update. Now that I've been able to upload my own photos, scroll below to see a few of them:]

Chimezie and Chuks open the play (c) Carmen McCain

The scriptwriter Larry is quite smitten by Chimezie (c) Carmen McCain

Things get tense when the generic African actor Tobi arrives. (c) Carmen McCain

And things get even tenser when hotshot Hollywood producer Howard Flynn demands Chimezie act like Tobi. (c) Carmen McCain

There is a Hollywood sized gulf between what Howard Flynn and Larry envision and what Chimezie wants to perform (c) Carmen McCain

 

Tobi and Chimezie are initially civil. (c) Carmen McCain

But become more heated as Tobi accuses Chimezie of attacking his acting ability. (c) Carmen McCain

More heated. (c) Carmen McCain

And still more heated. (c) Carmen McCain

Things become even more interesting when they begin filming (c) Carmen McCain

And they get guns for props. (c) Carmen McCain

Tobi gets mad again. (c) Carmen McCain

(c) Carmen McCain

Yeah, so there’s more to the play than Tobi brawling, but I like action shots. (c) Carmen McCain

One more action shot. (c) Carmen McCain

Chimezie waxes philosophical on how troubled he is by the role he is being asked to play. (c) Carmen McCain

 

And draws the audience into his dilemma. (c) Carmen McCain

He finally explains to Larry why he cannot perform the role as written. (c) Carmen McCain

Playwright and director Africa Ukoh who also plays the racist producer Howard Flynn watches the actors in two different levels of production. It was a brilliant play. Congratulations, (c) Carmen

Award-winning documentary Daughters of the Niger Delta screens at upcoming film festivals (plus my review)

Publicity photo courtesy of MIND

A few months ago, I got an email from the NGO MIND (Media Information Narrative Development) associated with the NGO Cordaid asking me if I would be willing to review a documentary The Daughters of the Niger Delta. Not knowing what to expect from a documentary made by an NGO, I was a little reluctant to promise to review it, but I told them to send it to me, and I’d see what I thought. When I watched it, I was blown away. It is an important documentary made by nine woman that tells the story of the Niger Delta (and directed by Ilse van Lamoen-Isoun) as seen through the eyes of the women Hannah, Rebecca, and Naomi. Since I first published my review in Weekly Trust

courtesy of The Daughters of the Niger Delta public Facebook page

on 3 August 2013, which I’ve copied below, it has won awards at two film festivals, the Best Documentary Award at the Abuja International Film Festival and the Best Documentary award at the LA Femme International Film Festival, and has been screened at nine other film festivals, including the United Nations Association Film Festival, The Kansas International Film Festival.

The film will be showing today, 11 November 2013, 2-3pm, and on Friday 15

courtesy of the Eko International Film Festival

November, 1-2pm, at the Africa International Film Festival in Calabar. The venue is Filmhouse Cinema, Tinapa Resort, Calabar, Cross River State, Nigeria.

It will also show at the Eko International Film Festival in Lagos on Friday, 22 November.

It has also received several other rave reviews:

Hauwa Imam’s “Daughters of the Niger Delta” in The Nation on 31 July 2013 and the Weekly Trust on 17 September 2013.

My “The Daughters of the Niger Delta Speak Out Through Film” in the Weekly Trust on 3 August 2013.

Sa’adatu Shuaibu’s “Humanizing Poverty: the Daughters of the Niger Delta” in Leadership on 14 September 2013.

Gimba Kakanda’s “The Blues of the Southern Women” for Blueprint, Sahara Reporters, Premium Times etc on 8 November 2013.

You can read a 13 October 2013 interview with the director Ilse Van Lamoen-Isoun in the Sunday Trust, and watch her TV interview with Kansas City Live, and watch a trailer copied below:

And finally, here is the review I wrote in full. To read it on the Weekly Trust site, click here.

The Daughters of the Niger Delta speak out through film

Category: My thoughts exactly
Published on Saturday, 03 August 2013 06:00
Written by Carmen McCain

 “You suppress all my strategies / You oppress, oh every part of me / What you don’t know, you’re a victim too, Mr. Jailer,” croons musician Asa in her song “Jailor.”

The song can be read as addressing many forms of oppression, but it is used over images of a Niger Delta riverside in the 2012 documentary film Daughters of the Niger Delta to comment specifically on what Molara Ogundipe-Leslie, following Mao-Tse Tung, calls the “mountains” on the African woman’s back. In “African Women, Culture and Another Development,” Ogundipe-Leslie identifies six mountains, which include “oppression from outside”; patriarchal “traditional structures” that devalue women’s work and seek to control her own body; “her own backwardness,” which includes poverty and ignorance; men, who refuse to give up their privileges; and finally race and a woman’s own self-defeating internalization of patriarchal ideologies.

Many of these forms of oppression and structural inequalities become evident in the testimonies of women featured in the documentary Daughters of the Niger Delta (55 mins) made by 9 women from the Niger Delta trained by the Abuja-based NGO Media Information Narrative Development (MIND), directed by Ilse van Lamoen-Isoun  and sponsored by the German Embassy.  The documentary seeks to challenge disparities in media coverage. While the oil spill off the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 was the focus of the global media, there has been far less attention to the much greater oil damage in the Niger Delta region. Even recent accidents, such as the December 2011 off-coast Shell Bonga oil spill or the January 2012 Chevron gas explosion in Finuwa, Bayelsa, barely made a blip on the international news radar. Similarly, as the voiceover at the beginning of the film points out, headlines about the Niger Delta often focus on oil output, kidnappings and violence in the resource-rich Niger Delta.  However, in fact, as we learn by the end of the documentary, the maternal mortality rate in the Niger Delta is the second highest in the world and 65,000 children under the age of five die each year in the region due to lack of adequate health care and related issues such as pollution and nutrition. These numbers far outstrip the number of those killed due to armed conflicts but the poverty that causes these deaths is also one of the causes of the conflict. Such stories are often invisible not only to the world but also to other Nigerians. Yet it is only with the recognition of these stories that change can come.

 The film focuses on three women: Hannah, Rebecca, and Naomi.  Hannah Tende, from Bodo City, Rivers State, is a widow who makes a living collecting

Hannah Tende (courtesy of The Daughters of the Niger Delta)

periwinkles from oily mud and working on other people’s farms. Her own home and the land she once farmed was taken over by her husband’s family when he died in 2005. She wants to send her daughter Uke to university, but does not have the money. In fact, her children now survive on two meals a day instead of the three meals they had when their father was alive. But Hannah has limited possibilities, as remarriage for widows is forbidden and her livelihood is threatened by the pollution of the rivers.

Rebecca Churchill, from Tuomo, Delta State, was married at fifteen to an already married man. She describes how she first learned of the marriage when her husband told her that he had paid her bride price to her father. Now, the

Rebecca Churchill (courtesy of the Daughters of the Niger Delta)

pregnant Rebecca narrates how she has given birth eleven times. Only six of those children are still living. While her husband says it is Ijaw culture for his wife to keep having children, Rebecca herself wants to stop getting pregnant after her baby is born. She says she is not willing to let her daughters marry at fourteen or fifteen. Her dream for her children is for them to go to school and go to university.

The educated Naomi Alaere Ofoni, from Yenagoa, Bayelsa State (also a production assistant on the film), represents the dreams the other two women have for their children. Although Naomi’s father abandoned her mother when Naomi was a small child, her mother went back to school to become a

Naomi Alaere Ofoni (courtesy of The Daughters of the Niger Delta)

community health worker and worked to put Naomi through school. Ironically, although school is seen as the path out of poverty, Naomi faced another obstacle once she reached university. She was harassed by lecturers who demanded sex. She refused to sleep with the course advisor who had changed her B grades to two carryovers, and he finally gave her a third class degree only after she offered him money.  10 years after graduating with a disrespected third class degree in Industrial Mathematics, she was yet to find a job. But, like her mother, who took her future into her own hands, Naomi started her own business making soap.

There is a bitter irony here. In each woman’s story, men stand in the way of advancement by women and their children. “Modern day slavery” and “imprisonment” become motifs that run throughout the documentary, from the opening montage set to  Asa’s song “Jailor,”  to Hannah’s expression of frustration at her life in “bondage” as a widow. The film cleverly juxtaposes

(courtesy of The Daughters of the Niger Delta)

shots of men sitting around drinking—one thirty-five year old man telling of his three wives and the 17 children he hopes to have—with shots of women chopping wood, fetching water, picking periwinkles from oily mud, pounding, grinding, and frying cassava. Patriarchal male culture is behind much of the suffering of women—fathers hand over their teenage daughters to husbands, husbands with multiple wives insist on each wife bearing many children despite not being able to support them, male relatives of a dead man confiscate his widow’s property, male lecturers prey on vulnerable girls in the university.   Yet, as Asa notes, “What you don’t know, you’re a victim too, Mr. Jailer.” Larger neocolonial forces imprison both men and women.

(courtesy of the Daughters of the Niger Delta)

Multi-national oil corporations have so polluted the air and water that even rainwater is dirty and unusable. The fish in the creeks and rivers have died, so that the Niger Delta people, whose lives once revolved around fishing, now eat and trade imported fish. The government neglects healthcare and infrastructure for clean water.

The hope for the future, as Ogundipe-Leslie has argued in other essays, is for men and women to join hands in rebuilding their society. While patriarchal male culture is critiqued here, the film also shows male role models. Naomi’s husband, William Omajuwa Emmanuel, an engineer whom she met in university works together with her on her soap business and helps with the children. The male community worker, Inatimi Odio encourages men in the community to involve women in decision making. The film traces positive developments in postscripts, revealing that Hannah has begun to mobilize other women to protest the marriage prohibition for widows, Rebecca has convinced her husband to try birth control, and Naomi has become a principal at a school.

The documentary is beautifully shot and edited. Despite the pollution, the Niger Delta is still exquisite, and the women’s stories are compelling. Indeed, I thought the best parts of the film were the moments where the women were allowed to speak for themselves.  The most obvious flaw may have been the extensive use of Inatimi Odio, a man, as the one “expert” to explain the problems facing the community. While this was somewhat balanced by Bogofanyo Inengibo’s  female voiceover and a few comments from the teacher Caroline Giadom, the focus on the male expert risks reinforcing the idea of women as uneducated informants and men as the authorities who explain them.  Overall, however, I think the documentary is an important and thought-provoking piece that personalizes our understanding of the Niger Delta. In the same chapter in which she identified the mountains on the backs of African women, Ogundipe-Leslie suggests policies to enable women to benefit and control their own labour, the use of media to educate, and assistance for women artists so that they can express their own stories. This film made by women about women seems an appropriate response to her suggestions, giving subaltern women a platform by which to speak to the world.

Daughters of the Niger Delta was screened and received a special mention at the Pineapple Underground Festival in China on 16 July and the Rwanda Film Festival on 25 July. It will be screened in Nigeria at the Lagos-based Eko International Film festival in November, as well as other venues yet to be arranged.

END

For other documentary (and documentary-esque) reviews I’ve done see:

“There Is Nothing Wrong with my Uncle” on Tarok burial customs produced by Dul Johnson and Sylvie Bringas.

“Equestrian Elegance” about the durbar and parades during the eid sallahs in Kano, produced by Abdalla Uba Adamu and Bala Anas Babinlata.

Duniya Juyi Juyi, a docu-drama about the life of almajirai, scripted and acted by almajirai themselves and produced by Hannah Hoechner.

My Thoughts Exactly: Year Three in Review

I am working right now on a dissertation chapter on spectacle in Hausa films and currently on the “music video” portion of it. I actually had to come to my blog to find one of the songs I wanted to look at, as it seems to have mysteriously disappeared from my computer. Here it is. The cinematography is rather boring, but the song (seen alongside the film) is brilliant.

In the meantime, Weekly Trust did not post my column on my WT page this week for some reason, so at the request of Twitter followers, I am posting it here on my blog. It has actually been three years since I started my column in Weekly Trust, and, though I have sometimes turned in late, sleep deprived and occasionally incoherent articles that I am less than proud of, I have actually never missed a week since I started–even when deathly ill! So, if you check my Weekly Trust page and something is missing, get in touch with me and I will try to post it on this blog. This week was kind of an index to what I have written this year, which may be why WT didn’t post it. I will include links below, so that if you missed reading something this year, you can find it here.

My Thoughts Exactly: Year Three in Review

Last week marked the third anniversary of this column “My Thoughts Exactly,” which I began writing on 16 October 2010. Last year, in my second year review, I wrote that I planned “to take a slightly more scholarly turn in the upcoming year while I finish writing my PhD dissertation.” I’m not sure if this year was more scholarly, but it did become more literary, as I focused more on reading, libraries, and a lot of book reviews.

I reviewed Aliyu Kamal’s English-language translation, Sin is a Puppy…, of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Alhaki Kwikwiyo Ne, published by Indian publisher Blaft. The skillful translation is a historical event as it marks the first English translation of a woman’s novel in Hausa. I also later reviewed Hajiya Balaraba’s novel Wa Zai

Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila?

Auri Jahila? which has not been translated, but, if the letters I received are any indication, is one of her readers’ favourites. I also examined the politics surrounding the reception of northern Nigerian and Hausa literature in a piece that reviewed the 7th conference on Northern Nigerian Literature at Bayero University in December 2012 and a celebration held the next weekend for Hausa literary critic and translator Ibrahim Malumfashi. Later, I reviewed the October 2013 issue of the online translation journal Words Without Borders, which focused on translations of works by African women writing in African languages and included Professor Malumfashi’s translation of the first chapter of Rahma Abdul Majid’s novel Mace Mutum. I wrote one piece on my vacation reading over Christmas 2012, and another topical review looked at the performance of three Nigerian plays, a workshop performance Banana Talks, Femi Osofisan’s play Midnight Hotel, and Wale Ogunyemi’s play Queen Amina of Zazzau, during the 7th Jos Festival of Theatre by the Jos Repertory Theatre.

Other books I reviewed this year include Lola Shoneyin’s hilarious yet troubling The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives; Ngozi Achebe’s page-turning historical novel of life and slavery in 16th century Igbo-land Onaedo: the Blacksmith’s Daughter; Eghosa Imasuen’s brilliant alternate history of Nigeria in To Saint Patrick; Labo Yari’s thoughtful yet often ignored 1978 novel Climate of Corruption; Chika Unigwe’s NLNG-award winning novel about sex-trafficking in Belgium, On Black Sister’s Street; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest

Chibundu Onuzo giving a tribute to Chinua Achebe at #AfricaWrites 2013. (c) Carmen McCain

novel about race and class in America and Nigeria, Americanah; Chibundu Onozu’s romantic thriller The Spider King’s Daughter, and Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo’s brilliant, multi-layered novel We Need New Names. I also interviewed novelist Nkem Ivara about her romance novel Closer than a Brother.

The Caine Prize for African Writing this year was a treat to write about, as the 2013 shortlist featured four Nigerians. While the previous year my friends Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and Elnathan John were unable to attend the Caine Prize workshop to which they had been invited in South Africa because of the yellow fever vaccination row between Nigeria and South Africa, this year both of them were shortlisted for the prize. I briefly reviewed all five shortlisted stories [that was a sleep-deprived piece, as I stayed up all night to read all the stories after they were announced and was partially writing during my cousin's graduation] and was luckily able

Elnathan John, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Chinelo Okparanta, Pede Hollist, and Tope Folarin at one of the Caine Prize Events, London, July 2013 (c) Carmen McCain

to attend the Africa Writes Festival in London, where the Caine Prize events were taking place. In two subsequent columns about the event, I critiqued emerging ideas about African literature, usually coming from writers based in the West, that attempt to exclude narratives of suffering. [A follow-up from my initial piece critiquing Bernadine Evaristo's manifesto on suffering children last year.] I also followed up on Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s critique of the way literary establishment often awards prizes, that ignore and even exclude African-language literature. [Bizarrely, the South African literary blog Books Live wrote a whole post on my article. I was surprised but gratified for the link!]

The sadder literary events of the year included the death of two of Africa’s literary icons, Chinua Achebe, [I was honoured to be the only non-Nigerian writer included in Weekly Trust's piece "How Achebe

English: Chinua Achebe speaking at Asbury Hall...

Chinua Achebe speaking at Asbury Hall, Buffalo, as part of the “Babel: Season 2″ series by Just Buffalo Literary Center, Hallwalls, & the International Institute. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Inspired Us, by Young Writers”–my paragraph was pulled, with my permission, from my Facebook page] and the tragic murder of Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor in the September 2013 Westgate Mall terrorist attacks in Nairobi. Another tragedy for readers was the suicide of intellectual activist Aaron Schwartz, who had been persecuted by courts in the U.S. for trying to make scholarly materials free and available online.

I often receive emails from readers asking where they can find the books I’ve reviewed. While I often direct them to bookstores in Abuja and Lagos, and online stores like jumia.com, konga.com, and mamuwa.com, I also explored literary resources available online [which WT didn't post online and I haven't yet uploaded the hard copy to flickr--I'll try to do that soon] and addressed the need for better library resources, whereby people who don’t have the money to buy sometimes outrageously-priced books can read them by borrowing. The secretary of Jos Association of Nigerian Authors Onotu David Onimisi told me in an interview (see part 1 and part 2) about the ANA project to develop a community library in Jos. He directed me to the excellent American Corner library in Jos which is open to the public and is currently hosting the ANA library while they build another location. I also interviewed Kinsley Sintim who during his NYSC youth service started a community library in Tasha outside of Abuja and has been able to get a massive number of donated books for children in the community. (See Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. I really should have edited it down to just two parts, but I was travelling….] For a comparative perspective, I interviewed an old college classmate Elizabeth Chase, who is a senior librarian at a library in Frisco, Texas. I shared some of the feedback I’ve received about my “literary pieces,” in an August readers column.

I also reviewed a few films: Hamisu Lamido Iyan-Tama’s Hausa-language film Kurkuku that revisited his trials at the hands of the Kano State Censorship Board in 2008-2010; the English-language documentary Daughters of the Niger Delta, made by nine women about the struggles of women living in the Niger Delta; and Dul Johnson’s Tarok-language documentary There is Nothing Wrong With My Uncle, which examines Tarok burial customs. I interviewed director Hafizu Bello, who won the Africa Magic award for the best Local Language film in Hausa for his film Fa’ida in March, and director Husayn Zagaru AbdulQadir (part 1, part 2 wasn’t put up by WT), who won a federal government YouWiN! Award to expand his Kaduna-based production company New Qamar Media. I wrote about visiting the set of the film Bakin Mulki in Jos and responded to Aisha Umar-Yusuf’s blanket scapegoating of the film industry for Nigeria’s social woes. [I am loathe to link to it--it's currently at only 303 hits--but if you want to see what I was responding to, her piece is here.]

A few of my topical pieces were “Christmas in the Age of Massacres” and a piece that reviewed “The Good Things of 2012” in what was an otherwise very sobering year. Last November, I questioned Christian Association of Nigeria president Ayo Oritsejafor’s acceptance of a private jet as a gift from his church, pointing to scriptures that challenge the accumulation of earthly wealth. My review of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Wa Zai Auri Jahila? was a response to the child marriage controversy sparked off by Senator Ahmad Sani Yerima’s insistence that puberty should be the only determining factor in marriage age. “Weeping at Night, Waiting for Light” before Palm Sunday addressed the bomb in the Kano car park and attacks on schools and a church in Borno and Kano. Most recently I have written about the parallel terror attacks on Benisheik, Baghdad, Nairobi, and Peshawar, and the attack on the College of Agriculture in Gujba.

I delved into my personal history in a tribute to Chinua Achebe, writing about the influence he has had on my life. I also later wrote about my family’s 25 years in Nigeria. I bid goodbye to a few friends

The McCain family sometime in the 1990s

this year: Hausa film director Balarabe Sango, who passed away in December 2012, and an old schoolmate Dr. Rachel Horlings, one of only three underwater archeologists working off the coast of West Africa, who was killed in Elmina, Ghana in a freak electrical accident. In  “As the Rains Begin” I linked tragedies to the rhythmic seasonal motion of the earth, celebrating the birth of a baby born to a friend who lost her husband the year before.

I was fortunate to host several guest columns this year. Dr. K.A. Korb, currently Head of the Department of General and Applied Psychology at the University of Jos, contributed three pieces, one challenging the perception that teaching is a last resort career by interviewing several dedicated and passionate teachers. She also contributed a two-week column on post traumatic stress disorder and the effects that it is having on people in northern Nigeria. Egyptian writer and journalist Nadia Elawady allowed me to reproduce her piece linking the Boston bombing to the tragic events unfolding in Egypt [here is the WT link, and here is her original piece on her blog). Scholar Hannah Hoechner, who has done research with almajirai in Kano, responded to the proposed ban on almajiranci in Kano.

Thank you for reading this year. If you missed any of these pieces or want to read any of them again, you can find most of them under the “My Thoughts Exactly” tab on the Weekly Trust website. I am trying to push through to the end of my PhD dissertation this year, so I will likely continue to feature guest columns and more “academic” material as I try to close this chapter of my life. I love receiving emails from readers, so please keep sending your feedback. Thank you.

Words Without Borders features African Women writing in Indigenous Languages

screenshot from the Words Without Borders October edition

screenshot from the Words Without Borders October edition

The October 2013 issue of translation journal Words Without Borders focuses on African Women writing in indigenous languages. The magazine has an impressive pedigree. Check out this statement from their “about” page, for example:

Every month we publish eight to twelve new works by international writers. We have published works by Nobel Prize laureates J.M.G. Le Clézio and Herta Müller and noted writers Mahmoud DarwishEtgar KeretPer PettersonFadhil Al-AzzawiW.G. Sebald, and Can Xue, as well as many new and rising international writers. To date we have published well over 1,600 pieces from 119 countries and 92 languages.

I am encouraged that they are drawing attention to the literature being written in African languages that often falls below the radar. Please check out their latest issue.  

I wrote a mini-review of the issue in my column this week, which you can read on the Weekly Trust site, the All Africa site, or copied below, with links and photos, on my blog.

Words Without Borders Draws Attention to African Women Writing in Indigenous Languages

BY CARMEN MCCAIN, 12 OCTOBER 2013

The online translation journal Words Without Borders, which has published English-language translations of creative work in 92 languages from 119 different countries since it started in 2003, has devoted its October 2013 issue to African women writing in indigenous languages.

The special issue, which also includes never-before-seen translations of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s poetry, features fiction translated from Hausa, Luganda, Runyankole-Rukiga, Tigrinya, and a non-fiction essay which includes translations of Wolof songs. In an African literary landscape where English-language literature often dominates discussions, this is a refreshing and important contribution. Because the journal is online and free, it is accessible to anyone in the world to read, and several of the stories have a bilingual version, where you can read the original and the English translation side by side. (See the English translation of “Baking the National Cake” side by side with the Runyankole-Rukiga original and the English translation  “My New Home” side by side with the Luganda original).

Rahma Abdul Majid (courtesy of Ibrahim Sheme’s blog Bahaushe Mai Ban Haushi)

Closest to home is Ibrahim Malumfashi’s translation of the first chapter of Nigerian author Rahma Abdul Majid’s massive Hausa novel Mace Mutum. This timely English translation comes close on the heels of the “child marriage” debate in Nigeria. [I've previously reviewed Balaraba Ramat Yakubu's novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila, which also deals with the theme of young marriage.] In the opening of the novel, which is set in a rural village, an eight year old girl Godiya narrates, “My father, a farmer, has three wives. The only difference between our compound and others is that our household is not a kid factory; my father has only three children, while most of his compatriots boast a complete Barcelona team against Real Madrid, excluding the reserve.” Godiya tells her sister Lami’s story in this opening chapter, a girl who at fourteen is considered by gossips to be “old goods” until her father bestows her on a “haggard old” itinerant Qur’anic teacher. By the end of the chapter Godiya is nine and has seen girls die in childbirth and aunties divorced for being late with the cooking. What will she do

Professor Ibrahim Malumfashi, December 2012, Kaduna. (c) Carmen McCain

Professor Ibrahim Malumfashi, December 2012, Kaduna. (c) Carmen McCain

when she hears her parents talking about marrying her off as well? While I do not have the original Hausa novel on hand to compare it with the translation, Professor Malumfashi successfully carries the story over into English. I wonder whether the vocabulary used by the young characters is not sometimes too sophisticated for their age and level of education? Fourteen year old Lami, for example, in one of her soliloquies about the suffering of women, complains about the “Herculean task of taking care of another man’s household.” However, on the whole, the angry tone of the narrative reminds me of the novels of Egyptian novelist Nawal El Saadawi, whose Arabic novels available in English translation harshly chronicle the abuse, disrespect, and violence against women in Egyptian society. I’m so glad Professor Malumfashi has made Rahma Abdul Majid’s work available to English speakers.

Glaydah Namukasa (Photo Credit: Winston Barclay, Flickr, used by permission)

Ugandan author Glaydah Namukasa’s story “My New Home” translated from Luganda by Merit Ronald Kabugo is similarly narrated by an impoverished child, the young boy Musika. He begins his narrative: “I started drinking alcohol the day I fell into Maama’s womb. Maama died of alcohol. She started drinking young and died young. She drank too much alcohol until she could no longer drink; and then the alcohol in her body started drinking her up until she dried up dead.” Alcohol drives the conflict in the story. Musika hates his grandmother and adores his grandfather. His unreliable childish descriptions paint a portrait of a woman, Jjaja Mukyala, who is afraid her grandson will merely follow the footsteps of the other drunks in the family. Musika describes how Jjaja Mukyala resents him because she thinks he reflects badly on her dead son, who conceived him with a bar maid while drunk. She also hates Musika to accompany his grandfather Mukulu to bars. But Musika loves how tender Mukulu is when he is drunk. “Mukulu was drunk when he told me that he loved

Dr. Merit Ronald Kabugo (courtesy of Words Without Borders)

me, drunk when he told me that Maama loved me, that Maama’s friends Aunty Lito, Aunty Karo, and Aunty Naki, who took turns taking care of me after Maama died, all loved me. Every time he is drunk he tells me he is glad he has a grandson.” Musika ends up wondering “How can alcohol be so bad and so good? Every day Jjaja Mukyala shouts, ‘If there is anything that will kill you it will be alcohol.’ But Mukulu says that if there is anything that keeps him alive, it is alcohol. How can alcohol be so bad as to kill Maama, and yet so good as to keep Mukulu alive?” “My New Home” is beautifully written and beautifully translated. I’d love to read more translations of Namukasa’s work.

I found Eritrean author Haregu Keleta‘s story “The Girl who Carried a Gun,” translated from Tigrinya by Charles Cantalupo and Rahel Asgedom Zere, the most haunting of the fiction published here. As in Mace Mutum, the narrator’s family is trying to force her into a marriage with a man she does not love. She runs off to Ethiopia to join the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, hoping to meet up again with her childhood sweetheart. In the meantime, she becomes a strong and fearless fighter. “… a few months of military training made my soft

Charles Cantalupo (courtesy Penn State)

body hard. I had muscles. My skin grew darker. I could run up and down the mountains. I sprinted over the sand. The oppression of Eritrea and especially of its women changed me into a fighter–far from a girl who was afraid to go outside.” Yet while the freedom fighters talk “about the oppression of women,” the actions of the men she fights with are not always consistent with their ideology, and she faces betrayal and disappointment. Despite her sacrifice to “liberate” her country, her family sees her only in terms of her body, caring only about whether she is married or has had a child. Keleta, who herself is a former member of the independence struggle in Eritrea, ironically invokes the double bind women find themselves in.

Hilda Twongyeirwe (courtesy of UGPulse Literature)

The final story “Baking the National Cake” by Ugandan author Hilda Twongyeirwe, translated from Runyankole-Rukiga by Juliet Kushaba, is quite different from the others in its opulent political setting and third person narration. The story describes the inner struggle of David, the Minister for the Presidency in a fictional African nation who “covers the tracks” of the hedonistic president and vice president: “They leave for two-day conferences and stay away for weeks. It

Juliet Kushaba (courtesy Transcultural Writing)

is David that ensures that the accounts are balanced to include the nonofficial days.” Although he is tired of their shenanigans he finds himself caught ever more tightly in the political web of the despised Vice President. The story was written originally in Runyankole-Rukiga, but the politics of it feel familiar.

Marame Gueye (courtesy East Carolina University)

The last “African” piece is a nonfiction essay in English, “Breaking the Taboo of Sex in Songs: the Laabaan Ceremony” by Marame Gueye that analyzes the sexual language in Wolof songs sung by women during the Laaban ceremony that is a part of Wolof weddings.

The journal importantly showcases writing in African languages often neglected in wider discussions of African literature. Ironically, however, in seeking out these stories, it also demonstrates another problem. Although there are thousands of works in Hausa, as well as literary communities working in Amharic, Arabic, Swahili, Shona, Yoruba and other African languages, Words Without Borders seems to have had trouble finding translations it could publish for this issue, despite a call for submissions put out months in advance. While most of its issues feature eight to twelve pieces that speak to its theme, only four translated works from African languages and one nonfiction essay written mostly in English were published here. It seems to me that this highlights the striking need for literary translators from and into African languages.

I hope several things come out of this issue: 1) An awareness on the part of those who talk about African literature that African literature goes much deeper than literature written in English or French (or even Portuguese); 2) An awareness on the level of writers who write in English but who are fluent in African languages that translation is an important contribution to African letters and that there are well-respected venues for publishing translations; 3) An awareness on the part of writers writing in indigenous languages that while the primary audience may be the most important, as it should be, that there are wider global audiences that could benefit from reading such work; 4) An awareness on the part of institutions that financial and infrastructural support for publication and translation would be a great boon to African literature. Overall, we need to see more interaction between writers in African languages and European languages and more support on the continent for both African language literature and translations.

Kofi Awoonor, Al Shabab, Boko Haram and the struggle for the New Dawn

(courtesy of the Story Moja Hay Festival site http://storymojahayfestival.com/)

When I heard on Sunday morning, 22 September 2013 that the great Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor had been killed in the Westgate Mall attacks, I began to obsessively follow google news and twitter with updates about the attacks. As I later related in my column for the next Saturday, I guiltily remembered after sitting online all day that even more people had been killed in Benisheik, Borno, than had been killed in the more widely covered siege on the Nairobi mall. It was a gut-wrenching week all round, with terrorist attacks that killed over 70 mourners at two funerals in Baghdad, Iraq; around 160 travellers on the road in Benisheik, Nigeria; at least 72 people at the mall in Nairobi, Kenya; and around 85 worshippers at All Saints church in Peshawar, Pakistan.

As I obsessively followed the news in preparation for my column published the following Saturday, I came across a New York Daily News article (yes, I know it’s a tabloid) that had a screen capture of the HMS Press Office twitter account, ostensibly run by Al Shabab. This was one of the several accounts Twitter shut down during the siege on the Westgate Mall. I had followed the chilling live tweeting from one of the HMS accounts during the massacre. Unlike Boko Haram’s Youtube videos released in Hausa, the tweeting was all in English of a sort that makes believable the speculations that there were Americans and Britons involved. As I read down the list, I gasped at the tweet at the bottom of the image, right before the screen capture cut off. It read “A new era is on the horizon. A new dawn, illuminating towards #Khifaafa. It’s a paradigm shift #Westgate”

Al Shabab tweet--a new dawn--cropped

The use of the metaphor “a new dawn” shook me because I had just spent days reading through the tributes to Kofi Awoonor, his poetry, and the poem widely used as his self-written elegy, from his new collection Promises of Hope: New and Selected Poems to be published in 2014.  

It is named “Across the New Dawn.”

It is easy to read the poem as prophetic now.

 We are the celebrants

whose fields were

overrun by rogues

and other bad men who

interrupted our dance

with obscene songs and bad gestures

There are warring notions here of what this “new dawn” is. Al Shabab presents it as a new era when its brand of extremism will take over the world–a paradigm shift. And if the four attacks across Africa and Asia are any indication, it does seem as though violent terrorists are pushing through a new order based on hate and sadism. It is, as it is meant to be, terrifying. This past week following the horrific attack that killed what the Vanguard claims killed up to 78 students in a hostel in at the Gujba College of Agriculture in Yobe State, I wanted to vomit when I heard of it. My mind couldn’t focus. As I wrote this week, I sat physically at my computer all day long unable to write anything.

What kind of person kills students in their beds? What kind of person joins a death cult? What kind of person slaughters the children of the poor?  In the dark? While they are sleeping?

Why?

I fear triteness.

What trite words of comfort can one offer when 78 students have been killed in their beds? When terrorists have murdered sleep in the northwest for over three years?

Yet, the convergence of these two warring notions of what the “new dawn” entails must mean something. I think (I hope, I pray) that Awoonor’s dawn will light the sky after the sun has set on Al Shabab and Boko Haram and Al Qaeda, and other terrorists who would attack innocent people to prove their ideology. Awoonor spent his life writing dirges, recognizing the evil that there is, yet he also he recognizes like Martin Luther King that the “arc of the universe bends towards justice.” There is a wisdom in his poetry built on generations of Ewe oral song that all the hatred of terror cannot twist. He writes of death, as a kind of balance,

No; where the worm eats

a grain grows.

the consultant deities

have measured the time

with long winded

arguments of eternity

And death, when he comes

to the door with his own

inimitable calling card

shall find a homestead

resurrected with laughter and dance

and the festival of the meat

of the young lamb and the red porridge

of the new corn.

It’s the archtypal life cycle of mourning and joy, death and birth, night and morning that runs throughout the Bible, which itself builds on and collects an oral tradition. As the King James version translates David’s song in Psalm 30:5

weeping may endure for a night,

but joy comes in the morning.

It makes me remember how I grappled with with writing about Easter in the dark days earlier this year. In my column the day before Palm Sunday, I wrote: 

But this week, it seems only appropriate to mourn, once again, so many senseless deaths, so much needless violence, to cry out as the Biblical character Job did, “Where then is my hope? […]I cry out to you, O God, but you do not answer,” (17:15, 30:20) to cry out like Jesus did on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
There has been so much tragedy over the past year that I think most of us have become numb. We step over the bodies and keep going. But every once in a while something touches you, the death of someone you know, the news of children targeted and attacked. In these times, the evil of this world envelops you in its horror, and you just want to lie down and let the tears empty you.

It is in this time that I look for scriptures that remind me how humans survive. The beauty of the Bible for me is that it is a document that spans a history of thousands of years, and encompasses dozens of genres. The books within record the sufferings of humans throughout time. The fall into despair in the darkness of night and the release into joy in the light of the morning is an archetype found over and over again in the Bible. It’s ok to cry, it’s ok to groan, we have been doing it for millennia.
The biblical book of Job is written in the form much like a play that tells the story of a good man who loses his wealth, his ten children, even his own health. Finally, he is plagued by “comforters” who insist all of his suffering must be his own fault. As he questions God, he begins to see human life in the context of eternity.

“There are those who rebel against the light, who do not know its ways or stay in its paths. When daylight is gone, the murderer rises up and kills the poor and needy; in the night he steals forth like a thief. […] For all of them, deep darkness is their morning; they make friends with the terrors of darkness.”
Yet such evil men “are foam on the surface of the water; […]The womb forgets them, the worm feasts on them; evil men are no longer remembered but are broken like a tree. They prey on the barren and childless woman, and to the widow show no kindness. But God drags away the mighty by his power; though they become established, they have no assurance of life. He may let them rest in a feeling of security, but his eyes are on their ways. For a little while they are exalted, and then they are gone; they are brought low and gathered up like all the others; they are cut off like heads of grain” (24:13-24)

Job comes to trust that, in time, God will “redeem” his suffering, even when he does not understand: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God. I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another.” (19:25-27). While he cannot control what happens to him, he acknowledges that “The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.’” (28: 12-28)

The lessons Job learns are repeated throughout the Bible. King Solomon writes “Since no man knows the future, who can tell him what is to come? No man has power over the wind to contain it; so no one has power over the day of his death” (Ecclesiastes 8:7-8) He laments “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless,” yet like Job he concludes “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (11:8, 13-14).

[...]

The prophet Jeremiah writes “I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him” (Lamentations 3:19-24)  King David writes: “weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).

Christians believe that the cycle of death and resurrection found throughout the Bible was embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. In that moment nearly two thousand years ago, the entire universe was “surprised by joy” as C.S. Lewis puts it: overcoming death with life, conquering night with day. It is this hope then that I remember when the days are their darkest. The morning will come. We do not know when, but we wait, pray, hope.

This is not the false dawn of evil men, but a dawn of truth, mercy, justice. And above all love. For

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear… (I John 4:18)

And

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. – Martin Luther King, Jr, from “Loving Your Enemies,” in Strength to Love

To read the complete version of my three columns I refer to, see

“Weeping at Night, Waiting for Light” March 23 2013

“Where the worm eats, a grain grows: Kofi Awoonor, Benisheik, Baghdad, Nairobi, and Peshawar” 28 September 2013

“Murdered Sleep” 5 October 2013

Let me end with Kofi Awoonor’s poems, one from early in his career “The Journey Beyond” and the other one of his final poems “Across a New Dawn,”  both of which refer to the boatman Kutsiami of Ewe myth, who paddles the dead to the other side of the river. As I wrote after I heard of Awoonor’s death:

Terrorists thought they killed him. They didn’t know they were just bringing the boatman to ferry him home.

The Poetry Foundation Ghana makes his early poem “The Journey Beyond” available.

The Journey Beyond

The bowling cry through door posts
carrying boiling pots
ready for the feasters.

Kutsiami the benevolent boatman;
When I come to the river shore
please ferry me across
I do not have on my cloth-end
the price of your stewardship.

The Wall Street Journal published one of his final poems “Across a New Dawn” as a tribute after he was killed: 

ACROSS A NEW DAWN

Sometimes, we read the

lines in the green leaf

run our fingers over the

smooth of the precious wood

from our ancient trees;

Sometimes, even the sunset

puzzles, as we look

for the lines that propel the clouds,

the colour scheme

with the multiple designs

that the first artist put together

There is dancing in the streets again

the laughter of children rings

through the house

On the seaside, the ruins recent

from the latest storms

remind of ancestral wealth

pillaged purloined pawned

by an unthinking grandfather

who lived the life of a lord

and drove coming generations to

despair and ruin

*

But who says our time is up

that the box maker and the digger

are in conference

or that the preachers have aired their robes

and the choir and the drummers

are in rehearsal?

No; where the worm eats

a grain grows.

the consultant deities

have measured the time

with long winded

arguments of eternity

And death, when he comes

to the door with his own

inimitable calling card

shall find a homestead

resurrected with laughter and dance

and the festival of the meat

of the young lamb and the red porridge

of the new corn

*

We are the celebrants

whose fields were

overrun by rogues

and other bad men who

interrupted our dance

with obscene songs and bad gestures

Someone said an ailing fish

swam up our lagoon

seeking a place to lay its load

in consonance with the Original Plan

Master, if you can be the oarsman

for our boat

please do it, do it.

I asked you before

once upon a shore

at home, where the

seafront has narrowed

to the brief space of childhood

We welcome the travelers

come home on the new boat

fresh from the upright tree

From “Promises of Hope: New and Selected Poems,” selected by Kofi Anyidoho, University of Nebraska Press and the African Poetry Book Fund, 2014

25 Years in Nigeria (the writerly version)

Last Sunday I posted a blog post full of photos and not too much text about how it had been 25 years (from 8 September 1988) since my family first moved to Nigeria. As I mentioned in that post, which I wrote quickly so that I could put it up on the right date, I would try to write something more “literary” in the future. So, here is my column today from Weekly Trust, titled again, “25 Years in Nigeria,” in which I write a little more about my memories of that night we first arrived and the year/s that followed. I’ve also recounted some of this history in my “A Letter to Chinua Achebe, Never Sent.” As usual, if you would like to read the original, click on the photo or on this link to read on the Weekly Trust site; otherwise scroll below to read on my blog:

25 Years in Nigeria

Category: My thoughts exactly Published on Saturday, 14 September 2013 05:00 Written by Carmen McCain

My first memory of Nigeria is grey, fluorescent-light tinted. Three soldiers waiting for us at the end of a corridor.

The air was thick with the damp sweaty smell of the Lagos airport in September. My thin blue passport opened to show me in a school photo wearing a red bibbed dress, an awkward preadolescent smile, a brown braid to one side. Tall for my age, I walked behind my father with my younger brother and sister. Children accompanying parents. It was the night of 8 September 1988. The soldiers, who had been sent by the university to smooth our passage, escorted us past immigration to the luggage carousal where large cardboard boxes and hard suitcases circled in and out. Masses of people crowded around. We stood to one side with our mother, while our father struggled by the revolving belt, pointing out our bags to a man with a cart.

Nigeria was the third country I had ever been to in my life. The second was England where we had just spent three days after leaving the United States. In London, we had visited our Aunty Lily, whose sister, my great grandmother had come to America as a World War 1 bride back in 1919. Aunty Lily served us cucumber sandwiches and tea and a cake covered in thick cream and almonds that we children wouldn’t eat. Her toilet had a tank as high as the ceiling and a chain you pulled down to flush. We nearly got killed in front of Buckingham palace when my dad looked the wrong way crossing the street. The policeman on the horse who stopped traffic for us told us, “In America you drive on the right side of the road, in Britain we drive on the proper side.” We also walked over the London Bridge. I figured that the original London Bridge had fallen down like in the nursery rhyme, because it was nothing special, just cement and metal rails. The tower bridge downriver was more like what I thought a bridge in London should be.

The hotel is the first vivid colourful image I have of Nigeria. The beds had nobbly turquoise bedspreads, and the black toilet seat was detached from the toilet and resting on the tiles behind the bathtub. Our dad had waited behind at the airport with the university liaison driver to bring our luggage and he writes in his journal that, “When I walked in the room, the children were laughing and playing and jumping on the bed.” I’m pretty sure that if we had jumped on the beds at any other time, we would have gotten scolded, but this time, my dad writes, “When I saw that I almost cried because this was the most relaxed and happy I had seen the children since we had left Atlanta and maybe even before then […] There are few burdens heavier to carry than to have your children unhappy.” It must have been 11:30pm when the food was brought to our room, big platters of rice and stew and plantain, which we sat on the bed and ate, our first meal in Nigeria.

The next thing I remember is the university guest house in Port Harcourt where we stayed while we waited for our house to be prepared. It had cool terrazzo floors, an airy dining room where, for breakfast, we ate cornflakes with hot milk, a staircase with open tiles that let in the breeze. On the light-dappled stairs you could have a conversation with a person standing outside, like I did with a girl who came up to the tiles and asked if I would be her friend. In the upstairs parlour, there were velvety green chairs and a huge throne we would sit on when nobody was looking. They said it was for the Chancellor.

A few weeks later we settled into our green bungalow lined with red flower bushes. In the yard was a pink blossom filled frangipani tree that I nearly fell out of once when a lizard jumped on my head. There was also a tall palm tree which would bend in the monsoon winds, its fronds flying, and a tall pine tree from which we cut branches to make a Christmas tree that first December. Our mother had uniforms made for us out of stiff blue and white checked material and sent us off to the elementary staff school on campus. We walked to school by cutting through our neighbours’ yard, through the maze of red hibiscus bushes, until we arrived at the low flat buildings where we first learned the lessons Nigerian children learn.  I remember copying long passages of social studies and CRK from the board into my exercise books. I was once called to the dispensary where my brother was having a scrape painted over with purple iodine. “Stop talking your language in front of me. It is rude,” said the nurse. “But we are speaking English,” we told her. She did not believe us.

My brother quickly learned pidgin, and when he was playing outside, you couldn’t tell the difference between his voice and that of his friends. I was shyer and more aloof, not sure what to do with the notes I got in class that accused me of being proud for being closer with my classmate Gloria than with the note-writer. Not sure what to do when the rambunctious boys in the class jumped out of the windows when the teacher went to the bank, or when a teacher slapped my knuckles with a ruler when I got a math problem wrong or gave me a “C” on a creative writing assignment, so that I would “try harder.” I read a lot and wrote about it in the diary with a lock I had brought from the U.S. “Write down your first impressions,” my father told me. “You’ll never have them again.” At home, I would continue reading through the books we had brought. When I finished the children’s books, I moved on to my mother’s college literature anthologies and volumes of Shakespeare. My parents allowed me to home school the next year, when they moved my brother and sister to an international school that only went up to 5th grade.

When I wasn’t reading, I would visit my neighbours’ house. The two daughters were our closest friends. I liked to pause along their driveway to peel back the fleshy green-thorned stems of their agave plants until the tender innermost yellow spine was revealed. We would go on long bike rides around campus, riding over to my dad’s office to climb onto the roofs of the open air walkways, which were like sidewalks in the sky. Sometimes we would sneak off campus past the hole in the wall where people gathered at the tap to fill their buckets with water. There was a giant mound of white sand by the river that ran behind the university. They said it was for construction, but we would take our shoes off and dig our toes into the sand, eating picnic lunches as we watched the canoes skim across the river to the village on the other side.

Back when we lived in the U.S., when our parents told us that we would be moving to Nigeria, they told us it would be for four years. I would write long letters to my friends and cousins in America telling them about my new life, making little sketches of people and trees and the villages we visited in the margins of the lined notepaper. I always reminded them I would be back soon. But in 1991, after the third year, we moved up to Jos, where my brother, sister, and I began to attend an international school. A mixed group of Nigerian and American girls adopted me as one of their own. My letters to America grew less frequent. I no longer said I was “coming home.”

Over lunch last Sunday, my dad asked me, “Do you know what happened 25 years ago on this day?” “What?” I asked. “This was the day we first arrived in Nigeria,” he said. It is a week that jostles with the anniversaries of other more recent memories. September 7, the day the Jos crisis began, September 11, the day I watched silver towers in New York fall like London Bridges. But this year, I have spent less time remembering those traumatic events and more time remembering a happier occasion.  September 8, the day we came to a country that has become our home.

Conversation with Nkem Ivara, author of Closer than a Brother and literary event “Excuse Us, London!” on April 6

The death of Chinua Achebe has been much on my mind that past few weeks. He was one of my favourite authors and a life mentor through his writing. I plan to post some of my thoughts on him by the end of the week.

In the meantime, I wanted to post this email interview I did with Nkem Ivara, whose first novel/novella Closer than a Brother was published by Whispers Publishing on 8 March. She will be reading from the romance novel Closer than a Brother alongside artist and writer Victor Ehikhamenor, who will be reading from his nonfiction essay collectionExcuse Me!, published by Parresia Publishers, at the literary event, Excuse Us London! at The Africa Centre, 38 King Street, Covent Garden, London, Saturday, April 6, 2013, 2-5:30pm. Popular literary critic Ikhide Ikheloa and writer Ike Anya will moderate, and artist Inua Ellams will give a poetry performance. I wish I were going to be in London, as it sounds like one of the funnest literary events of the year!

(I downloaded the poster below from Facebook, where it has been making the rounds. I love it that Pa Ikhide, as we twitter groupies call him, is pictured on his keke, on which he is always *cycling slowly away*)

Excuse me London--advert

publicity poster by Victor Ehikhamenor

For a few interviews and other relevant sites for Nkem Ivara and Victor Ehikhamenor, see these links:

Victor Ehikhamenor (his website) To purchase Excuse Me!, if you are in Nigeria, you can order through Parresia or the online vendors Konga.com.ng or Jumia.com.ng. If you are outside of Nigeria, you can order  it from Amazon.com

March/April 2008 Sentinel Poetry interview 

27 November 2012 YNaija interview 

30 November 2012 BBC podcast 

3 January 2013 Author Q&A on Miss Ojikutu

Nkem Ivara (her blogTo purchase Closer than a Brother, you can order it online from Amazon.com or other online vendors listed at the end of the interview below.

16 November 2011, She writes the charming story of how she met her husband on Myne Whitman’s blog.

6 March 2013 JustJoxy’s review of Closer than a Brother

9 March 2013 An Interview with Myne Whitman

11 March 2013 An Interview with Kiru Taye

Here is the email interview I did with Nkem Ivara. It was originally published in Weekly Trust on 30 March 2013. Because the Weekly Trust website is having some malware issues, I’m providing a link to the interview as it appeared on AllAfrica.com.

I hope to write more about Closer than a Brother in the future and read more of the romance literature being written by Ivara’s contemporaries. I think this writing is really important, in part, because there is a huge reading public for it. Closer than a Brother already has 6 reader reviews on Amazon. When people repeat the cliche that there is no reading public in Nigeria, they don’t seem to be taking into consideration the appetite for popular literature, such as the thousands of Hausa romances and thrillers being published in northern Nigeria, or the rapidly expanding English-language Nigerian romance and erotica being made available online, whether through formally published e-novels like Closer than a Brother or informally published stories on blogs. Here is the interview. Enjoy.

Nkem Ivara (c) CM

Nkem Ivara (c) CM

Conversation With Nkem Ivara, 

Author of ‘Closer Than a Brother’

BY CARMEN MCCAIN, 30 MARCH 2013

INTERVIEW

Happy Easter! The most momentous news in world literature since I turned in last week’s column has been the passing of one of Nigeria’s greatest authors, Chinua Achebe. This week I will highlight the work of one of his literary granddaughters, London-based author Nkem Ivara, whose first novel, the 80-page Closer than a Brother was published on 8 March by Whispers Publishing. In the novel, Daye and Sami have been like brother and sister ever since 15-year-old Daye saved 12-year-old Sami from bullies. Fifteen years later in London, can Daye and Sami can make something more of their relationship without putting their long friendship at risk? Fans of romance will love the banter and sexual tension between these best friends. Will they end up together? Read to find out.Nkem Ivara agreed to an email interview for today’s column. She will read from the novel during a shared literary event with Victor Ehikhaminor at the Africa Centre in London on 6 April 2013.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and your novel Closer than a Brother?

I am married to a real-life drop-dead gorgeous, tall, dark and handsome hero and we have two very active boys. I enjoy playing word games, reading and hanging out with friends over a meal. I love to organise and co-ordinate events. I also enjoy watching back-to-back episodes of some American TV series e.g. Scandal, Criminal Minds, The Good Wife, Greys’ Anatomy etc.

I have been writing for a while but only started doing so seriously when I met some other writers who encouraged me to pursue it in earnest. Closer than a Brother is my first published novel. It is about best friends who fall in love but are completely unaware their feelings are mutual. Daye Thompson and Samantha Egbuson grew up in Port Harcourt, Nigeria and now live in London. Neither is willing to risk losing the friendship by revealing their true feelings. The story is told from both points of view and explores the resulting conflict and complications as they each try to conceal their feelings for the other.

When did you start writing?

Since my teens, I have dabbled in writing on and off but was reluctant to call myself a writer for fear of being asked to prove it by showing published work. That all changed a few years ago when I started writing in earnest.

What inspires you to write?

I am inspired by the world around me; and human stories of love and triumph in the face of difficulty speak to me evocatively. I love to watch people and then make up stories about them. I tend to play a game of ‘What if?’ in my head. I imagine what would happen if things went a different way. Sometimes stories are birthed from this silly exercise. For me, writing is therapeutic, it centres me and helps sort out my thought processes. It affords me the chance to let my imagination run wild.

How did the idea for this novel come to you?

I cannot remember exactly and I feel a bit like this Steve Jobs quote, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

I sat down one day determined to write a story. I wanted to write something I would enjoy reading, and I have always liked the idea of best friends falling in love. I think friendship is a great foundation for building a romantic relationship. It is different from meeting someone new and trying to put your best foot forward to make yourself more appealing. The awkwardness of making new acquaintances may be absent but it presents its own set of challenges too. To fall in love with someone whose faults and foibles one is all too familiar with takes some doing. I think that is just special.

What was the process like?

The actual writing process was a lot of fun. I would write a chapter a day, and then send it to my beta-readers to critique. Beta-readers are people who read works-in-progress with the aim of improving the plot, characters, grammar etc. Their feedback was generally very positive and their suggestions helped me fine-tune the story.

Could you tell me a little bit about the Romance Writers of West Africa online community that you are a part of?

RWoWA is a support group for writers of West African origin dedicated to the growth of African romantic fiction worldwide. It was founded originally with four members, Kiru Taye, Lara Daniels, Myne Whitman and me in 2011. With the increasing demand for the African romance genre, RWoWA strives to support established and aspiring romance authors who emphasise African plot lines. All sub-categories in romance writing are covered: contemporary, historical, inspirational, paranormal and science fiction. It provides a platform for peer-to-peer critique of works-in-progress. The members have been extremely supportive by acting as beta-readers, suggesting tips and tricks to improve my work and also suggesting publishers to pitch to.

Do you write other kinds of genres, or is romance your main oeuvre?

I write whatever takes my fancy, but I am a hopeless romantic, and I do have a soft spot for romance. I write it because there is something profoundly fulfilling about the trials and triumphs of love and relationships. That whimsical combination of wistful melancholy and joyous rhapsody gets to me every time.

Could you tell me about how you found your publisher and the editing process?

Kiru Taye, a friend and founding member of RWoWA, suggested a list of publishers I should submit to. I chose four of those in addition to an African publisher. I submitted to all five according to their guidelines, and three of them responded within a few weeks. The first wanted to publish it subject to some changes of certain words and phrases like brand names etc. The second wanted to publish as it was, and the third was a very positive upbeat rejection.

I decided to go with Whispers because they liked the story exactly as it was and would only make editorial changes. The fourth publisher contacted me saying they, too, wanted to publish it but I had already signed with Whispers, so I had to turn them down.

The editing process was not as painful as I had anticipated. We had two rounds of edits. The first highlighted certain words that had occurred too often and the second was mostly getting rid of some of my 116 exclamation marks!

Any plans for future books set in Nigeria?

Yes, I have two books in the offing, both of which are set in Nigeria. One is about a married couple who have to deal with the pain and betrayal of infidelity. The other is about a couple who are manipulated into getting married.

What is your writing process like? How does your family factor into your writing?

My writing process is fluid and adaptable. As a wife and mother of two young boys, I have learned to be flexible about my schedule. I try to write everyday but I am not always successful. There are good days and some not so good days. I do not like to call them bad because though I may not actually have written anything, I am constantly thinking about the story and working on it in my head.

My husband is extremely supportive. He not only gives me room to write when I need to, but also actively encourages me to do so. I usually wait until the boys are in school or after they are in bed; it is quieter then and I can hear myself think. However, if I have a deadline, I will sometimes write to the noise of their boisterous play.

Where is the book available?

Your readers can buy my book at the Whispers Website, All Romance Ebooks, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. You don’t need an e-reader to read an e-book. You can download the Kindle app to your computer, android phone, iPad etc. Readers can find me on Twitter as @thewordsmythe and my blog www.thewordsmythe.wordpress.com

Making History with Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Sin is a Puppy… (a review)

A few months ago, I posted the news about the publication of a translation of Hajiya Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne as Sin is a Puppy… by Indian Publisher Blaft. 

On 3 November 2012 I published a review of the novel-in-translation in my column in Weekly Trust. I am only just now getting around to posting it on my blog, which you can read if you scroll down past the links below. Since publication in October 2012, there have been quite a few reviews and articles about the novel posted online, most of them from India. In fact the number of reviews I’ve found are overwhelming. How many Nigerian novels published in Nigeria get this kind of critical response? We need to do better. But I’m thrilled that Hajiya Balaraba is finally getting the attention she deserves!

5 August 2012 A brief mention as a forthcoming book in DNA India’s “Booked in the Second Half.” 

26 October 2012 Bookshy mentions Sin is a Puppy in a post about Hausa popular literature.

1 November 2012 A mention in The Caravan: A Journal of Politics and Culture

3 November 2012  My own review of the novel for Weekly Trust.

4 November 2012 Dhamini Ratnam’s article for the Pune Mirror: “A Filmi Affair in Nigeria” (Reprinted by Blueprint)

4 November 2012 Deepanjana Pal’s article for DNA: “How Bollywood Fought for the Nigerian Woman.” (She posts the “unsnipped version” on her own blog.)

17 November 2012 A promotion for the novel on Nana Fredua-Agyeman’s blog ImageNations

22 November 2012 Seema Misra’s review on her blog. 

25 November 2012 A Review on The Financial Express  and The Times of India

29 November 2012 Aishwarya S’s Review on the blog “Practically Marzipan.”

7 December 2012 Subashini Navaratnam’s detailed and thoughtful review on Pop Matters. (And some follow-up observations on her own The Blog of Disquiet)

14 December 2012 Deepa Dharmadhikari’s charming review on Live Mint. (reposted on Emeka Lison’s blog.)

16 December 2012 Tolu Ihidero’s review for Ariya Today.

30 December 2012 The heroine Rabi gets a mention in DNA India’s list of unforgettable fictional characters of 2012!

5 January 2013 A thoughtful review on President Blink-Blink

6 January 2013 Shelley Walia’s review in The Hindu, one of India’s most respected papers.

1 March 2013 Sandra Rafaela’s post on the Women of the African Diaspora site.

18 March 2013 Guernica Art Editor Glenna Gordon picks Sin is a Puppy as her Springtime Read, Guernica Magazine.

You can find other reviews on the Goodreads page for Sin is a Puppy.

If you would like to read Sin is a Puppy, you can buy it directly from Blaft, or read it as an ebook on Kindle or Nook. Blaft has made the first chapter available for free.  You can read an interview with Hajiya Balaraba here. 

Here is my review for Weekly Trust, published on 3 November 2012:

Hajiya Balaraba Ramat Yakubu

Making History with Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Sin is a Puppy…

Category: My thoughts exactly
Published on Saturday, 03 November 2012 06:00
Written by Carmen McCain
Last week independent Indian publisher Blaft released Sin is a Puppy (that Follows you Home), a translation by Aliyu Kamal, of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s 1990 Hausa novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne (Ubangidansa yakan bi). Publisher Rakesh Khanna makes an unfortunate error when he claims that “This book, is to the best of our knowledge, the first published English translation of a complete novel from Hausa,” an inaccuracy that I hope he will change in their next print run. Hausa novels like Abubakar Imam’s Ruwan Bagaja and Muhammadu Bello Wali’s Gandoki have been abridged and translated and used in the Nigerian school curriculum, and a translation of Abubakar Tafawa Balewa’s novel Shaihu Umar is available for sale abroad. [Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino's brilliant bestselling novel In da So da Kauna was also violently abridged and awkwardly translated into The Soul of My Heart.] However, this publication is still quite significant. It marks the first international publication in translation of a contemporary Hausa novel from what is sometimes called the Hausa “soyayya/love” genre, a literary movement of mostly self-published authors that began in the mid-1980s. In fact, as far as I know, Hajiya Balaraba is the first female Hausa novelist to be published in translation. An excerpt of Alhaki Kukuyo Ne was earlier translated by William Burgess and published in the 2002 anthology, Readings in African Popular Fiction, edited by Stephanie Newell. The novel was also adapted into a film directed by Abdulkareem Muhammad in 1998 and has been the subject of scholarly work by Abdalla Uba Adamu, Novian Whitsitt, and others.

The novel tells the story of a Rabi, a woman married to a stingy, womanizing business man, Alhaji Abdu. Although she has nine children to take care of, her husband only gives her five naira a day to prepare their meals, while he spends over ten naira a day on restaurants and entertaining other women.  (Beyond literary value, the novel is also useful for tracking the inflation of the past twenty years!) Rabi pays for school fees from the money she makes cooking and selling food and takes care of Alhaji Abdu’s daughter from another marriage as if she were her own. Alhaji Abdu’s decision to marry an old prostitute as a second wife, however, brings Rabi’s misery to a climax. When the women quarrel, Alhaji Abdu throws Rabi and her nine children out on the street. The rest of the novel traces the decisions Rabi makes in her newly independent life, her daughter Saudatu’s marriage, and the continuing drama as Alhaji Abdu continues to alienate friends and family on behalf of his new ungrateful wife.

The suffering of the women in the novel seems to be, in large part, because of the patriarchal attitudes of polygamous husbands. As much as Rabi’s daughter Saudatu’s marriage to the devoted Alhaji Abubakar is described in romantic terms, she does suffer in the marriage as the third wife in a household of quarrelsome women. Even when she is alone with her husband, she is unable to rest after she gives birth because her husband wants her to continue looking after all the children he has had with his other wives. The other wives are portrayed harshly, but there is a sense that their quarrels come out of their being forced to co-exist with rivals. Even the men described sympathetically in the novel are sometimes unkind and imperious towards their wives. There are no feminist directives here, but a sense of unease and dissatisfaction at the plight in which women find themselves.  The happiest couples seem to be those who are made up of one man and one wife.

Although so-called soyayya novels are often stereotyped as being unrealistic romance novels, Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne, reminds me more of the classic muckraking novels of Charles Dickens, who threw a harsh moral light on the injustices of his own society. Neither does the narrative work like a typical English-language “romance novel” but rather with the uncertainty and ambiguity of modernist social realism. The novel does not resolve into a happy ending. There are no neat ends tied off.  Alhaji Abdu does get his comeuppance, when, as the proverbial title foreshadows, his sins catch up with him. However, there is no reward for the virtuous Rabi. Male relatives, who had initially denounced Alhaji for his abuse and vowed their support for Rabi, end up transferring their loyalties back to their fellow man in the end. The status quo is preserved. Lessons are learned, and society continues on, but no one is left very happy. Hajiya Balaraba questions whether men, in such situations, are actually following religious prescriptions or merely following cultural norms that privilege their own comfort and pleasure over their wives’ wellbeing.

The translator Aliyu Kamal, an English professor at Bayero University, does fine work here. His translation for Blaft reads much more smoothly and naturally than the excerpt translated by William Burgess for Readings in African Popular Fiction. Professor Kamal’s writing skills as the author of ten novels in English are obvious. This is not to say there were not issues with the translation. He sometimes leaves out important content and nuance. In the original preface, for example, Hajiya Balaraba begins the novel with a prayer of gratitude to Allah before launching into a summary of the novel. The translation leaves out the prayer and goes directly to the summary. He also leaves out another particularly pointed sentence in the preface, where Hajiya Balaraba says that abusive, neglectful men “exist in every corner of this state.” He sometimes makes odd translation choices such as describing Rabi as “putting on her makeup” after a bath, rather than “oiling her body” as it is in the original, and sometimes he translates out certain ironies.  In the original, Alhaji Abdu tells his first wife Rabi that he’s got “good news” for her, that he plans to give her “a little sister,” a euphemism for adding a wife. In Kamal’s translation, however, the irony is translated out with Alhaji Abdu merely saying, “I have something to tell you. I plan to take a second wife.” A more careful translation could have maintained the nuance. I would, additionally, have preferred if he had left common food words in Hausa, allowing readers to infer from context that they are foods rather than translating “koko” and “kosai” and “tuwo” as “porridge” and “bean cakes” and “pudding.” Although I was originally startled by some of the larger structural adjustments to the texts, including rearranged chapters, perhaps these were wise editorial decisions, as they do make the story flow more smoothly. Overall, despite these flaws, the translation makes for a good read and I would love to see Professor Kamal do more of such work.

I am particularly delighted by the publication of this translation because it indicates that the larger world is beginning to appreciate novels that have often been denigrated by an intellectual elite in Nigeria. Critics, many of whom have read only a few of the novels, or none at all, often condemn an entire range of genres and literary accomplishment as “trashy romance novels.”  Ironically, while for the past twenty years thousands of novels have been written and consumed by eager readers, Nigeria’s well-known publishers have looked the other way and bemoaned the “lack of reading culture in Nigeria. It took an Indian company to recognize these innovations and search for translators to midwife Hausa creative expression to a larger global readership. Because of this, although the book can be ordered from India and is available in e-book versions, Sin is a Puppy…., like so many other contemporary Nigerian literary works, is more easily available to audiences abroad than it is to Nigerian audiences.  I hope this publication will wake up Nigerian publishers and encourage more English-language novelists to try their hands at translation. Perhaps the Association of Nigerian authors, a university, or other literary initiative could award funding to at least one writer/translator team a year?

Note: My heart goes out to those who lost loved ones and those who were wounded in the bomb at St. Rita’s church in Kaduna on 28 October and in the reprisal attacks that followed. May God bring the murderers to justice and grant us all comfort and peace.

A Tunanina: 2012 in review

Despite being a mathematical incompetent, I have grown more and more fascinated with statistics, especially when they have to do with my own blog.

I have neglected this blog recently, in part, because I am desperately trying to “dissertate.” But I am gratified to see that  many of my old posts are still drawing traffic. In case it is of interest to anyone besides myself, I am posting the wordpress report on 2012 and hope to follow it with some of my own blog posts soon. I do continue to write a weekly column for Weekly Trust, which you can access on my Weekly Trust page here. When I have a chance, I will try to cross-post some of my articles here with more links and illustrations.

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

About 55,000 tourists visit Liechtenstein every year. This blog was viewed about 180,000 times in 2012. If it were Liechtenstein, it would take about 3 years for that many people to see it. Your blog had more visits than a small country in Europe!

Click here to see the complete report.

Ramadan pieces from Last year: “Why, as a Christian, I Fast during Ramadan” and “Under the Mango Tree”

I have been reading back recently over several of the articles I wrote last Ramadan, when I was fasting alongside my Muslim friends in Kano. It was the third year I was fasting, and I had settled into the rhythm of the month. I did not fast this year, though, at points throughout the month I have wished I were. I think it may have made me feel a little bit more in tune with what is happening around me. As I never posted my articles last year, in part because I was never able to find a hard copies of them to include online, I figured, in honour of Ramadan, before it ends in the next few days, I would put up at least two of them right now. “Why, as a Christian, I Fast during Ramadan” published 20 August 2011 and “Under the Mango Tree” published 27 August 2011.

Breaking fast on the set of Jani-Jani, Kaduna, 29 August 2010. (c) Carmen McCain

“Why, as a Christian, I Fast During Ramadan”

20 August 2011

Recently, my blog was accessed six times with the search phrase “Is Carmen McCain a Muslim.” I’m not. I’m a devout Christian, but I can understand how some people might be confused. Most of my friends in Kano are Muslim, the people I write about are often Muslims, and this is the third Ramadan have fasted alongside my Muslim friends. When I brought up the issue on Facebook, several Christian friends told me they also had been confused about my religious identity because I had mentioned fasting, and in Christianity, one is not supposed to advertise one’s fast. Although there are also Christian traditions of public fasting, I tried to explain that ultimately I AM fasting with Muslims, but that does not mean I am any less a Christian. I won’t necessarily fast for Ramadan for the rest of my life, neither do I expect other Christians to do the same, though Christians in Bethlehem and other parts of the Arab world have done so for centuries. It is a personal decision I have made for the time being to participate in my community.

Last week, I walked into a Zoo Road studio a few minutes before maghriba with a bag of sliced watermelon. “Are you fasting?” novelist and scriptwriter Nazir Adam Salih asked me. “I am,” I said. “Kina taya mana azumi.” he said. “You are helping us with the fast.” I had not heard it put that way before but his expression felt exactly right. I am not as strict with my fast as a Muslim would be. When I am sick, as I was for the first week of Ramadan this year, I eat without any plans to later “make up” the missed days. But the experience of Ramadan and fasting out of love for my community has been one of the most powerful things in helping me empathize with my Muslim neighbors. This week, I share a piece I wrote three years ago in 2008, during my first Ramadan fast.

Ever since I knew I was going to be in Kano for a year, I thought that I would try to fast during Ramadan. First, I thought it would not be appropriate to eat in front of other people who are fasting, even if it’s just sneaking a meatpie and sachet of water from the canteen to my office at Bayero University; second, I thought it would be good to experience what millions of people, and specifically those around me, experience every year. As I told one of my friends on the first day of Ramadan, “If you are hungry, I will be hungry. If you are thirsty, I too will be thirsty.” The day before the fast began, I bought a book on fasting from an Islamic book seller to better understand fasting from an Islamic perspective—what my friends believe. But ultimately, what I hope to gain out of this is spiritual discipline practiced from the perspective of my own faith. Although not compulsory, fasting is a spiritual discipline in Christianity as well (Jesus fasted for forty days in the desert in preparation for his three years of ministry). I thought that, though I am Christian, I live among Muslims, so I will fast when they fast and pray when they pray. And I will hopefully grow in my own spiritual life.

Today, on the second day of Ramadan, walking wearily across campus to wait for the bus at around 5pm, I thought, maybe I should stop this. It’s not a requirement for me, and I’m finding myself dull, forgetful, distracted, irritable, impatient, on edge. It’s not easy to manifest the Christian “fruits of the spirit,” (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control), when I have not eaten or drunk all day. On further thought, as I was walking from the bus stop to my house clutching two packets of dates and a sliver of watermelon I had bought to break my fast with, I realized that perhaps that is the point of fasting, at least for me. It forces me to realize, humbly, how much of my good spirits, my mostly cheerful demeanor are chemically-based, physical attributes. I have been blessed with good health, with chemical balance, with a fairly even and laid back temper (though my good friends know the exceptions). Peeling back those layers of the physical, one comes closer to the core of one’s being, what is underneath the surface pleasantness—what comes out when there is no protective politeness—and it’s not always very attractive. I have thought often over the past few years of what Christian writer and thinker C.S. Lewis says in his book Mere Christianity, about the difference between human perspective and God’s perspective:

 “Some of us who seem quite nice people may, in fact, have made so little use of a good heredity and a good upbringing that we are really worse than those whom we regard as fiends. Can we be quite certain how we should have behaved if we had been saddled with the psychological outfit, and then with the bad upbringing, and then with the power, say, of [Nazi war criminal] Himmler? That is why Christians are told not to judge. We see only the results which a man’s choices make out of his raw material. But God does not judge him on the raw material at all, but on what he has done with it. Most of the man’s psychological make-up is probably due to his body: when his body dies all that will fall off him, and the real central man, the thing that chose, that made the best or the worst out of this material, will stand naked. All sorts of nice things which we thought our own, but which were really due to a good digestion, will fall off some of us: all sorts of nasty things which were due to complexes or bad health will fall off others. We shall then, for the first tune, see every one as he really was. There will be surprises.”

I meditate on this in relation to fasting. When fasting, those base human characteristics, the instincts, the first reactions, come out more dramatically, and you have to deal with them. You are impatient but you force yourself to speak patiently. You don’t feel gracious but you make yourself be gracious anyway. It becomes a discipline, training and subduing those initial reactions that surface more clearly when you are hungry and tired, and it encourages humility. You don’t have that easy excuse—oh sorry, I haven’t eaten yet today, and I can’t think clearly—because no one else has either. You become weaker and more vulnerable to your community while stronger in your individual will. This is spiritual growth—going beyond one’s personality to something deeper.

At the same time, you also become more aware of the joys of the physical. The pleasure that comes at the end of the day, especially when you are breaking the fast with other people. The lilting greeting “A sha ruwa lafiya,” “Enjoy quenching your thirst”—the sweetness of the crystallized sugar in a dry date when it is the first thing that has touched your tongue all day; the fresh wetness of a tangy orange or sweet watermelon or solid banana; the way the spicy flavours of Hausa shayi detach themselves and come one by one: cardamom, ginger, other flavours that I cannot yet identify. The first burst of energy after the sugar enters your blood stream and the pleasant stuffed feeling when your stomach is extended with tuwon shinkafa and miyan taushe or fried yam and potatoes, peppered tofu and kosai. Denied for 13 or 14 hours a day, the senses are heightened. Listening to the Ramadan service on the radio, the chanted Arabic, the call and response, it reminds me of listening to a mass—Gregorian chants in Latin—or a BBC broadcast of the Nine Lessons in Carols on Christmas eve.

These common elements of our faiths are what I am reminded of at Ramadan. Though Christians and Muslims have many differing religious beliefs we will never be able to agree on, at core, all three Abrahamic religions are linked by what Jesus identified as the “greatest commandments”: First, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” I believe that, beyond our differences, if we encourage each other in love to seek this truth, we will find peace. A sha ruwa lafiya.

–FIN

“Under the Mango Tree”

27 August 2011

One of my main joys of Ramadan this year, whenever it is not raining in the evening, has been to take a mat outside and sit under the mango tree that grows outside my window. I read or write or just lie staring up at the leaves above me, mind at rest, until the maghriba prayer is called and I reach for my packet of dates. I am close to the dirt there and the strands of grass that find enough sun to poke up under the trees. One evening I moved around the mat for an hour trying to move out of the path of a slow but persistent little snail who seemed to want to follow me wherever I went. Eventually, I placed a leaf into his path and then carried the leaf to a muddy patch far from my mat. A neem tree arches over the wall of my house, branches mingling with those of the mango tree and when I lie under them, I look up through layers and layers of leaves, watch them sway in the breeze, hear them rustling together, merging with the sound of the neighbor children outside the wall and the distant honk of horns on the main road. If I gaze up long enough, I feel like I am floating.

This week, when I spread the mat out under the tree I could see dark clouds billowing in the East and thought I might not make it to maghriba before the rain came. All the same, I piled up fruit in a basket, and took out newspapers, a pen and a notebook. The leaves were mostly silent that evening. The air was still, in anticipation of rain. I lay on the straw mat under the tree, and thought, as the thunder began to break and the first fine droplets filtered through the trees, about the motion of the universe. This flat soil I lie on, this surface of the planet that seems so solid and still, is actually spinning through star studded space. This sun I am waiting to set on my face of the planet, my little patch of ground under the mango tree, is only one star in one galaxy out of a million. The sun does not, in fact, move down towards the horizon. We are the ones, clinging to this fragile planet, who are spinning past fire.

There is a peace in these moments, an awareness of my own smallness, as I listen to the rhythms of the earth. I am both as still as I will ever be and hurtling through space.  I am reminded that when we fast we acknowledge our own desires are ephemeral in the vastness of God’s design. We give up pleasures, which we may at times over-indulge, joys, not always necessary for life. This year, I have realized how weighted down we become with loves, which are not ours to own, the heaviness of commitments to unnecessary habits. It is sometimes in the pain of giving up that which we think nourishes us, gives us life, that we float free. In this time of discipline, it is only when the sun passes that we realize the sweetness of its fruit.

One of my favourite music videos is “Patience” by reggae artist Damian Marley and rapper Nas. The musicians quietly ask piercing questions about life, challenging the arrogant presumptions of the privileged about “modern development,” sound-byte answers in the face of eternal mystery. The musicians emerge out of a backdrop with the perspective of a Renaissance painting, camera sweeping through layers of images, through clouds past pyramids, into a mythic African past:

We born not knowing, are we born knowing all?

We growing wiser, are we just growing tall?

Can you read thoughts? can you read palms?

Can you predict the future? can you see storms, coming?

The Earth was flat if you went too far you would fall off

Now the Earth is round, if the shape change again everybody woulda start laugh

The average man can’t prove of most of the things that he chooses to speak of

And still won’t research and find out the root of the truth that you seek of

Scholars teach in universities and claim that they’re smart and cunning

Tell them find a cure when we sneeze and that’s when their nose start running

And the rich get stitched up, when we get cut

Man a heal dem broken bones in the bush with the wet mud

Can you read signs? can you read stars?

Can you make peace? can you fight war?

Can you milk cows, even though you drive cars? huh

Can you survive against all odds, now?

Marley and Nas pace through a shallow river to where it spills over the edge of the world. Galaxies and planets stretch out above them: “Who made up words? who made up numbers?” Nas asks. “And what kind of spell is mankind under?”

I hear the song echo under the mango tree as dusk moves in, and hunger moves towards its end. The first time I broke fast for Ramadan in 2008, a friend took me home for dinner. We walked under the sunset, past the ancient sloping Kano wall grown over with grass, down winding paths through the old city, spitting out date seeds. I sat on a mat under the cloudy sky eating oranges, fried yam, drinking tea, tucking my skirt firmly around my ankles and mayafi around my neck as mosquitos began to bite. I answered in fumbling Hausa, those questions my friend’s mother asked, but I mostly sat quietly under the sky and listened to the chatter of teenage girls, the banter of young men, the good natured laughter of their parents. Above us the clouds scudded past in a darkening sky. After that first evening, I mostly broke fast with musicians and editors and actors on Zoo Road, sharing out quartered oranges and slices of watermelon, crispy kosai and fried potatoes served on a newspaper transparent with oil, hot thick koko sweet with sugar in plastic cups. As my Hausa began to improve, we’d have long conversations in the studios, about film and politics, music and religion.  At night, I’d speed home on an achaba,  moon rising overhead, as stars began to peak out from beyond the clouds.

Well into my fourth year in Kano, my days have grown busier. This week, as Ramadan draws to a close, I break the fast by myself on this straw mat, waiting for the sun to set or the rain to come, wondering which will come first. It’s good to be under the mango tree, under the leaves, under the clouds, beyond which stretch the stars. I am glad I am not inside with my laptop open to the insistent demands of the internet, emails that must be answered and people on Facebook demanding responses, the guilt-inducing cursor blinking on the blank white page of articles long overdue.

I let my mind sway with the trees. The rain comes before the sun sets. The ink on my page blurs into little wet patches. I slowly stand up and carry the straw mat, my basket of fruit, newspapers and books to shelter. Dark clouds are piled up in the east, blowing in with the approaching night, but in the west where the sun hovers on the horizon, the rain falls through light, glimmering and sparkling to the earth, watering the grass which thrives today and dies tomorrow. So many things we love are fleeting, the raindrops that fall from sky to soil, bushes that grow green and lush now, and fade to brown later, the light which rises with promise each day only to fall into dark. But it’s all beautiful while it lasts.

–FIN

[Please NOTE that the video "Patience" has been embedded into this blog post under Fair Use laws for review purposes.]