Category Archives: Column

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

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

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

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

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

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

(courtesy of Cassava Republic Press)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembering September 11 through a lens of fourteen years

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

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

I responded

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

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

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

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

September 2001, ten years later

(published in Weekly Trust on 10 September 2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anger and the Revolutionary Ideal of Love

(published in Weekly Trust on 8 January 2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sad Consequences of Hate

(published in Weekly Trust on 22 January 2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introducing Dr. Carmen McCain

Dr. Carmen McCain (c) my brilliant brother Dan McCain

I have not posted on this blog since January. I think that is the longest I have ever neglected it. But it was for a good cause. It enabled me to hole up in Madison, Wisconsin, to focus and finish writing my PhD dissertation on Hausa literature and film, which I defended about a month ago. I am hoping to finish my revisions in a week or so, submit to the university, and move on to the next thing. I am looking forward to what life brings. Hopefully that will mean resuming more regular blogging. Thank you to all of you, who have supported me and encouraged me during this long, grueling, depressing, yet also sometimes exhilarating process. I wrote more detailed thanks in my column last month and still more in the acknowledgements page of my dissertation itself. I am placing a hold on proquest for two years, so as to better my chances of getting a book contract, but I would be happy to email it to anyone interested, once I have the final draft submitted to the university.

I will share more thoughts and photos as I have time. This may also be the last blog post I compose on my nearly 6 year old boxy red Dell, named Rudi. He has lived a good life but is now slowly dying. His sleek replacement is sitting in the next room  waiting for a data transfer… and a name.

My love to everyone.

-Dr. McCain  (probably the only time I will ever sign off that way on this blog, but it’s fun to celebrate)

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. [Update: 4 November 2015, I have archived it on my site here since the Daily Trust site has cut off the first paragraph.] 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.


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,, and, 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


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.