Tag Archives: Elnathan John

In anticipation of tonight’s announcement by the Caine Prize for African Writing

Caine Prize Nominees Elnathan John, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Chinelo Okparanta and Pede Hollist gather around the platform after an event (c) CM

I have been absent from this blog for a long time, mostly because I am trying to focus on writing my dissertation and many of “my thoughts exactly” appear in my column with Weekly Trust. But I miss blogging, and I feel like there are many things I have missed out on addressing. So, I was determined to post on the Caine Prize for African Writing before tonight’s winner is announced. (Please note that I posted this running for a plane. I will update it with more photos by tomorrow.)

I am writing from London, where I was able to arrange a long layover in between trips, to attend the Africa Writes Festival and the Caine Prize events. I will write later in my column or on this blog about the festival as a whole and you can view my photos of the event here, but in this post I will focus on the Caine Prize. I have been interested in the Caine Prize for a long time, first because it was this prize that in 2001 propelled Helon Habila, on whose novel Waiting for an Angel I wrote my (very flawed) MA thesis, to international fame and more recently because of all the discourse on social media surrounding it. Last year, I was troubled by the statement made by last year’s Caine Prize chair Nigerian-British writer Bernadine Evaristo that it was time to “move past” depictions of suffering in Africa (this is the same year bombs had started going off all over northern Nigeria), a sentiment she repeated in this year’s Africa Writes panel  “African Literature Prizes and the Economy of Prestige,” in which she indicated that she made sure a story that “checked all the boxes” of African stereotypes did not make it onto the shortlist last year. (I will discuss this panel in another post)  I responded to her 2012 essay in my column and on my blog here and also in a comment on Saturday’s panel, arguing that such rhetoric  risks silencing those writers living in Africa, who are writing about their own experiences.

2012 Chair of the Caine Prize, Bernadine Evaristo speaks on the panel “African Literature Prizes and the Economy of Prestige,” 6 July 2013 (c) CM

This year, I was particularly excited when the Caine Prize shortlist was announced in May. Not only were four out of the five nominees Nigerians, but also my two good friends, Elnathan John and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim were nominated for the prize for stories I had read in manuscript form!Their nomination felt like poetic justice, as last year their attempts to attend the 2012 Caine Prize workshop in South Africa, to which they had been invited and had tickets, were truncated (my respects to Elnathan

Elnathan and Abubakar at the Caine Prize workshop in Uganda, April 2013

Elnathan and Abubakar at the Caine Prize workshop in Uganda, April 2013. Courtesy Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Facebook page

who has popularized this term) by South African bureaucracy. Elnathan’s visa was delayed until it was too late to attend, while Abubakar was unfortunate enough to fly into Johannesburg in the middle of the scuffle between South Africa and Nigeria over yellow-fever vaccination cards and was sent back to Lagos without ever making it to the workshop. (See my long post from March of last year for more details.)  Fortunately, the Caine Prize  re-invited them again this year, and they were able to attend the workshop held in Entebbe, Uganda. 

That means that in this year’s Caine Prize anthology, A Memory this Size and other Stories, Elnathan and Abubakar both have two stories, Elnathan’s “Bayan Layi” for which he received the Caine Prize nomination and “A Memory this Size,” after which the anthology is named, and Abubakar’s “The Whispering Trees” for which he received the Caine Prize nomination, and “The Book of Remembered Things,” which he wrote at the workshop.

The other nominees were Chinelo Okparanta for her story “America,” Tope Folarin for his story “Miracle” and Sierra Leonian writer Pede Hollist, the one non-Nigerian on the list (though he does have Yoruba ancestry stemming from Abeokuta!) for his story “Foreign Aid.”

The 2013 Caine Prize nominated writers during the 6 July “Meet the 2013 Caine Prize Shortlisted Writers” event at the British Library: (left to right) Elnathan John, Chinelo Okparanta, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, (moderator: Jacqueline Auma): Tope Folarin, Pede Hollist (c) CM

There have been quite a few blog reviews of the stories, and much discussion on social media. The Facebook group Writivism, in particular, set out to discuss all five stories before the prize was announced and express which story they would give the prize were they to have that authority. (A little after 6pm about four hours before the actual announcement, they proclaimed the winner of the Writivism contest Abubakar Adam Ibrahim). There was some amount of negative reaction from reviewers who complained that the prize was going back to pre-Evaristo days of depicting  stereotypical portraits of Africa, or, in this case, of Nigeria. One blogger, Nta Bassey, borrowed from Elnathan’s “How to” format, made famous by his now completed “How to” series with the Daily Times, to satirically skewer what she saw as the continuation of stereotypical themes in the stories, in “How to Write a Caine Prize Story (Whatever that Is).” While I think her post is clever and while I understand concerns about “poverty porn,” particularly as it is produced by Western charities, I think this sort of rhetoric is problematic and often times shallow because it makes too many generalizations by theme rather than looking at the nuances and particularities of the specific texts. It is like that silly, unfortunate accusation that made the rounds on Facebook last year that Rotimi Babatunde had supposedly plagiarized Biyi Bandele’s novel Burma Boy for his then nominated (it later won the prize) story “Bombay’s Republic” because both novel and short story dealt with the experience of Nigerian soldiers in Burma during World War II–as if one author can own a whole war. As I discussed last year after Evaristo’s blog post, there is a problem in trying to police which themes are acceptable, instead of looking at the quality of how each particular story has been written. Elnathan has often addressed this problem on Facebook, twitter, and recently in his satirical “Because I Care” column in Sunday Trust, responding sarcastically to Helon Habila’s review of Noviolet Bulawayo’s novel We Need  New Names:

If white people did not split us up into funny countries, we would have been one strong large territory and so everyone writing in this territory must remember what it means to be an African writer. It means that you must carry Africa on your shoulders. It means that you must be a good ambassador and ignore all the corruption that African leaders perpetrate. Ignore the fact that we have warlords all over Africa who use children in war. Ignore the poverty and pain and refugee camps. Anyone who writes about Africa and anal rape is a bad person. Even white people are tired of it. No one wants to feel guilty about this. Moreover, Africa is rising. Thanks to the World Bank and International donors, we now have some classrooms, some mosquito nets, local NGO’s for women who get raped in war and conflict, and very rich politicians and their friends, some of who make it to the Forbes list of richest people. Why should anyone write anything bad about us?

(Interestingly, blogger Chika Oduah reads Elnathan’s story “Bayan Layi” through Helon Habila’s review to argue that Elnathan subsumes the stereotypical headline to a story of “characters who are frank in an innocent kind of way that manages not to intimidate the reader”–she reads the story as one Habila would approve of.) During the interview with his father on 6 July 2013 “Two Writers, Two Generations,” Mukoma wa Ngugi called such rhetoric “Afro-Optimism,” arguing that an insistence on focusing on “Africa Rising” narratives rather than on those that deal with Africa’s problems can stifle political discourse.

Elnathan, who made a point of not reading reviews of his work before the prize was announced, explained to interviewer Mercy Abang that the story, which some have read as stereotypical “poverty porn,” was inspired by an almajiri he used to know while he was in university:

Bayan Layi was inspired by an almajiri friend of mine, with whom I maintained contact over a period of about 6 years when I lived in Zaria. Basiru was from Sokoto and studied in a Quranic school near my house. He also, like hundreds of others did chores for students, washing plates, clothes and going on errands. Thinking of it now I wonder if that was not some sort of child labour.
Basiru was a gentle boy with the cutest, purest, most uninhibited smile I had ever seen on an almajiri. Unlike many students, I let him hang around my house and we had long conversations about his life and about mine. It was hard to estimate his age but I would say between 10 and 14.

During the “Meet the 2013 Caine Prize Shortlisted Writers” panel on 6 July at the British Library, he also mentioned that he had written the story following the election violence in Northern Nigeria in 2011, as a kind of explanation to other Nigerians who often talk about “the north” in stereotypical ways. There is a difference, for example, he pointed out between the thugs who take drugs (and do not necessarily know very much about the Qur’an) and are often used in election violence and the almajirai who are studying the Qur’an. There are sometimes almajirai who join the yan daba (thugs), as happens in his story, but the two, often conflated, are not the same. When the moderator Jacqueline Auma pointed out that the story felt like a universal tale about street children everywhere, Elnathan answered that the stories that feel the most universal will be those that are the most rooted in a specific context.

Tope Folarin similarly pointed to the particularity of the American setting of his story “Miracle,” which on my first reading I had thought could be set just as easily in Nigeria, arguing that it was in his interest in the diaspora community that inspired the story. The miracles that the  audience in the Pentecostal church of his story are looking for are tied directly to their experience in America, as they are living in a land seen as a miracles by those in Nigeria trying to get visas (the pastor , yet need miracles once they arrive to fulfill these dreams. As the narrator of the story says,

We need jobs. We need good grades. We need green cards. We need American passports. We need our parents to understand that we are Americans. We need our children to understand they are Nigerians.

Folarin’s story, too, illustrates how a story rooted in a particular context can feel  relevant to a “universal” audience. Abubakar Adam also explained in talks that his story “The Whispering Trees,” which one interviewer said felt the “least African” and therefore the most universal [?]of the stories, was rooted in a northern Nigerian context where the spiritual is taken as a given. Like the others, he focused on the story of an individual in a specific context, yet readers like Jeffrey Zuckerman felt it could have as well been “set in the Catskill mountains [...] or in the Middle East—but its Nigerian locale gives a tinge of familiarity to a location that media reports have made wholly foreign to Anglophone culturati.” When commenters asked Chinelo Okparanta about the “realism” of the parent’s mild reaction to their daughters same sex relationship, she argued that to say there can only be one reaction only homogenizes the multiplicity that exists within the country, again arguing for the individual story. Of all of the stories, I felt that Pede Hollist’s satirical story “Foreign Aid” dealt less with an individual story than with a typed character–but that is perhaps what made it so funny. He explained during one of the events that he pushed the character a bit to the extreme so that an audience could recognize him and his problematic misunderstandings of his former home without feeling personally affronted, and as a satire, I think the story works quite well.

All of these authors have been interviewed a great deal since their nominations, including multiple interviews with BBC and other news agencies here in London since they have arrived. For those curious about their own take on the Caine Prize and their own writing, check out these interviews, some of them published before the shortlist was released:

“My Book presents Nigerian stories from another Angle -Ibrahim” with Awwal Gaata in Blueprint.

“The Reader’s Heart is the most important award to win-Abubakar Ibrahim” an Interview with Sumaila Umaisha on Everythin Literature, 19 August 2012

Whispering for More,” an interview with Abubakar Adam Ibrahim by Edozie Udeze and Hannah Ojo

“Two Friends One Prize” an Interview with Elnathan John and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim on Metropole, 1 July 2013

I Wasn’t Expecting the Caine Prize Nomination:  Elnathan John speaks on ‘Conversations with Mercy Abang.’” on Y-Naija, 27 May 2013

“This Week’s Guest: Elnathan John” in Eugenia Abu’s reading column in Sunday Trust, 2 June 2013

“Religion, Morality, and Personal Responsibility: an Interview with Chinelo Okparanta” by Rae Winklestein-Duveneck for The Iowa Review

Emmanuel Sigauke’s interview with Chinelo Okparanta for the Munyori Literary Journal, 22 May 2013

“Interview: Chinelo Okparanta” by Adam Segal for Whole Beast Rag

Interview: Chinelo Okparanta” by Yuka Igarashi for Granta, 10 February 2012

“Cathartic Release: an Interview with Chinelo Okparanta” by Adedamola Mogaji for Saraba

Pede Hollist, 2013 Caine Prize shortlisted writer,” on Vitabu Books.

Tope Folarin Speaks to Nigerians Talk” by Kola Tubosun for Nigerians Talk

“Brittle Paper interviews Caine Prize shortlistee Tope Folarin” 5 June 2013

Below, I will copy the (rather sleep-deprived) column I wrote when the shortlist first came out. I didn’t join the Caine Prize blogger group because I felt I would be too biased, but I did make a few observations about the make-up of the prize:

Nigeria’s Four Caine Prize Nominees

Category: My thoughts exactly
Published on Saturday, 18 May 2013 05:00
Written by Carmen McCain

The last few weeks (as usual) have been full of bad news: the cultists attack in Nasarawa, attacks in Southern Kaduna, continued attacks in the northeast leading to the declaration of emergency rule in Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa. Last week in an article about Kannywood, I talked about the tensions I feel in celebrating film in the midst of so much suffering, but concluded with the thoughts that the multitude of stories coming out of Nigeria are important because they challenge what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the single story.” As the griot in the Dani Kouyate film Keita: the heritage of a griot, said “‘Do you know why the hunter always beats the lion in the stories? If the lion told the stories, he’d win sometimes too.’ [Achebe has also recounted this proverb in Home and Exile.] The logic of the proverb extends even further to the antelope, which is hunted by both the human and the lion. Because when the oppressed, those ‘antelopes’ caught between lion and hunter, tell their own stories and are heard, they have the potential to affect audiences for centuries.” As the news on Nigeria’s security gets worse and worse, there has been a welcome break in the continuing recognition of Nigerian literature on a global stage. On 14 May, the Commonwealth prize announced E.E. Sule as the Africa-region winner of the Commonwealth prize for his novel Sterile Sky (Pearson Education, 2012), a coming of age novel of the son of a policeman growing up in Kano in the midst of crisis [which I was lucky enough to read in manuscript form before it was published]. On 15 May, the Caine Prize for African writing announced their shortlist of five stories nominated for the prestigious short story prize from 96 submissions out of 16 different African countries. Four of the five nominations were for short stories written by Nigerians: “Bayan Layi” first published in Per Contra by Abuja-based Sunday Trust columnist Elnathan John; “Miracle” first published in Transition by Washington D.C. based former Rhodes Scholar Tope Folarin; “The Whispering Trees” first published in the collection of short stories of the same name published by Abuja-based Sunday Trust literary editor and writer Abubakar Adam Ibrahim; and “America” first published in Granta by U.S. based Iowa Writers Workshop graduate Chinelo Okparanta. [Pede Hollist's "Foreign Aid" was the one non-Nigerian offering on the list.] These four nominations come on the heels of Nigerian writer Rotimi Babatunde’s Caine Prize win last year for his story “Bombay’s Republic.”

I was particularly excited about my friends Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and Elnathan John making the short list. Their nominations are poetic justice, following the disappointment both writers suffered in March of last year, when they were invited to the Caine Prize workshop in South Africa. Elnathan was not granted his visa in time to make the trip, while Abubakar made it all the way to Johannesburg before he was turned back by immigration officers during Nigeria’s row with South Africa over the yellow fever vaccine, despite having a valid yellow fever certificate. Both writers were re-invited to the Caine workshop held in Uganda in April of this year, and have now, incredibly, both been shortlisted for the prize this year. I am so proud. (Take that South Africa!) But beyond my personal delight at having two good friends on the list, I am also thrilled that so many Nigerians were shortlisted. It is much needed good news in a time when so much else is wrong. This Caine Prize shortlist, as well as the award of the Commonwealth prize to Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida University, Lapai-based novelist E.E. Sule indicates a new attention to stories coming out of northern Nigeria, which in the past has had much less global visibility than literature coming from the south. To be sure, there is something a little troubling about some of the most prestigious prizes for African writers being granted by European institutions—the NLNG is offering a welcome corrective to that—but all the same the Commonwealth Prize and the Caine Prize are doing good work by bringing attention to some of the most exciting young writers on the continent. It seems symbolic that the title story from Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s collection of short stories The Whispering Trees was honoured, as it was the first book signed and published by exciting new Nigerian publisher Parresia Publishers.  [When Parresia signed The Whispering Trees as their first title, the publisher Richard Ali asked me to come photograph it.] There’s a new generation of writers and publishers bursting on scene.

Richard Ali (left) signs the advance for Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s (right) novel The Whispering Trees, Parresia’s first title. (c) Carmen McCain

Obviously, having two such good friends on the shortlist and having read both stories in manuscript form before publication, it is difficult for me to objectively review the stories this year. However, I will make a few observations from a first reading of all five stories. First, obviously the judges this year were not making decisions about the stories based on issues of representation. Not only did Nigerians dominate the list, but men did as well, with only one of the stories written by a woman, Chinelo Okparanta. Interestingly, all four of the Nigerian stories were told in first person, while Sierra Leonian writer Pede Hollists’s story was told in a satirical third person. As for theme, three of the stories deal in some way with the African immigrant experience in America. Tope Folarin’s charming story “Miracle” is set in a Pentecostal healing service in the United States, although the setting could just as well be in Nigeria. Two of the other stories deal more specifically with the immigrant’s American dream. The one non-Nigerian on the list, Florida-based Sierra Leonian writer Pede Hollist revisits a theme that Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s dealt with in my favourite story from last year’s Caine prize shortlist “La Salle de Depart,” but with a satirical eye: the trials of a returnee from America who comes for a short visit to Sierra Leone and attempts to impress everyone with his lavish gifts. Chinelo Okparanta’s story is told from the other side of the ocean, of how a woman who desires a life in America away from the judgmental eyes of her society,  is able to draw from the environmental disaster of an oil spill in America to persuade a visa officer that she is legitimate applicant. While it touches on gay/lesbian issues similar to last year’s nominee Stanley Kenani’s “Love on Trial,” I thought Okparanta’s story this year was much more sophisticated and nuanced. Although the preceding three short stories all deal, in some way, with the immigrant experience and dreams of living abroad, the stories by Elnathan John and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim deal with the experiences of ordinary people living, loving, and managing in northern Nigeria. Elnathan John’s “Bayan Layi” is a first person story told from the eyes of a young almajiri caught up in Kaduna election violence. Making skillful use of Hausa terminology and codeswitching between English and Hausa, it beautifully captures the voice of a street-child. Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s “The Whispering Trees” tells the story of a young man’s journey towards accepting the terrible effects of a car accident. Unlike any of the other stories this year, however, his story takes a mystical turn that reminds me of South American magical realism.
I hope to write more about these stories and other works by these authors in the future. But in the meantime, I hope readers will go to the Caine prize website [www.caineprize.com] and read the stories for themselves. Let me know what you think. A big congratulations to all of the writers who made it this year.

The Caine Prize, the “Tragic Continent”, and the Politics of the “Happy African Story”

Behind as usual in posting on this blog, I’m going to jump back in (with minimal apologies about my absence and the usual promises to catch up) with my most recent article, published today, “The Caine Prize, the Tragic Continent, and the Politics of the Happy African Story.” Here, I engage with British novelist, and the 2012 chair of judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing, Bernadine Evaristo’s  ideas expressed, in an essay on the Caine Prize blog, on what a new African literature should look like. (If you don’t want to read my long, half memoir, half academic preface to the article, just skip down to the photo to read my article and other responses to Evaristo’s article by other Nigerian writers.)

A Preface:

Some of the issues I brought up in the piece have been haunting me for years, as I have struggled with my identity as a white American who moved as a child to Nigeria with my parents and have since occupied the privileged position of the global wanderer. As an undergraduate, I wrote a creative senior thesis of collected  poems,  which I introduced with an essay, “Writing Home.” I wrote that  I had  become “a member of a certain community of writers,” perhaps best expressed  by expatriate Indian writer Salman Rushdie in his essay“Imaginary Homelands”:

It may be that writers in my position, exiles or emigrants or expatriates, are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt. But if we do look back, we must also do so in the knowledge–which gives rise to profound uncertainties–that our physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind. . . . (Imaginary Homelands 10)

At age 21, on the cusp of my adult life, I was relieved by the idea of not having to choose a place to be rooted. I found home in the metaphoric space of the trans-Atlantic flight, writing,

Perhaps more than any other place, I have felt at home on airplanes.  There, I do not have to claim one piece of soil but rather every place we fly over. Sometimes, at night, I wake up and crave being on an airplane, any airplane, but specifically a transatlantic one: the familiar feel of take off, being pressed into the cushions, my suddenly sleepy eyes seeing through an oval pane of plastic the land stretched out beneath me. The rain forest of Lagos, the desert of Kano, the lights of New York or Atlanta, the misty clouds of London or Amsterdam slowly drop away and look like maps, or aerial photographs. I love to fly through the clouds, which make odd airy sculptures, or at night to press my cheek against the cold window and with a blanket over my head gaze up at the stars: constellations which can be seen from three different continents. Orion, I can see in America, England, and Nigeria. But somehow from a plane, the patterns are even more brilliant, closer, larger, and almost tangible through the frosty pane.

As I grow older and as I pour much of my focus into the study of Hausa literature and film, which is often neglected in studies of Nigerian literature (often focused on English-language literature), I have become more troubled about issues of privilege and my own problematic position, as one who, by virtue of my American passport, has access to world travel and research grants and privileged treatment in Nigeria that most Nigerians do not have. My lifestyle, in a way, is made possible by the immobility of others. I now deconstruct my earlier romantic notions of being able to claim “every place we fly over.” Now, when I read Simon Kuper’s essay “Take the plunge and emigrate,” which argues from a similar unrooted position, my reaction is less celebratory.  I ask–as the youth of the West roam free, what does this mean for the places and the people where they decide to settle?

As I work on my PhD dissertation, I mull over Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s often misunderstood essay “Can the Subaltern Speak” and the various ways she has revisited the topic since her first presentation of it in 1983.  In a 2010 response to other scholars’ engagement with the question, she clarified that her “point was not to say that they couldn’t speak, but that, when someone did try to do something different, it could not be acknowledged because there was no institutional validation” (2010: 228).   In thinking about the field of postcolonial studies, in which I locate my own research, I have become increasingly concerned by the full-scale celebration of cosmopolitanism, hybridity, migration, and diaspora so prevalent in the field, the happily ambivalent identity of “in between” that I reveled in as I wrote my senior thesis.

It’s not that I don’t think the concepts are useful. They are–on many levels. And, of course, postcolonial scholars theorize them in much more sophisticated ways than I did as an undergraduate attempting to claim a hybrid identity. But I have become more concerned about the ways that these theories of hybridity, et al. sometimes gloss over class issues and privilege the experience of the “diaspora” intellectual over the experience of the so-called “subaltern” left at home. The problem is one of framing, that the voices most often heard by a global media and global academia are those situated in the cosmopolitan centres of the West.

Spivak is useful in helping think through these issues. On the one hand, as a postcolonial intellectual situated in a powerful American ivy league university and often counted as one of the Big Three postcolonial theorists (Spivak, Said, and Bhaba), she is also complicit in this privileging of expatriate voices. Indian intellectuals, Rahsmi Bhatnager, Lola Chatterjee, and Rajeshwari Sunder Rajen based at Jawaharlal Nehru University, point out, in a 1987 interview,  “Perhaps the relationship of distance and proximity between you and us is that what we write and teach has political and other actual consequences for us that are in a sense different from the consequences or lack of consequences for you.” I would also argue that the abstruse language which Spivak chooses to make her arguments, which could otherwise be quite politically powerful, limit their discussion mainly to other academics.

On the other hand, she constantly questions her own positions and ideas, in a way that any scholar or writer who has privileged access to travel and funding, must do. While bemoaning the institutions which are often deaf to the voice of the subaltern, she has also become personally involved in learning from those she defines as “subaltern” and thinking through ways in which they can be empowered through education. 

Much theory, I’m beginning to understand, is dependent on positioning and audience.While living in the U.S. and teaching introductory African studies to American students, I was (and still am) quite sensitive about negative portrayals of Africa–the barrage of images of flies and dirt and poverty and ads from charities that always featured tears trembling in the eyes or the snot running out of the nose of some ragged African child. I would open my classes by having students read Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How to Write about Africa,” then juxtaposing that with a few Naija music videos. If I find myself teaching in America again, I may pair Wainaina’s essay with Teju Cole’s “The White Savior Industrial Complex.”

When, last month, I reviewed Abidemi Sanusi’s gut-wrenching novel Eyo, that was nominated for a Commonwealth Prize in 2010, I felt the tension between being a postcolonial critic whose institution is located in the United States and being a resident of Nigeria, where I become ever conscious of the many abuses that Nigerians constantly talk about. On the one hand as I read Eyo, I thought, hey, Nigerians look really bad in this book. On the other hand, I thought–Sanusi is exposing the horrific underworld of human trafficking and manages to humanize every character in it–a striking accomplishment. (Read my review here.)

My reaction to Evaristo’s statements, then, came out of all of this mulling about ideas of privilege, positioning and audience, as well as from some mind-stretching conversations with writer friends who live here in Nigeria.  [UPDATE 13 May 2012: Let me just further clarify, that I think that writers in Africa or anywhere else in the world should write whatever they like in whatever style and whatever language that they like. My main point in the essay below is basically combating what seems to me to be a certain amount of prescriptiveness in telling African writers (especially those living on the continent) “how to write about Africa.” Telling writers not to write about suffering just follows up on older instruction to writers to write about the nation or to write about politics.  South African writer Njabulo Ndebele, in Rediscovery of the Ordinary, similarly protests the imperative of the “spectacular” in South African writing, arguing for more representation of the daily struggles of ordinary people to try to make their lives as normal as possible–which he calls an “active social consciousness.” I am not trying to defend those writers who cynically exploit suffering in order to become popular with non-African readers–it does happen–I’ve read it–and I’m not a fan. I dislike sensationalism and pandering to a Western audience as much as the next critic, and I agree with Ndebele (and with Evaristo if this is what she was saying) that there should be more focus on ordinary life. My main point is that I think we must be careful about saying that writing that depicts suffering is necessarily “pandering.” Ndebele points out that the spectacular writing that grew up in South Africa was in response to the almost surreal conditions people found themselves in. To say that writing that reacts to one’s environment is meant for Western audiences falls into the same trap that Graham Huggan falls into in his book The Post-colonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins.  Huggan  implicates the field of postcolonial literary production and publishing as well as the academic field of postcolonial studies in capitalist structures of selling exoticism. Yet, in his rush to denounce the Western reader of “exotic” postcolonial literature, he only briefly acknowledges in a few caveats that that the readers “by no means form a homogenous or readily identifiable consumer group” (30), almost completely glossing over the reader of postcolonial literature in formerly colonized locations. Stating that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart “implicitly address[es] a Western model reader who is constructed as an outsider to the text and to the cultural environment(s) it represents” (2000, 46), he seems to have completely missed Achebe’s defense that “African writers who have chosen to write in English or French are not unpatriotic smart alecs, with an eye on the main chance outside their countries” but are indeed writing for heterogenous peoples of different languages and cultures that make up “the new nation-states of Africa” (1965, 344). In this article, then, I try to point out that to focus so obsessively on the reaction of a Western audience, when many writers are writing out of their own experiences that include love and laughter and tenderness in addition to moments of suffering and are usually thinking of readers closer to home, is to put almost impossible strictures on the writer. Let the writer write what she wants.  If that happens to be science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, crime fiction (and I’m a HUGE fan of Nazir Adam Salih’s fantasy and crime fiction written in Hausa, in addition to the more scathing and sensational social critique of writers like Balaraba Ramat Yakubu ),  great. If that happens to be more straightforward realistic narrative based out of the writer’s own experiences, this too is important writing.

To read my original article as it was published, click on the photo below to be taken to a readable version. Otherwise, scroll below the photo, to read the article with references hyperlinked. Following the article, I have copied a few of the responses I got on facebook from writer/artist friends when I asked for reactions to Evaristo’s essay. (Responses reproduced by permission of authors)

[UPDATE 3 July 2012: I'm honoured that this blog post was mentioned in Stephen Derwent Partington's East African article "More Responsibilities than bonuses for the African Writer," in which he summarizes what I was trying to say much better than I did, myself. A former professor of mine, Peter Kerry Powers also engaged with my article on his own blog. ]

The Caine Prize, the Tragic Continent, and the Politics of the Happy African Story

Written by Carmen McCain Saturday, 12 May 2012 05:00

 On 23 April 2012, the chair of judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing, British-Nigerian writer Bernadine Evaristo wrote a blog post about selecting the soon to be released short-list: “I’m looking for stories about Africa that enlarge our concept of the continent beyond the familiar images that dominate the media: War-torn Africa, Starving Africa, Corrupt Africa – in short: The Tragic Continent. [… W]hile we are all aware of these negative realities, and some African writers have written great novels along these lines (as was necessary, crucial), isn’t it time now to move on?” Her critique of “stereotypical” African stories is similar to those made by other African writers, such as Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina in “How To Write About Africa” and Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole in “The White Savior Industrial Complex.” Her opinion piece also invokes previous critiques of the Caine prize. Last year columnist Ikhide R. Ikheloa wrote, “Aided by some needy ‘African’ writers, Africa is being portrayed as an issues-laden continent that is best viewed on a fly-infested canvas.”

I share these concerns about dehumanizing images of Africa. When living and teaching in the U.S., I tried to “enlarge” my American students “concept of the continent” by emphasizing exciting current trends in African fashion, music, and movies, as well as the daily lives of ordinary people. My aim was much like that of Samantha Pinto, one of the other Caine Prize judges who blogged this week: “I hope as a teacher that my students learn to carry some of these beautifully crafted stories into a much larger conversation about Africa than the one that exists in mainstream American media.” My own scholarly interest in Hausa popular literature and film began precisely because I was enchanted by the love stories and tales of everyday life consumed by popular audiences but largely ignored by African literary scholarship preoccupied with grand narratives of the nation.

However, I admit that as I read Evaristo’s comments, I felt a tension between her impatient charge to “move on” past representations of suffering, and the context of currently living in northern Nigeria, where people leave their homes daily knowing that they could be blown up or shot at by unknown gunmen. Only two weeks ago in Kano, an attack on churches that met on Bayero University’s old campus killed dozens of university students and professors, the very cosmopolitan middle class often celebrated by writers abroad, and more bombs were found planted around campus. Suffering is not limited to bombs, as I was reminded when recently attending a church in Jos. Pointing to a dramatic decrease in tithes and offerings as evidence of hard times, an elder sought prayer for those who lost their livelihoods in the Plateau State’s demolition campaign of “illegal structures” and would lose more in the recently-announced motorcycle ban.

Kaduna-based writer Elnathan John, in a conversation with other African writers on Facebook (quoted by permission), wrote that writers should be more concerned with the quality of the writing than in dictating to other writers the correct topics to write about.  “When I am told to tell a happy African story,” He said, “I ask, why? Where I live, EVERYTHING is driven by fear of conflict, bomb blasts, and daylight assassinations unreported by the media. Every kilometer of road has a checkpoint like those in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Now, I am a writer writing my realities. […]Our problems in Africa will not disappear when we stop writing about them.”

While not every place in Nigeria is bomb-torn and certainly not every story from as big and complex a continent as Africa must reflect such tragedies, a predicament remains that Kano-based writer Abdulaziz A. Abdulaziz identified in a Facebook conversation with me. While agreeing with Evaristo on the need to move past stereotypes, he wrote, “There is a dilemma here; what do Africans have to export again. For me, African contemporary artists have no better theme than corruption and bad governance as the main issues dominant in our everyday life[…]”

Elnathan John continued, “A lot of the Happy Africa story activists live outside the continent. Not that I begrudge them anything, but it is easier to dictate to people living a reality when you don’t know or live that reality. […] Every Sunday morning (in many Northern States), we expect a bomb or a shooting spree. People who live in Maiduguri even have it worse. Their entire lives are ruled by violence and chaos. Nigerians, like Zimbabweans (and many other African countries suffering decay and violence) do not have the luxury of Always writing about beach house romances. Our problems are too real, too present, too big to be wiped out from our stories.”

Thus, while we can all identify with Evaristo’s frustrations in how Africa is misread by the West, her first flawed assumption seems to be that African writers who write tragic settings are not writing of their own experiences but rather pandering to a Western audience that expects to hear about tragedy. To say we must “move on” past stories of hardship suggests to those who are suffering that their stories don’t matter—that such stories are no longer fashionable. Writers who live amidst suffering are in the unfortunate position of inhabiting an inconvenient stereotype. They are silenced by threats of terrorists inside the country and by the disapproval of cosmopolitan sophisticates outside.

Such literary prescription begins to feel like Dora Akunyili’s erstwhile rebranding campaign—a luxury of those who do not want to be embarrassed while abroad, which does little to solve the problems on the ground. Although Evaristo asks, “are too many African writers writing for the approval of non-African readerships”?, her admonition to avoid stories of suffering seems to be just as implicated in seeking the approval of  those “big, international markets in Europe and America”. Directly after she asks “to what extent does published African fiction pander to received notions about the continent, and at what cost?” , she argues, “For African fiction to remain more than a passing fad on the world stage, it needs to diversify more than it does at present. What about crime fiction, science fiction, fantasy, horror, more history, chick lit?”

Now, I love science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction et al, and know of African writers, including Evaristo, who are doing exciting things with these genres, especially in African languages, but Evaristo’s focus on the “world stage” reveals her second problematic assumption—that the most important readers of African literature reside outside of Africa. It is a reminder that though the Caine prize is awarded to “African writing”, it is still based in London.

Last week, overwhelmed by the attacks on Bayero University, I printed reader responses to  an earlier article on film rather than writing about the tragedy. Afterwards, one of my readers chastised me for writing about film rather than about what the “army are doing to our people.” While, like Evaristo, I defend my right to talk about a diversity of subjects, the comment reminded me that there is a large reading public here in Nigeria looking for writing that is relevant to their lives. It also made me think of my dear friend, Hausa novelist, Sa’adatu Baba Ahmad’s refrain that for her “literature is a mirror to society.” That every conversation these days seems to return to bombs and shootings does not mean that people do not laugh or joke or gossip or dream or love.  Indeed, I believe that the best writing captures the humour, the humanity, and the gossip alongside the backdrop of suffering.

So, by all means let us, as Evaristo appeals, have new genres, new styles, that are “as  diverse as, for example, European literature and its myriad manifestations” Let us have “thousands of disparate, published writers, with careers at every level and reaching every kind of reader.” But let us also be true, let us be relevant. And let us not, in pursuit of a global recognition, erase the voices of ordinary people, who so often bear up under immense suffering with grace and humour. For it is these stories of survival that give us the most direction in how to navigate an increasingly terrifying world.

Fin

While writing the article, I asked my friends on Facebook what they thought of Evaristo’s article. Some of them responded after I had already turned in the article, so I asked their permission to republish their comments here. See them copied below. [Update 13 May 2012: The quotes in the above article from Elnathan John, who writes a popular satirical column for Daily Times and short stories on a wide variety of themes, including facebook and middle class love in Nigeria as well as darker issues based on current events, came from comments on another writer's page. They were part of a larger discussion in which he was expressing frustration at writers telling other writers what to write. He was insisting, like other writers I've seen in conversation, that he should have the freedom to write about whatever he likes, and that themes and topics in writing will change over time in response to what is relevant.  Following his statement that "Our problems are too real, too present, too big to be wiped out from our stories," he says, "In the end, like you say: 'Just tell me whether my work is good or bad. That conversation, I am very happy to have.'"]

Kano-based writer Abdulaziz A. Abdulaziz reacted positively to Evaristo’s essay, but still noted the tension between writing stereotypes and writing about ongoing problems:

I agree with Evaristo. It is indeed time to move on. For example, isnt it shameful that in 2012, a story about second World War is making the list? I think African writers have rendered so many themes to cliches. Why, for example, should we still be reading novels about Biafra or the mau mau guerilla war in Kenya? On another pedestal, it is indeed ironic that Africans complain about stereotypical depiction of a grotesque Africa by non-African writers, the same African writers are not doing any better. It is just like feminists lambasting gory representation of women yet they go about writing about naive women and prostitutes! Even the classical Achebe, according to some acidic critics, did no better than Conrad regarding the image of Africa. However, there is a dilemma here; what do Africans have to export again? For me African contemporary artist has no better theme than corruption and bad governance, as the main issues dorminant on our everyday life especially since we all fed from Achebe, Armah, Ngugi and Ousmane who instructed us to responsive to the society.

May 8 at 12:57pm ·

I responded to Abdulaziz:

Hi Abdulaziz, just to jump in here a bit (before hitting the road to a conference and then hopefully checking again later tonight). I liked Evaristo’s call for new themes and genres–I’d love to see more African science fiction etc–, but I was troubled by what felt like a prescription to “move on” past depictions of suffering, when as you note that there is corruption, bad governance, and currently bombs etc going off around us. If one writes what one knows than it seems to me that it would be difficult and even escapist NOT to write about some of these things. (That said, one can metaphorically write about things in non-cliched ways in new genres etc) It felt to me that in her appeal to move past “stereotypes” about Africa, she was still appealing to African writers to please or “teach” a Western audience rather than responding to the preoccupations of one’s own society. As for writing about Biafra or WWII etc, I don’t really have a problem with that because I think these topics actually have not been explored enough. I’ve never actually read African fiction about the experience of African WWII soldiers, so I actually thought that story was refreshing and new.

Ukamaka Olisakwe, whose novel On the Eyes of a goddess was recently released, responded passionately:
Have we moved on, or have we only moved onto a new level of ignorance and stupidity?Should I write about a beautiful Africa? Should I distort the truth just so to satisfy some school of thought that frown at the continuous dent on the ‘inglorious’ African image.Last time I listened in on the conversation of intellectuals. They were thoroughly fed up with stories of suffering Africa; of child soldiers, abused women and children, of wars and corruption. African writers should move on, should tell flurry stories: chicklit, thrillers, comedy, commercial fiction, etc etc, they said. I agree, some stories have been told over and over again, like a clothe washed for too long, until it began splitting at the seams. Yes, I do not want to read anymore of Biafra stories- that have been well documented. Instead I wish to learn new details about that war from the Nigerian side. I want to read a biography of Chukwuemeka Odimegwu Ojukwu. I want to know how he felt years after he made that declaration. Did he feel regret or fulfillment? I want to learn new details, information, that hadn’t been brought under the sun.But should we, writers, move on and desist from telling it as it is. A new war is on in Nigeria, a kind that could gradually wipe the fragments that we are. Should writers ignore this salient moment, or begin to please those who think they know better?I refuse to be conned into that, because at the end of the day, you end up just satisfying those sect, and also, definitely, writing another single story of Africa. I say, write about Africa the way she is, the way you see her: beautiful, sad, hungry, raped, beaten, classy, sexy, girlie, scholastic! Be eclectic dammit! But do not tell lies and do not leave out important details that matter. I can’t wrap my suffering and malnourished mother in colourful wrappers, adorn her neck with heavy, priceless gems, so that outsiders would marvel at her supposed beauty, but only to strip her at home and let her to more suffering and wretchedness. That would be a sham, a badly written fiction. Each day we are slapped with our gory reality. We – or rather – I, will not write what I don’t see. Writers are torch-bearers, those who would document each moment in history for posterity. We need change, and to attain that position, we must keep screaming until our cries pierce the deafest of ears. We have the worst leaders in the third worlds – those that are so blind and misguided we are bereft of words, adjectives, to qualify the alarming shame. We just weep. They roam about their sand castles, kings that they are, ruining the lives of many, and I’m supposed to turn a blind eye? Funny.I refuse to lie about her(Africa) state. I will write about her the way I see her. If you see her differently, then write her that way.

Abdulaziz responded:
Way to go Uka. What a spirited response. I concur. No to a Potemskin village: a beautiful facade to an ugly house.

And finally, after I posted the article copied above, writer and visual artist Temidayo Odutokun responded:
I shared the link and posted that ” We cannot write or make art of what we do not experience, but when we choose subject matter, let us have them reflect the unpleasant things as well as the joys of our society buried in layers of the rubble that we see piling on everyday.” [...] For even when we make imaginative art or fiction, materials are gotten from experiences we have had or heard of or seen happen to other people or a combination of all these. However while we tell of the general hardship that is the dominant issue in our society we could put in same weave, the little joys and pleasantness that punctuate our struggling through, daily; The things that help us catch our breath; The things that cushion the heartache that comes from reading of these things or seeing them in other forms of art like visual or performing, for those too are part of the reality.

The Strange Poisonous Fruit of Hate: South Africa, Nigeria, and the world

Here is last week’s column, “The Strange Poisonous Fruit of Hate.” I wrote it in a very scattered state of mind. At times, there was gunfire in the background which punctuated my own emotional turmoil. I’m afraid my attention span manifests itself in the piece, which jumps around a bit, but which perhaps gives a feeling of Jos following the St. Finbarr’s Catholic church bombing in Rayfield and the tragic ‘reprisal’ attacks that followed–as well as my increasing horror at the hatred I see creeping out on little cockroach feet to infest the world.

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (left) with his publisher at Parresia, Richard Ali (right). A friend is in the background. (c)CM

I had been planning to write a piece on my personal boycott of South Africa, following the  deportation of around 150 Nigerians (125 initially and more thereafter) from the Johannesburg airport for supposed irregular yellow card certificates. I had spent the week before agonizing with my friends Elnathan John, a blogger with Daily Times whose most recent short story has been published in ZAM Magazine, and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, the literary editor for Sunday Trust whose collection of short stories The Whispering Trees is forthcoming from Parresia Press. (For a taste of their work, see Abubakar’s story “Closure” and Elnathan’s story “Your Man” both published in Sentinel Nigeria, edited by Richard Ali.) Elnathan and Abubakar had been two of the twelve African writers invited for the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing workshop to be held in South Africa this year. (The Caine Prize for African short stories is sometimes called the African Booker, and luminaries like Helon Habila and Binyavanga Wainaina have been among the recipients of the prize.)

Elnathan John in Abuja. (c) CM

Elnathan had applied for his visa over a month earlier but, because of a technicality regarding a deadline he was not told about for paying a N110,000 ‘repatriation fee’ that South Africa requires many Nigerians to pay before granting them visas, his visa was delayed until 3 days after he had supposed to travel the trip had to be cancelled.  Abubakar was able to get the visa in time but when he got to Johannesburg was told that his yellow fever certificate (which he had gotten following an inoculation in the Abuja Airport port health office) did not have the manufacturer’s batch number, and he was sent back to Lagos.  (Abubakar describes his travails in this article in Sunday Trust). Ironically, the day Abubakar was sent back, Elnathan got a call from the visa office saying that he should come pay the N110,000 visa fee. (He declined.)

Following this outrage, I determined to boycott South Africa. South Africa businesses make billions of naira in Nigeria (the largest market in Africa for South African businesses like MTN and DSTV), yet they continue to treat Nigerians with disrespect. In 2005, Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, incidentally one of the patrons of the Caine Prize,was held at the airport for over nine hours. (see here and here).

My Boycott: My phone had been slowly dying for about a year (and I had been stubbornly putting up with it.) But upon my resolve to boycott South African businesses, I took the opportunity to buy a new two-sim card phone and along with it a new glo line to gradually replace my MTN line. I also recently switched over from MTN internet to Glo (a Nigerian company), which gives more bandwidth and is cheaper. So far, I have been very pleased. Although the Thursday (8 March) after the deportations, South Africa’s foreign minister came out with a humble apology, later followed by an apology from South African President Zuma himself, the apology was too late for both Elnathan and Abubakar who missed the Caine workshop. Neither does South Africa seem to have any plans to compensate the nearly 150 visitors who were sent back to Nigeria by over-zealous immigration officials. Although I have long been invested in an “Africa without Borders” and while I am pleased with the apologies from the South African government over the diplomatic incident, I think this is an appropriate time to challenge the hegemony of  South Africa’s businesses on the continent.

As I was writing my column, I was struggling with a bit of cognitive dissonance over my belligerence to South Africa vs my plea for peace in Nigeria. I didn’t get into that in the column, but I think I can settle my internal inconsistencies by thinking about inequitable power structures. Diplomatic relations between two sovereign nations are quite a different matter than people taking justice into their own hands.

As usual, to read my column, you can click on the photo below to be taken to a readable version of the original, or you can scroll down below the photo to read it on my blog (with lots of links added).

The strange, poisonous fruit of hate

 Written by Carmen McCain Saturday, 17 March 2012 05:00

 It’s a little before midnight on Monday, the day after the bombing at St. Finbar’s Catholic church in Jos. There was automatic gunfire a few hours earlier and I am having trouble concentrating on anything. I turn on the TV and Centurion is on. It is a film about a group of Roman soldiers fleeing a band of indigenous warrior Celts in ancient Britain. The movie is violent. Arrows thunk into the chests of soldiers. One Roman soldier betrays another, stabbing him so that he becomes bait for the wolves pursuing them, while the other man escapes. During an interlude, I hear, in my own world of Jos 2012, what sounds like the shouts of spectators at a football match. I know it is not football. I turn down the volume on the TV to listen. Onscreen, Romans soundlessly slam Celt faces into log walls. Celts stab spears through Roman bellies. Outside I can hear the rumble of an angry mob, then gunfire.

This week I had planned to write about xenophobia in South Africa. About how two of my friends, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and Elnathan John were unable to attend the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing workshop that was to hold from March 5 to 15. Elnathan’s visa, for which he had applied at the beginning of February, was delayed until the travel date passed. Abubakar got the visa on time but was turned back at the Johannesburg airport because the immigration officials claimed he didn’t have the manufacturer’s number on his yellow fever certificate—even though he had been inoculated and received the certificate from the port authority in the Abuja airport. I spent the week furious at South Africa, which makes billions of naira in Nigeria from businesses like MTN and DSTV, and from Nigerian films on the Africa Magic channels, yet still treats Nigerians with such disrespect. South Africa eventually apologized for deporting around 150 Nigerians over the yellow fever issue. It was an appropriate gesture, but the apology came too late for my friends to represent Nigeria at the Caine workshop. I went ahead and bought a new phone SIM card from a Nigerian company and made it my main line. My ideal is an Africa without borders, but following South Africa’s display of contempt, I prefer to support Nigerian businesses.

Now Tuesday, it is still hard to concentrate. I read Internet news all day long. Hatred hangs in the air, a suffocating grey smog creeping along the earth. It is pathological, infectious. In South Africa, the poisonous structures of apartheid have been internalized and then erupt into violence. Xenophobic riots in May 2008 killed 62. Last week the hatred showed a more refined face, a more polite aggression. Uniformed immigration officials smiled cold professional smiles, while expelling Nigerians from their country.

But it is in Nigeria too. The hate. Writing in the Daily Times, Ademola Thomas Olanrewaju points out that Nigerians discriminate against each other much the same way South Africans discriminated against them. He cites how Fashola ‘deported beggars to their respective states’—how states all over Nigeria discriminate against so-called non-indigenes. Much of the violence in the country grows out of notions that people should stay in the land of their great grandfather’s origin or else live as second class citizens. This hatred also seems to be one of the factors behind the violence of Boko Haram, who have spoken about their plans to drive Christians, even those who are indigenes, out of the north and who tolerate no one except those who share their own purist ideals. Those claiming to be Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad raze schools, shoot up mosques, bomb churches, police stations, soldier barracks, the UN headquarters. [A partial UN list of attacks up to 20 January 2012 here.] Leadership reported the story of a former member of Boko Haram who attempted to flee the sect in Maiduguri by running to Kaduna with his fiancée only to be found by them in Kaduna and carted away to unknown tortures.

In her classic science fiction novel A Wrinkle in Time, Madeline L’Engle writes of our planet as being covered by a dark shadow of evil. The shadow feeds on hatred. It covers the globe and is lodged like shrapnel in every human. After the bombs went off at the COCIN church in Jos two weeks ago and then at St. Finbar’s Catholic church last Sunday, cyclical revenge violence killed nearly as many innocent people as the bombs had. In my own country of origin, the United States, politics has become a cynical game of pitting those who claim purist American and Christian ideals against everyone else. The toxins enter the soil, and strange fruits grow out. The Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik praised anti-Islamic American bloggers Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer and others in the Internet manifesto he wrote before he killed 77 people. Since Breivik’s bombing and shooting, other bloggers have praised this self-confesssed killer as a patriot. [See for example, this one] In America’s war of revenge after 9-11, the poison entered the armed forces as it does in most wars, driving soldiers mad. Out of a jingoistic military culture grew the American torture in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Most recently an American soldier in Afghanistan went berserk, going out in the middle of the night to slaughter 17 Afghan civilians asleep in their homes.

Violence feeds violence. Hatred feeds hatred. Living in a violent environment, we are all traumatized. We feel helpless. Striking out against those perceived to be on the ‘other side’ seems to be the only thing we can do. Our first reactions are those of mistrust. But the only way out of this is to reach across boundaries to those who are as hurt and confused as we are—refusing to demonize the ‘other’. In the midst of all of the bad news, my father forwarded me some encouraging stories. On March 12, the Kaduna youth wing of the Christian Association of Nigeria and the Northern Youth Muslim Forum met to pray together and break the Christian Lent fast together. According to Leadership, the CAN youth chairman Diji Obadiah Haruna said that the breaking of Lent fast with Muslims was continuing a tradition that had been halted by crisis: “Our quest to bring back the true spirit of togetherness has given birth to an association that will foster unity between Muslim and Christian faithful […] Love is the key […] The more you plan for progress, definitely, the more some obstacles will come your way. But I believe we will conquer those evils that do not wish us well.” Likewise, the National President of the African Youths for Conflict Resolution, who led the Muslim delegation, Dr. Suleiman Shu’aibu Shinkafi said, “I urge us all to respect each other’s religion and to stop the incessant killings and bombings or any act of terrorism against each other through whatever name that both Christian and Muslim doctrine has disowned. ‘We pray that God will expose those who want to see us apart and may God continue to join us together in his glory and mercy.’”

The actions of Christian and Muslim youth in Kaduna offer a glimmer of hope in troubled times. But beyond formal meetings, we need to rebuild those informal friendships across faith and ethnic boundaries that are often interrupted in times of crisis. It is in these personal relationships that we recognize that the ‘other’, so easily labeled as an enemy, is actually a brother or sister. It is only by this sort of unity that we will be able to rebuild Nigeria, Africa, and the world.