Tag Archives: My Thoughts Exactly

My Thoughts Exactly: Year Three in Review

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

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

My Thoughts Exactly: Year Three in Review

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

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

Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

English: Chinua Achebe speaking at Asbury Hall...

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

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

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

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

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

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

The McCain family sometime in the 1990s

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

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

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

25 Years in Nigeria (the writerly version)

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

25 Years in Nigeria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 January 2013 A thoughtful review on President Blink-Blink

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hajiya Balaraba Ramat Yakubu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Darkness only Love can Drive out: the COCIN church bombing, Jos, on 26 February 2012

A COCIN church newsletter on the ground outside the church gates after the bomb blast. (c)CM

 

(This is written 19 March 2012 but time-stamped earlier for blog organization purposes)As I describe in my Weekly Trust column

Onlookers at the COCIN headquarters church the evening after the bombing. (c)CM

below, I was not far from the bomb blast at the COCIN headquarters Church on 26 February 2012, the first suicide bombing in Jos. (Since then, there has been another suicide bomb on March 11, at St. Finbarr’s Catholic Church in Rayfield) It literally shook me out of bed at around 7:15am. Later in the day after things had calmed down a bit, I went to the church and took a few photos. You can access the album, here. I had not planned to actually go into the compound so I went with a zoom lens that made it difficult to get much perspective once I did end up going into the church compound. This, as I wrote on Facebook that evening, is what I saw and some of the rumours I heard that day (some of them false–for example–tragically one of the men misidentified as a bomber and beaten to death was actually a church member):

Ok, before I go climb into my bed, an update. Jos is calm and quiet. I was able to pay a brief visit to the COCIN church this evening, and this is what I saw: lots of people in the compound taking a look. First, the initial description someone gave on Al-Jazeera this morning was incorrect. The bomber did not drive into the church towards the pulpit. The car entered the compound with three men in the car (how exactly he entered is still murky to me as I’ve heard different versions from people who were at the church shortly before the blasts). Somehow two of the men got out of the car and the driver sped towards the church building. Apparently the car detonated a few metres from the back of the church [...]I saw the crater where the car exploded, which had filled up with scattered church bulletins. The damage is not as dramatic as you would expect from the kind of sound that came out of the explosion. The church is currently under construction with wooden scaffolding all around it, so it is hard to tell the extent of the damage, but what I saw seemed to be a crack in the wall in the back, and a small portion that was blown off, which might perhaps cause structural problems. No part of the church, however, was collapsing. Neither did any of the pews in the church seem to have been burnt or displaced, though they were covered in dust from the explosion. The most notable things were the parts from the suicide bombers car that were scattered all over the

One of the wheels of the car carrying the suicide bomber. (c)CM

compound. There was a tire lodged into the back pew of the church. There was an engine somewhere else and another tire that went around the side, the fusilage elsewhere. There was what looked like an orange plastic water tank that seemed to have been torn apart. Apparently earlier in the day, the bombers body parts were also strewn around, but fortunately, I did not see that. The other notable thing was that windows as far as a 2-3 blocks away were blown out. All of the cars in the parking lot outside of the church had their windows blown out and a few of the ones closest to the church were blackened and a little melted from the blast. The windows in the 4-5 story COCIN headquarters office building were mostly blown out. There was shattered glass everywhere.[...] As far as casualties, I’m not sure, but what I heard earlier in the day was that 3 church members died on the spot, and 3 more died in the hospital later. There could be more, but I don’t have any way to verify that.

It took me until the next Sunday to walk around in the neighborhood near the church and realize the extent of damage that had been done in reprisal violence. The fruit sellers in front of the First Bank down the street from the church told me that they heard the blast and saw the dust cloud. When the mob ran down the street, they ran away, and the mob burnt or looted all their merchandise. The mob also burnt a Muslim owned restaurant and other shops in the area. I went to give my condolences to the men selling spare parts across from the Mobile station in that area, and he told me that the morning of the bomb they had been at the house down the street where some Muslim women have a business selling masa and miya every morning in front of their house, waiting for the ladies to finish frying the masa for breakfast. When the bomb went off, a mob came and they all ran away. Not only did the mob burn all the businesses around but they also burned down the house of the women who sold the masa and miya every morning. I had bought food from them before, and I knew most of the Hausa business people in the area. This I think is when the devastation really hit home to me–the bomb was bad enough, but then the human desire for retaliation resulted in far more innocent people suffering.

Before reading my article “The Darkness only Love can Drive out” (to read the hard copy click on the photo below, or scroll down for a blog version with links), if you are interested in reading the stories of some of the other victims, here is the sad story of Hajara, who fled Boko Haram in Yobe only to be killed in the Jos COCIN church bombing, and Grace, a Sunday School teacher. Her family tell of how she was born prematurely and they see the years they had with her as God’s blessing.

The darkness only love can drive out

Written by Carmen McCain Saturday, 03 March 2012 05:00

 I was in Jos and staying with friends in town. Sunday morning, I had been hitting snooze on my phone alarm for an hour. At around 7:15am, I was just about to get out of bed to prepare for church, when it happened. The gritty boom that made the house shake.  “JESUS,” I shrieked in a brief instinctual prayer, and leapt out of bed, swatting at the mosquito net that tangled around me.

I had heard the bombs at the football viewing centres in December. They had an echoing, reverberating sound. This was more immediate. It sounded like rocks and metal crunching. When I stepped into the hallway, grit from the ceiling had fallen down over everything. Outside, thousands of bats were in the sky. The morning sun was bright.

Of course, we knew exactly what it was, when the sound shook the house. In those few seconds it took me to untangle myself from the mosquito netting, I knew it was a bomb, and that it was at one of the churches somewhere nearby.

When the bombs and the gun battles were exploding in in Kano, Bauchi, Yobe, Borno, Kaduna, and Gombe, Jos had remained unnaturally calm. In January, refugees from Yobe had fled to Jos. I joked that the city had temporarily gone back to being the ‘home of peace and tourism’. Of course we had known it was only a matter of time.

In the house we prayed and read the Psalms. My mother kept calling. A Nigerian friend called from the UK. As my shakiness subsided, I drank tea, sent text messages, went online to check for news.

Around 9:30am I began to smell smoke. Strange, I thought, that I hadn’t smelled it before when the bomb had gone off. Outside, there were sirens, and the sounds of shouting, punctuated with silence. A friend, who usually attends the 9am service at COCIN headquarters, had gone to the church shortly after it happened. She came back repeating what she had heard, that there had been several people in the car, that they were in military uniforms, that one of them had died in the bomb and one had been beaten to death by the angry crowd. That she had heard at least two church members were killed, one of them a female usher. The smoke we were smelling was not from the church. It was from nearby shops that a mob of youth had begun burning. A doctor from Plateau Hospital came by. He confirmed that three church members had died. Others had been taken to Plateau Hospital. Many had ear injuries. He said that achaba drivers were being attacked. One woman with a machete wound to her head said they had seen the mob coming. They achaba driver had tried to turn around, but he hadn’t been fast enough. She survived. He hadn’t.

That evening, when things had calmed down, I went to the church to see the damage for myself . There were over a hundred onlookers milling about. The church, which had been under construction, was still surrounded by wooden scaffolding. There was a long crack down the backside of the church and a section of blocks that looked as if they had been blown off. There was a crater in the ground a few metres away from the building where they told me the car had exploded. It had filled up with the church bulletins that were scattered all over the compound. All of the cars in the car park were damaged with shattered windows, and drooping frames. Those closest to the building were blackened and pocked, with door handles blown off.

Windows of cars smashed by the impact of the blast (c)CM

Shards hung in the windows in the office building behind the church. The impact of the bomb had smashed windows as far as three blocks away.

Windows smashed out in office building behind church (c)CM

Most striking were the car parts that were scattered everywhere. There was a tire nestled against the last dusty pew in the church. Another tire lay outside towards the side of the building. The engine was a few metres away. When I came out of the compound, friendly police wanted to see my photos. They asked me if I had seen the body parts. I said no. That was something I didn’t want to see.

A few days later, more information has come out. The death toll still seems ambiguous, but it seems that at least five church members were killed, fifty others wounded, and three or four other people killed in mob violence.

Of course, Jos came out of this particular attack better off than some places have. The Madalla bombing killed around thirty-five. In Kano, the multiple bomb blasts killed nearly two hundred and the fighting continued off and on even to last week. The Friday before, five people had been killed in an attack on a Kano mosque. Later bombs went off in Gombe. There were other attacks in a village in Kaduna on Sunday.

I am of course devastated by what happened in Jos—that innocent people who rose early in the morning to worship God were killed. It is something every Christian in the north now faces when we go to church. But equally horrifying are the reports of mob violence against innocent young men on okadas just trying to make money to feed their families, the smoke that came not from the bomb at the church but from the Hausa businesses a block away which the mob burned. And then there is the devastating story that the man the angry crowd beat to death that morning was actually a church member who had been misidentified. As another friend pointed out, because so many have escaped from prison, people feel the need for immediate justice. But that was not justice. The story sickens me.

Boko Haram, who has claimed responsibility for the COCIN church bombing and much of the other violence in the north, attack Christians and Muslims alike. The church attacks make the most news, but the Kano mosque attack on 24 February follows other attacks on mosques and Muslim religious leaders in Borno. [This UN publication, published 20 January 2012, gives a partial timeline of Boko Haram attacks.] The police attacked are from both faiths. What worries me is that Boko Haram seems to have become an umbrella under which all manner of violence can be excused, whether it is claimed by them, blamed on them, or in retaliation for what they’ve done. In a bizaare twist, papers (see Tribune ) reported that several church members in Bauchi were caught with explosives trying to attack a ‘rival’ COCIN church the same Sunday. The COCIN president denied it.  And such a story does seem suspicious coming as it did on the same day as the Jos attack on COCIN headquarters. [The story has since been confirmed]. But it does illustrate how Boko Haram seems to have become a cover for any other evil plans anyone may have.

All, I can do is to repeat what I keep saying, so that I grow tired of speaking, so that I resent having to keep writing about violence when I would much rather write about film and literature:  the only way to defeat this evil is to band together, Christians and Muslims, and refuse to let Boko Haram succeed in making us violent in turn. The words of Martin Luther King Jr., from Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community are worth repeating:  “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. […] Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

“Cross of crescents: Muslims around the Church” a guest column by Gimba Kakanda

Gimba Kakanda during the Fuel Subsidy Protests (used by permission of Gimba Kakanda)

Gimba Kakanda during the Fuel Subsidy Protests (used by permission of Gimba Kakanda)

On 14 January 2012, the poet Gimba Kakanda, one of the brains behind the active “Nation-wide Anti-Fuel Subsidy Removal” group on Facebook, wrote a guest article for my Weekly Trust column about his experiences organizing a group of Muslim youth in Minna to protect a church the Sunday before: “Cross of Crescents: Muslims around a Church”. To read his thoughtful and provocative piece, click on the link, click on the photo below, or scroll down to read here on my blog.

Cross of crescents: Muslims around the Church

 Written by Carmen McCain and Gimba Kakanda, Saturday, 14 January 2012

 Last weekend, the stories of the killings of Christians in Adamawa and Gombe left me with a constant dull ache. I realized, as boys hovered their metal detectors over my Bible before I walked into church, that we could die as we prayed. And though the pastor pointed us to the revolutionary nonviolent teachings of Jesus in Matthew 5, Christians I spoke to were angry.

“It’s just lies,” one told me, when I argued that most Muslims were aghast at the killings. I couldn’t blame him for his anger—he had just lost a friend in Adamawa—but I wished that he could experience the kindness of my Muslim friends and realize they too love and hurt and breathe. It was in this funk that I signed online and saw the photos, like those in Egypt last year, of Christians protesters in Kano and Kaduna protecting their Muslim friends while they prayed.

Poet Gimba Kakanda, whose collection of poetry Safari Pants was published by Kraftgriot in 2010,  wrote on Facebook that he and other Muslim friends had protected St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Minna during a Sunday service. Beginning to feel hopeful again, I asked Gimba if he would write something about his experiences. I yield the rest of my column to him.  –Carmen

When I heard of the covenant made in Kano during the anti-fuel subsidy removal protests–of Christians willing to stand guard for Muslims and vice versa during religious services–I was hurt that the bond of our relationship has waned over the years to the point that a Muslim is considered an enemy of Christianity, an inhumane being adept in violence.

I didn’t grow up in a tense religious atmosphere. My upbringing wasn’t bound to intolerance. The Muslims and Christians of my early days seemed like adherents of the same religion. We had so much regard for each other that we marked religious festivals together, irrespective of whose it was. As a child, Muslims marking Christmas was a popular practice. Mothers would obtain Christmas dress for their children who would join Christians at parks or any available amusing exercise. We referred to Christian festivals like Christmas and Easter, in my mother-tongue, as Christians’ Eid-el Kabir and Eid-el Fitr.

This Boko Haram debacle causes me so much pain; it causes my faith to be branded as an enemy of Christianity. For a long time now, I’ve been thinking over the best way to restore the dwindling trust between the faiths.

It was my return to Jos sometime in September last year that made me realize the horrible extent of our religious divide. It was in the month of Ramadan. I hate travelling while fasting, and to save myself the hassle of scouting for food on my arrival, I called my host on the phone and asked him to get some food ready for my fast. He was Christian. When I got into the neighborhood, I was unaware that the quarter was a ‘death zone’ for non-Christians. Chollom didn’t tell me. I only realised the danger when I stepped out to locate a mosque. The one I knew was no longer there – it might have been the burnt edifice I saw in its place. At once, I waved down an okada rider and asked him to take me to the bordering quarter, Nassarawa Gwong! He sized me up with wonder, shrugged and zoomed away. I had no clue. I stopped another. This rider smiled as one would at a known teaser. “I no dey go there o!” He blurted, without offering a reason. I made it to the border on foot, wondering as people poured to the street to watch me amble into the other ‘death zone’!

I was unhappy with Chollom, but he said that he could never come to terms with the idea of not hosting me. That incident made me began to think about ways to solve such religious segregation. I discussed this with the poet Richard Ali when we met on that visit to Jos, offering what I considered a solution. Richard and I agreed on soon setting up an NGO aimed at fostering unity between people of divergent ethnic and religious differences.

On the eve of my birthday this year, a Saturday, I was chatting with a Muslim friend, when I suggested that a way to end these growing attacks on places of worship might be a community security set-up where Muslims stand guard for Christians during church services and Christians for Muslims during Jummu’at prayers. He bought that. So I called a relative, Ahmad Ibrahim Gimba, and informed him about the plan. He too bought it, and immediately arranged with a friend of his to inform their priest of our mission.

As early as 6 am on Sunday the 8th of January, my birthday, I was already up for the day’s task. I live in Tunga but the church, Saint Mary’s Catholic Church at Kpakungu, one of the largest churches in Minna, is familiar to me. Ahmad Ibrahim and I got there and were soon joined by our other friends who were very keen on the mission. Our Christian friend who worships in the church took us to the security guard to explain our mission. Before the 7:30 am service commenced we were already spread round the church: Awaal Gata, Shuaibu Usman, Dantani Usman, Danjuma Mohammed, Idris Lade, Mohammed Saba, Kabiru Mohammed, Aminu Umar… We were eighteen in all!

After the service, there were some hitches. Policemen came around to know why Muslims would offer to guard a church. Even though we informed them that Ahmad had spoken to a member of the church and arranged that we would be coming, they were leery. The trouble with such system, I learnt a day later from a member of the church, Dominic Eigbegbea, is trust. Dominic is the president of the Catholic Youth Organisation of Nigeria (CYON), Minna Diocese. He was blunt, confiding in me that Christians don’t trust Muslims anymore, that whatever bound them together is handled with suspicion. He said that he discussed our arrangement with the other members of the church, and they cautioned that we shouldn’t be trusted, that we just want to infiltrate them, study everything about them and, when they are put at ease by our dubious gesture, launch an attack. Every Muslim is a terrorist, I gathered from their response.

The priest of the church, Reverend Father Emmanuel Jima, was philosophical about the development. He’s from Adamawa, a northerner(!) and was born to a Muslim family, he told me. We discussed the unfortunate happenings in the country, especially the insecurity situations aggravated by the dreaded Boko Haram militancy. The cleric lambasted the old generation for the present mess in the country. He talked softly but he was obviously unhappy that the bond between the two faiths has weakened to this extent, considering any forum that avails both Muslims and Christians a chance to rub each other’s back a way to restore the lost paradise of inter-faith fraternity. The youths are more perceptive, he iterated. ‘The burden of fixing the country is now left for you, the youth.’

Yes, a burden, this weighs me down. I must carry this cross. Unlike Christ’s, though, my cross is the weight of a faith, the crescent, deconstructed by too many misperceptions, too many stereotypes, unwitting and deliberate. May God save us from us, Ameen.

“Splitting a Nation: Lessons from History” by Dr. K.A. Korb

For the week of 7 January 2012, my friend Dr. K.A. Korb of the Faculty of Education at University of Jos wrote a guest column for my column in Weekly Trust.  Following much public discourse about the possibilities of splitting Nigeria into two or more nations,  in “Splitting a Nation: Lessons from History”, she looks at the results of nation-splitting in the last twenty years, and concludes that such an option is not a promising one.  To read, her article, click on the link above, the photo below, or scroll down to read it copied onto this blog.

Splitting a Nation: Lessons from History

Written by Dr. K.A. Korb Saturday, 07 January 2012 05:00

My friend Dr. K.A. Korb of the Faculty of Education, University of Jos, recently shared some thoughts with me about the frequently heard rhetoric of those who want Nigeria to split. I yield the rest of my column this week to her. – Carmen

In the early 1900s, philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to relive it.” In the Nigerian context, we can learn from events in world history to consider solutions to problems we face today. Countries who successfully solved similar problems can be studied for positive solutions. Likewise, approaches to similar problems that failed must be carefully analyzed so Nigeria will not be condemned to relive those failures.One issue that is currently being discussed in homes, in markets, and on the street is that of Nigeria separating into two distinct nations. A separation is believed to be a peaceful solution to the misunderstandings between a “north” and “south” joined by colonization. A brief examination of other countries that have split in the past twenty years can provide valuable information about whether a separation can indeed be a peaceful solution to Nigeria’s current problems.

The most recent split occurred just six months ago when Sudan divided into two countries: Republic of the Sudan and Republic of South Sudan. Because the north and south experienced five decades of civil war that killed over 2 million people, there was considerable fear that the separation would be marked by violence. However, much to the international community’s surprise, both the referendum in January 2011 and the independence day itself on 9 July 2011 were very peaceful.

However, despite a peaceful separation, the two new nations have not been able to sustain a lasting peace. Less than four months after the separation, a Human Rights Watch report stated, “Sudan’s wars have not ended. They have, in fact, multiplied.” Violent conflict remains, particularly along the border between the two new countries.

Two states directly north of the border are currently engaged in violent conflict, largely between Sudan government forces and armed opposition groups linked to southern rebels. Bombings, shellings, killings, and destruction of property have caused around 50,000 people to flee Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan states.

Within the new country of South Sudan, violent conflict also continues. Ongoing violent clashes related to cattle raids between the Lou Nuer and Murtle peoples have resulted in approximately 1,000 deaths since the country’s independence. A recent attack on 31 December 2011 caused over 20,000 Murtles to flee their homelands. On 2 January 2012, the United Nations warned other Southern Sudanese to flee their homes because six thousand Lou Nuer fighters continue to march through the countryside, burning homes and seizing livestock.

Prior to Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, commonly known as East Timor, separated from the Republic of Indonesia. East Timor shares an island with Indonesia in the Pacific. Over 100,000 deaths are attributed to the twenty-year conflict between East Timor and Indonesia over its separation: 18,000 from violence and 84,000 from hunger and illness resulting from the conflict.

As a result of this long-term conflict, a referendum was held in 1999 to determine whether East Timor would split from Indonesia. About 79% voted for independence. Within hours of the election results announcement, violent protests broke out. Anti-independence militias killed about 1,400 Timorese and caused 300,000 to flee. Most of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed in post-election violence. Because of the post-election violence, East Timor did not officially become independent until 2002.

Returning to Africa, Eritrea began its campaign for independence from Ethiopia in the early 1960s, which resulted in thirty years of war. As Eritrea was fighting against Ethiopia for independence, there were two civil wars amongst the Eritreans themselves as different rebel groups splintered and disagreed. As the result of peace talks in 1991, Eritreans overwhelmingly voted in favor of independence. The State of Eritrea was officially created on 27 April 1993.

Just five years later, a border dispute erupted between Eritrea and Ethiopia that lasted for two years. In this border dispute, two of the poorest countries in world spent millions of dollars on a war that led to only minor border changes. In addition to tens of thousands of deaths, the conflict also resulted in reduced economic development, food shortages, and a severe land mine problem. Tension remains high between Eritrea and Ethiopia, with a brief border skirmish reported in January 2010.

Although Eritrea ratified a constitution in 1997, the constitution has yet to be implemented. National elections have been scheduled periodically, but have always been canceled so no election has ever been held. Eritrea’s human rights record has worsened since its independence from Ethiopia. Human Rights Watch reports, “Eritrea is one of the world’s youngest countries and has rapidly become one of the most repressive. There is no freedom of speech, no freedom of movement, no freedom of worship, and much of the adult male and female population is conscripted into indefinite national service where they receive a token wage.”

Finally, although Czechoslovakia in southeastern Europe did peacefully separate into the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic in 1993, its near neighbor, the former country of Yugoslavia has not been so lucky. Beginning in 1991, Yugoslavia has repeatedly separated into smaller and smaller countries. Most recently, Kosovo declared independence in 2008. The former Yugoslavia is now divided into seven different nations, and many of these splits were associated with violent conflict.

A referendum for independence was held in Bosnia and Herzegovina on 29 February 1992. However, the people were divided on whether to stay with Yugoslavia or to seek independence. The referendum was boycotted by the Serb ethnic group that favored staying with Yugoslavia. However, despite low voter turnout, an independent state of Bosnia and Herzegovina was created on 3 March 1992.

Because many disagreed with the separation, a war began that lasted for three years. The Bosnian War was characterized by systematic mass rape, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and indiscriminate shelling of cities and towns. About 100,000 people were killed in the conflict and over 2.2 million people were displaced.

There have been three other violent conflicts in parts of the former Yugoslavia that have tried to separate. The Croatian War of Independence between forces wanting independence and those wanting to stay with Yugoslavia resulted in about 20,000 deaths  and cost $37 billion in damaged infrastructure and refugee-related costs. A ten-day war followed the Slovenian declaration of independence in 1991. The Kosovo War (1998-1999) fought by a group wanting independence resulted in 12,000 deaths and over a million refugees. War crimes during the Kosovo War included kidnapping, ethnic cleansing, and use of child soldiers. It is also alleged that prisoners-of-war were killed so their organs could be sold on the black market.

While none of the separations described above are identical to the Nigerian context, history teaches us that the peaceful separation of a country is remarkably difficult to achieve. Dividing a nation is much more complicated than dividing a state, involving new currencies, new constitutions, new political structures, and new borders. Although we may resent the complications that colonial borders brought to Africa, the experiences of nation-division in other parts of Africa, as well as Asia and Europe, should provide a warning to Nigerians that what may appear to be a peaceful solution on the surface may not be the best solution to its internal problems.

Unity or Hell: Choices for the New Year

I am writing this post on 17 March 2012, but backdating it to the first of the year, for blog organization purposes.

My column for the new year with the not so subtle title of ‘Unity or Hell: Choices for the New Year’ was published as usual in the Weekly Trust on New Year’s Eve 2011, republished in the Daily Trust on 2 January 2012 (on pages 25 and 26) and again in the Vanguard on January 12. I wrote this following the bloody events of Christmas Day 2011, which has (with hindsight) unfortunately ushered in the “year of the bomb” in Nigeria. I pray that, despite the tragedies that have occurred so far in 2012, that we can rally around to unify against those who would divide the country. To read the original, click on the photo below. To read on this blog with links to the passages, I quoted, scroll down below the photo.

Unity or hell: Choices for the New Year

 Written by Carmen McCain Saturday, 31 December 2011 05:00

On September 15, 1963, during the American civil rights movement, the American terrorist group Ku Klux Klan, which uses twisted Christian language to support its racist ideology, set off a bomb in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where civil rights activists often congregated. The bomb killed four little girls coming out of their Sunday school class and wounded twenty-two other people. In 1997, People Magazine wrote an article about the bombing in which they quote Chris Hamlin, then pastor of the church, saying “The bombing was a pivotal turning point’ […] Birmingham- so rocked by violence in the years leading up to the blast that it became known as Bombingham – ‘Finally,’ adds Hamlin, ‘began to say to itself, “This is enough!’”
The four girls killed in the bombing (Clockwis...

The four girls killed in the bombing (Clockwise from top left, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nearly fifty years later, in a very different context, another bomb has gone off in a church, this one St Theresa’s Catholic Church in Madalla, Niger State, Nigeria, this time on Christmas Day 2011, a holiday celebrating joy and peace. The latest in a series of bomb attacks around the country, it killed around thirty-five people including children and a pregnant woman and wiped out whole families. Boko Haram, a terrorist entity which asserts it is fighting for Islam, claims responsibility for the bombings. But just as the Ku Klux Klan violated Christian principles of love and non-violence, so also does Boko Haram violate Islamic principles of non-violence against non-combatants. Bombing a place of worship, especially on a holy day with families of worshippers inside, is such a sacrilege that I wonder if this time, remembering  the 2010 Christmas Eve bombings and this year’s attacks on Muslims during Eid-el-Fitr in Jos, we too, both Christians and Muslims, will finally say, “This is enough!”

When I first heard, on Christmas morning, of the bombs in Madalla, Jos and Yobe, I thought of my column published the day before. I had written about the December 10 football viewing centre bombings in Jos in the context of Jesus’s teachings on peace. As I tried to process the shattering news of dozens of innocent people killed after attending Christmas mass, I thought of a verse I had edited out of the conclusion of my last article to save space. It was Matthew 10: 28-31, where Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

Several thoughts on Jesus’s words about fear:

First: the body. After I mentioned Boko Haram briefly in one of my other articles, a reader wrote me, warning that it was dangerous to talk about Boko Haram—“I think it is safer to avoid even mentioning the name of these mad creatures. They are everywhere: they watch & listen.”  My response was to re-tell the story of returning to Jos from New York in September 2001. “I realized that if I changed my plans [to return] either because of the attacks on New York or the crisis in Jos, I would be doing what the terrorists wanted, which is to make everyone change their lives and tiptoe around in fear. And if you do that, you are letting a minority of violent people rule your life, rather than God. I refuse to live in fear. My life is in God’s hands. If it is my time to die, it is my time to die. I will not refuse to speak out about truth or justice or peace out of fear.”  The deaths of those people on Christmas morning were tragic, but while terrorists could maim their bodies, they could not touch their souls.

Second: on hell. Whoever is behind the Christmas bombings and other “Boko Haram” violence wants to tear the country apart. They want Christians to curse Muslims and the South to declare war against the North. They want to deny complexity, deny love, drag the rest of us with them to a hell of hatred and violence. They want us to ignore the teachings of Jesus, beloved of both Christians and Muslims, who said “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” If we fall into the trap the terrorists have set and begin to behave irrationally, hating those who had nothing to do with the terror and lashing out in violence against them, then we lose our souls and those who are trying to destroy Nigeria will succeed in their plan.

During Christmas, most of the Christmas greeting texts and phone calls I received were from Muslims. These sorts of friendships are what the attackers mean to destroy. I was encouraged, therefore, when I saw so many Muslim leaders unified in their condemnation of the attacks.  Daily Trust and This Day reported condemnation from Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI), Muslim Public Affairs Center (MPAC), Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC), Izalat Bida’a Waikamtul Sunnah (JIBWIS), Muslim Congress, and the Malta Ahmadiyya Group, among others. Chairman of the Sokoto State chapter of Izalat Bida’a Waikamtul Sunnah (JIBWIS), Sheikh Abubakar Usman Mabera said “Almighty Allah forbids the killing of a fellow human being. Whoever thinks that he is carrying out Jihad by destroying places of worship and killing innocent citizens is ignorant of Islam because the religion forbids that.” Vanguard reports that the Sultan of Sokoto Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar III declared:  “There is no conflict between Christians and Muslims, between Islam and Christianity. It is a conflict between evil people and good people and the good people are more than the evil doers. The good people must come together to defeat the evil ones.” And, despite rabble-rousing statements by some understandably distressed Christian leaders, Pope Benedict XVI responded in the pattern Jesus set, saying, “In this moment, I want to repeat once again with force: violence is a path that leads only to pain, destruction and death. Respect, reconciliation and love are the only path to peace.”

Back in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who would himself be assassinated five years later, preached the funeral for the four little girl killed in the Birmingham church, saying: “my friends, they did not die in vain. God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city. The holy Scripture says, ‘A little child shall lead them.’ The death of these little children may lead our whole Southland from the low road of man’s inhumanity to man to the high road of peace and brotherhood […from] the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future.”

On this last day of 2011, as we mourn those innocents killed on Christmas morning, we can let this tragedy lead us on to a more unified voice against evil, both Christians and Muslims speaking out against terrorism and corruption, working actively together for peace against those who would divide at all costs. Or we can let our hatred lead us straight to hell. It is our choice. Happy New Year.

“Equestrian Elegance at Sallah-time”: a review of the documentary by Professor Abdalla Uba Adamu and Bala Anas Babinlata

A little late, but Barka da Sallah! Eid Mubarak. Da fatan an yi sallah lafiya.

In today’s column in Weekly Trust, I reviewed the documentary Equestrian Elegance, written, narrated, and produced by Professor Abdalla Uba Adamu and directed by Bala Anas Babinlata. To read the column on the Trust website, click on the link, to read the hard copy, click on the photo, or if you have slow internet, just read the piece below:

Equestrian Elegance at Sallah-time

 Written by Carmen McCain Saturday, 12 November 2011 05:00

Before I moved to Kano in 2008, I had heard much about the Sallah celebrations as a “tourist attraction.” Expatriate acquaintances both in Nigeria and outside the country told me of travels to Kano to experience the colour and pageantry of the annual event. In 2008, I attended my first “Hawan Sallah” at the emir’s palace and two days later stood with a friend as the parade of horses and riders, hunters on foot and men on stilts, processed past her Fagge house on the outskirts of the old city. At the centre of it all was the magnificent emir Alhaji (Dr) Ado Bayero, who rode under a twirling silk umbrella. He was greeted with cries of blessing from the crowd, their fists upraised in salute. [For photos of the the "Hawan Nassarawa" during Eid el-Fitr I attended in 2010, click to my flickr album here or for the blog post about it, click here]

What most struck me as I stood with crowd on both days was the community feel of the festivities: onlookers calling out the names of the riders, riders shouting down greetings to friends, the genuine affection in the salutes to the emir. This sense of familiarity is captured beautifully in the 2009 documentary film, Equestrian Elegance: the Kano Sallah Pageantry Festival written, produced and narrated by Professor Abdalla Uba Adamu and directed by Bala Anas Babinlata. Professor Abdalla of Bayero University is one of the most grounded and prolific scholars of Hausa popular culture, with dozens of books and articles published both locally and internationally. His most important contributions, however, go beyond academic scholarship to actual interventions into popular culture: among which was his founding and moderation of the Finafinan Hausa and marubuta yahoogroups, important critical forums for dialogue about Hausa popular literature and film;  the organizing of concerts and award shows for Hausa musicians, and his innovative creation of what he calls “Hausa classical music” by recording Hausa traditional instruments being played without singing. Professor Abdalla also spans the world of scholarship and art with the films put out by his production company Visually Ethnographic Productions.

The documentary Equestrian Elegance (1 hour 28 mins), which was shot in 2008 but has not yet been released for commercial distribution, covers the four days of parades through Kano city during Eid al-Fitr: “Hawan Sallah,” “Hawan Daushe,” “Hawan Nassarawa,” and “Hawan Dorayi,” and the additional day of pageantry “Hawan Fanisau” during Eid al-Adha. A narrative voiceover by Professor Abdalla, explains the events and an innovative animation traces along a map the parade route taken each day, but the film mostly celebrates the details of the festivities from the sunrise on the first day of Sallah to the sunset on the last day. Within this symbolic frame, the rhythm of Sallah is measured out by each procession out of and back towards the palace.

While I admittedly grew a bit weary about an hour into the film, I think the attention to detail here is important. Professor Abdalla told me that the unhurried pacing was intentional: he wanted the film to “unfold in very slow motion, so you can absorb the details.” The focus here was on capturing “the pageantry. Every horse is different. Every rider is different. People stay out there three hours watching and don’t get tired.” His goal was to show the “high level of refinement” in the Sallah parades and the “structural elegance of pageantry.”

Such elegance is captured in the beauty of the cinematography: the close-ups of the courtier crouching to perform the morning gun salute and his graceful almost balletic twirl through the gun smoke; the rich texture of both horse and rider being robed in layer after layer of damask in preparation for the parade; the hazy glow of Kano swathed in harmattan during the final day of “Hawan Fanisau.”

But beyond presenting the elegance of the event, Professor Abdalla told me that another goal was to present to a global audience that sense of community surrounding Sallah. Although Kano’s Sallah festivities are probably some of the most photographed annual events in Nigeria, the photographs taken by tourists are often formally beautiful but distancing. There is little knowledge or intimacy in them.  Here, however, as Professor Abdalla points out you “can see the sense of community. It’s like carnival, a street party, with mom and dad and kids.” And it is this sense of community and lived tradition that I like most about the film. Kano is often either romanticized by the national and international media as a place of “timeless tradition,” an ancient exotic city of fairy tale, or denigrated as, what one foreign blogger termed, “an overgrown village,” a backwards northern outpost with a medieval mentality. Equestrian Elegance explodes both stereotypes, presenting the richness of tradition from insider’s perspective. One of the moments that best captures this delightful mix of light-heartedness and ceremony is in a shot where the dignified male space of the emir’s speech at the government house is playfully undermined by the little girl playing with a balloon directly behind him. As opposed to stereotypes about Kano under shari’a, women are not excluded from the celebration. While they may not be a part of the main spectacle, they take part in the larger community event. Girls and women hang off of balconies and push into the crowds to catch a glimpse of the horses and riders. As Professor Abdalla points out, Sallah is a family affair.

Part of what contributes to this “insider’s perspective” comes from the camera operators’ ability to get up close to their subjects, not the flattened close-up of a zoom camera but the intimate close-up of someone who is a part of the celebration. The subjects of the camera’s gaze sometimes seem to recognize the person behind the camera, and the film is often self-referential. While tourist photographs often attempt to capture the “timelessness” of the event, avoiding shots of other photographers or signs that situate their subjects in a particular modern moment, this film cheerfully revels in contemporary local knowledge of the event. The parade, as Professor Abdalla points out in his narrative commentary, is located in a very specific and recent history, including a route which began as part of the current emir’s Sallah visit to his mother.

There are multiple references to the way in which the event is viewed both through foreign and homegrown eyes.  The tourists become part of the spectacle. They are depicted laughing on the palace balcony or lining up in front of the crowd with their zoom lenses. But more significant are the frequent moments of easy familiarity when local photographers and videographers enter the camera’s view. The camera repeatedly captures the parade processing past photography and video shops, a subtle tribute to the many Kano residents who use the camera to tell their own stories. Professor Abdalla himself makes a cameo appearance towards the end of the film.

The cosmopolitan mix that makes up Kano is also found in the soundtrack of the documentary. The most striking piece of music is Babangida Kakadawo’s praise song “Sarkin Kano Ado Bayero” to the accompaniment of the kuntigi, used to great effect in the moments where the emir appears. However, the soundtrack is also sprinkled with Malian musician Ali Farka Toure’s guitar pieces and another song featuring Egyptian musician Hassan Ramzy. (Professor Abdalla argues the inclusion of these tracks follows international standards of fair usage since the looped excerpts are less than one minute.) While I initially thought the use of non-Nigerian music detracted from the “authenticity” of the film, I find convincing Professor Abdalla’s argument that he wanted to expose people to music from other parts of Africa, a goal in keeping with Kano’s history as a cosmopolitan trade centre.

The borrowed music, along with the slow pace, could be an attraction or flaw depending on the taste of the viewer. I was not a fan of the digital effects in the transitions, which I thought distracted more than they added to the film.  But these moments of imperfection are far outweighed by the strength in the completeness of the film, which moved beyond the picturesque palace durbar to cover the entire procession and its connection to the people of the city. Equestrian Elegance is an important historical resource that is valuable to outsiders trying to learn about the culture and traditions of Kano but perhaps even more so to those from Kano, who want to remember the richness of a lived tradition, Sallah as performed in the first decade of the 21st century.

 

Mr. Lecturer, Snoop Dogg, and Dbanj’s “Mr. Endowed”

I think I’ve set a new record for neglecting this blog. I have had a series of deadlines on various writing projects, and I didn’t want to allow myself to blog until I met at least one of the deadlines. Now, I have a lot to catch up on.  Since it is impossible to go back and reproduce all the posts I should have posted, I will just start with the most recent–this week’s column in Weekly Trust. This is not my best or favourite column, but it is one particularly well suited for a blog, because I can bling it up with all kinds of videos to make the reading experience more stimulating.  (Forgive me if some of the videos here are a little less than great quality. I was trying to put up this blog post on an internet connection that would usually only let me load about 10 seconds of the video before timing out, so I was posting videos from memory rather than verifying the youtube uploads that were the best quality. Please NOTE that the videos embedded here are being used in this blog post under Fair Use laws for review purposes.)

Mr. Lecturer, Snoop Dogg, and D’banj’s “Mr. Endowed”

 Written by carmen mccain Saturday, 22 October 2011 05:00

 Let’s call him “Mr. Lecturer.” A few years ago, on the last day of an academic conference after the few other women at the conference had left, I went back to my hotel room to relax.

I heard a knock at my door. It was “Mr. Lecturer,” a colleague attending the conference, a big, tall man of probably around fifty. When I opened the door, he pressed himself so close to me that I took an instinctive step backwards and he wriggled into my room. He said that he needed a quiet place to work and he wanted to write in my room. “Do you not have a room in this hotel?” I asked. He replied he did but he wanted to use my laptop because his battery was low. I edged closer to the door and told him that my battery was also low and that I was just going out to eat. I grabbed my bag, ushered him out of the room and wandered in self exile around the streets of the unfamiliar city for a while. Before it got dark, I bought a compilation vcd of Naija music videos from a street vender, then went back to my room and locked myself in.  Around 8pm, there were several knocks at my door. I turned off my lights and refused to answer. I sat in the dark fuming, until I remembered the compilation of music videos I had bought earlier.  With nothing else to do, I slotted the vcd into my laptop.

This was the first time I had seen the video for P-Square’s “Do Me,” or D’banj’s “Booty Call.” I knew the songs and frequently sang along to the catchy choruses. But in watching the compilation, which also included music videos from American artists like Snoop Dogg, I grew angrier and angrier. The music videos were full of women in buttock-revealing miniskirts, brassieres, and fish-net stockings. The camera zoomed in on close-ups of their gyrating backsides and heaving breasts. It was like the representation of ‘natives’ by various parts of their bodies that Chinua Achebe noted in Joseph Conrad’s racist novel Heart of Darkness. This time it was women being cut up into body parts. Rarely would the camera focus on a woman’s face.  In D’banj’s “Booty Call,” fully-dressed men sat back and leered, as barely-dressed women pranced and paraded before them.

P-Squares “Do Me”

Dbanj’s “Booty Call”

As I watched, I grew so angry that I was unable to sleep all night. I was angry at the musicians for objectifying women. I was angry with the women for allowing themselves to be objectified. And most of all, I was furious with Mr. Lecturer for thinking I, the only woman left at the conference and his colleague, albeit a junior one, was “fair game.” (Lord have mercy on his poor students!) The music videos did not make Mr. Lecturer harass me, but both are symptomatic of the same underlying  disrespect for women—a condition captured brilliantly in Eedris Abdulkareem’s music video “Mr. Lecturer.”

Eedris Abdulkareem’s “Mr. Lecturer

I remembered that sleepless night recently when I finally had the bandwidth to download Dbanj’s music video “Mr. Endowed” directed by Sesan and featuring the American hip hop artist Snoop Dogg. It is one of the worst videos, Nigerian or American, I’ve seen.

Dbanj’s “Mr. Endowed, feat. Snoop Dogg”

Don’t get me wrong, I love hip hop and dancehall. Even though I hate D’banj’s and P-Square’s music videos with big cars and scantily dressed women, I admit to the contradiction of still singing along to the lyrics when they come on the radio.  Although I think Snoop is a maddening sexist, I occasionally enjoy his deadpan voice and irreverent raps, which are so outrageous that sometimes all you can do is laugh.  The Bollywood music video “Singh is King” featuring Snoop, for example, plays ironically with Orientalist stereotypes.  There are dancing girls but they are included with a self-mocking wink.

Akshay Kumar and Snoop Dogg in “Singh is King”

Nigeria’s icon Fela Anikulapo-Kuti similarly thrived on the notoriety of extravagant sexuality, featuring topless women on his record albums, mostly naked dancers at his performances, and marrying 27 women in one swoop. Yet, as outrageous as his sexual excesses were, he was committed to the Nigerian masses, fearlessly speaking out against injustice.

Fela in England, 1984

photo credit: Nigerian Curiosity

Dbanj, on the other hand, as “Kokomaster” with his “Koko Mansion” and “Kokolettes” groomed to please him, courts the notoriety without any of the social responsibility. He seems to style himself the Hugh Hefner of Nigeria, surrounded by women who are not “queens” (and eventually wives) as Fela called them but mere sexual playtoys.

In “Mr. Endowed,” D’banj takes a song with narcissistic lyrics and a mediocre dance track and blings it up with exotic locations and decent cinematography.  The conceit of Snoop being D’banj’s American uncle is clever, and my favourite part of the video is when D’banj presents the American artist with a Nigerian passport, giving him the name Baba Aja Oluwasnoop.  There is also a certain nationalistic pleasure in seeing D’banj cruise the streets of Los Angeles in a green and white Rolls Royce, bursting into Yoruba while dancing around the mansion under a Nigerian and American flag. D’banj implies that he has done all this for Naija, singing, “At the end of the day when my people see me, I bring them joy, they give me a round of applause.”

But the rest of the video takes the clichés of wine, women, and song typical of both Snoop’s and D’banj’s videos to new levels of vulgarity. “Uncle Snoop’s” house has an elaborate marble and gold staircase that is decorated by two “vixens” in bustiers and bikini bottoms who writhe around licking their lips and stroking themselves. Musicians wander about flashing fistfuls of dollars, opening suitcases full of blingy time pieces. Snoop is not at his best. His rap is not mixed well, so that his voice is low and you can’t hear what he is saying. He seems a bit lost behind the enthusiasm of his Nigerian “nephews.”

I see no redeeming irony here. Perhaps, the repeated instances of one of the musicians walking in on women in the bathroom, one in a bathtub covered with $100 dollar bills and one seated on the toilet using $100 bills as toilet paper is supposed to be funny. To me, it is just embarrassing—a joke with a punchline gone flat.

D’banj usually has good beats, and sometimes clever lyrics, sung in a skillful mix of Yoruba and pidgin.  But this “copy-copy” is not interesting or fresh. The music videos I enjoy the most are those that situate themselves in a recognizable Naija. The pitfalls of musicians like D’banj or P-Square and Darey, who make most of their videos in South Africa, or musicians who shoot endless “girls-in-the-club” videos is that no matter the “quality” of the video, they are not being innovative.

The videos I most love are those like Eedris Abdulkareem’s old but powerful “Nigeria Jaga Jaga” which uses actual footage of Nigeria or his satirical “Mr. Lecturer.”   TY Bello’s simple but gorgeous “Greenland” focuses on portraits of Nigerians of all ages; elDee’s “Light Up Naija” uses similar simple portraits to highlight his call to unity. TuFace, DJ Jimmy Jatte, and Mode 9 in “Stylee” set addictive rhymes against a backdrop of Lagos traffic and danfos, a Lagos which Nneka also uses cinema-verite style in her video “Heartbeat.” The video for the late Sazzy’s “Mr. Chairman,” is nothing fancy but captures the fierce passion of the Abuja-based musician so well that it takes my breath away.  Recently I came across a beautifully shot music video “Soyeyya” by a hip hop artist XDOGGinit, who raps in Hausa and features humorous acting by Kannywood stars. What makes a video good is not how much money is spent on it but how creative and “true” it is.  I hope to highlight more of the ones I like this year. [Note: These videos may not be as sophisticated or polished as the "club" videos shot in South Africa etc, but they seem to me to have more SOUL.] 

And to those musicians who specialize in getting women to remove their clothes for your videos. You may be young and “endowed” now, and there may be plenty of silly girls eager for the fame. But in a few more years, try that and you’ll get called “Mr. Lecturer.” A word to the wise.

Eedris Abdulkareem’s Nigeria Jaga Jaga (not the best quality upload but you can see what I mean)

TY Bello’s “Greenland”

DJ Jimmy Jatt, feat. Mode 9, 2Face, and Elajoe in “Stylee”

Nneka “Heartbeat”

Sazzy “Mr. Chairman”

XDOGGinit “Soyayya”