Tag Archives: Weekly Trust

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.

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.

A mixed-up people: When Wainaina writes about Africa

I wrote the following in early February after my parents returned from a trip to the U.S. and brought with them Binyavanga Wainaina’s memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place I had ordered for my friend Daily Times columnist and author  Elnathan John:

 

Before I send it off to Elnathan, I crack it open curiously, read a chapter before I go to bed. The next morning I wake up and open it again. I read greedily. The way I used to when I was in high school with my science fiction and fantasy. The way I read when I would neglect my homework, come home with a novel, which I would finish before I would start my homework late at night, working on my bed far into the night with a candle. I would fall asleep, my head inches from the candle balanced on a plate, sometimes not yet done with the algebra, which I would try to hurriedly finish in shaky pencil in the car on the way to school the next morning.

 

Those days, I poured the stories into me. Every day a new novel. Greedily. In grad school, I began to read more slowly, pencil in hand. I read theory and criticism, and long academic papers that I printed from the Internet. It was no longer a joy to read. I stopped reading. I became addicted to the Internet. In grad school when trying to finish my MA thesis, I started a blog. It was such a relief to have that outlet–to write my thoughts effortlessly in that forum when I was so stuck with academic writing. Then Facebook came along, and I became doubly addicted—to the inane games, the well-turned status update, the latest news–link upon link upon link.

 

I am two days late on an academic paper deadline, and yet I am sitting here in an office chair in my parent’s spare room, sitting at the desk in front of my computer, reading shamelessly–even when my mother comes in, the computer screen dead–reading Wainaina like a science fiction novel. It is not what I am supposed to be doing. It is not work. It is pleasure. Wainaina’s musings awaken in me memories of my own life, of the daydreams at fifteen, when I would stare dreamily out the windows of our van at the misty mountains of the green plateau in rainy season and imagine fantasy novels about a shepherdess name Merrony tending flocks on a long sunflower strewn Plateau. It was to be a trilogy. I can still remember the story now, as if it were a novel I had read long ago, a novel that will always remain in that “to-be-written” stage. My preoccupations have moved past Merrony, but Wainaina makes me want to write again in that way.

 

When I planned to write a review of Wainaina’s memoir for my column, I thought at first maybe I’d write something stream of consciousness. What I’ve copied above was the beginning of my brainstorm. But it felt too self-indulgent for the Weekly Trust. I let it be a blog post. Instead, I decided to focus on the parts of the memoir that seemed the most strikingly relevant to Nigeria right now. I can’t find the hard copy of the article, but if you scroll down below or click on this link, you can read what I wrote.

 

A mixed-up people: When Wainaina writes about Africa

 

Written by Carmen McCain, Saturday, 11 February 2012 05:00

 

 

This past week, I procrastinated revisions on an academic article to greedily devour Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina’s 2011 memoir One Day I Will Write About this Place. Wainaina won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002 for his short story “Discovering Home” and is perhaps best known for his satirical essay “How to Write about Africa” published in Granta in 2005, a piece that skewers stereotypical ways in which non-Africans write about the continent. In a later reflection on the essay, Wainaina reveals that it “grew out of an email” written “in a fit of anger, responding to Granta’s “‘Africa’ issue, which was populated by every literary bogeyman that any African has ever known.” When Granta later published an edited version of the email, he wryly remarks: “I went viral; I became spam. […] Now I am ‘that guy,’ the conscience of Africa.”

 

As my own familiarity with Wainaina’s writing was limited to

Binyavanga Wainaina

Binyavanga Wainaina (Photo credit: Internaz)

having read a couple of his sardonic essays and interviews, I admit that the lilting dreaminess, even sweetness, of his memoir came as a surprise. If “How to Write About Africa” bitingly mocks how foreign reporters or celebrity activists write about Africa as if Africans had “no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks” then Wainaina’s memoir explores the depths and quirks through the remembered details of his own life.

 

Wainaina writes in an impressionistic present tense: the haze of childhood, an early obsession with words, his mother’s patient love. He changes schools, goes to South Africa for university, holes himself up in a room, drinking, reading, partying, never finishing school. He takes a trip to Uganda for a family reunion, out of which comes his first publication in a South African newspaper. A turn in the narrative comes when he submits the hastily revised piece, re-published as a short story in an e-journal, to the Caine prize. Although they initially respond that they do not accept electronically published material,  one day he receives another “email from the bloody colonizers” inviting him “to come to England, and have dinner in the House of Lords, and do readings, and go to the Bodleian Library for a dinner of many courses, with wine, and all of London’s literati.”

 

Following his Caine prize win, the memoir becomes more travelogue of the African countries he visits on writing business, impressions of Lagos, Lome, Accra; Kenyan election violence; African news browsed for on the internet, the writing life in America’s cold winter, where he is now director of the Chinua Achebe Centre for African Writers and Artists at Bard College. What struck me most in this sprawling account of family and personal history was the reoccurring motif of the ambiguity of borders, the way people change personalities as they switch languages, the shifting identities of ethnicity and naming that languages bring, how they include and exclude.

 

Wainaina grew up in Nairobi, son of a Ugandan Bufumbira mother and a Kenyan Gikuyu father, speaking Swahili and English. Following Gikuyu tradition, he, as second son, was named after his maternal Ugandan grandfather, Binyavanga, a Bufumbira nickname that means “mixed up”. His name becomes an appropriate lens through which to read his memoir.

 

Lessons about the way language and ethnicity exclude come early. One of his earliest childhood memories is of a quarrelsome woman who insults his mother because she is Ugandan. As a teenager while Kalenjin Daniel Arap Moi is in power, Binyavanga and his sister are among the top twenty students in their province, yet neither of them is called to any secondary school, “Rumors are spreading everywhere. We hear that [...] names are matched to numbers, and scrutinized, word by word, line by scientific line, for Gikuyu names in the secret office by Special Branch people.” Discriminated against because of his father’s Gikuyu name, when a Gikuyu becomes president, “for the first time in my life, to be Gikuyu is a public event. […] The rest of Kenya has become Tribes. There is a text message being sent to Gikuyus calling Luos and people from western Kenya ‘beasts from the west.’” The Ugandan origin of his first name becomes confusing for those who want to pigeon hole him into one of “us” or “them.” He describes an airline hostess who insists on knowing where his first name came from before she lets him pass. “One person stops me on a street to tell me how happy he was to see me in the newspaper—but that name of yours, my friends are asking, you are half what?”

 

And yet, Wainaina points out, these political uses of language and ethnicity are often colonial constructs. He frequently returns to a history of diverse kinship, rich old stories about the kingdom of Buganda, the Swahili culture the Arab explorer Ibn Batuta encountered centuries ago. “We are a mixed-up people,” he writes, describing how his Ugandan grandmother was originally from the Congo, his mother’s sister went into hiding in Rwanda, other family members settled in South Africa and America. In the two days of a reunion in Uganda, “we feel like a family. In French, Swahili, English, Gikuyu, Kinyarwanda, Kiganda, and Ndebele, we sing one song, a multitude of passports in our luggage.”

 

Of his nanny Wambui, he writes, “Her aunt is half Nandi, her grandmother an Ngong Maasai. Wambui is Gikuyu by fear, or Kenyatta-issued title deed, or school registration or because her maternal Gikuyu uncle paid her father’s fees, or because they chose a Gikuyu name to get into a cooperative scheme in the seventies. […]She could have become a Luo, if they stayed there long enough, and she married there; she is dark skinned enough to get away with it.”

 

Though Wainaina’s memoir is written in English, he invokes his compatriot Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the great champion of writing in African languages, in a celebration of how multiple languages, though sometimes abused politically, are one of the riches of Kenya’s national character: English for official business, “brotherhood” in Swahili, more intimacy in mother tongues. “All city people inhabit several worlds in many languages. […Some] speak six or seven languages.”

 

Personalities change from language to language. A Maasai girl he meets is shy and awkward in English, but in Swahili and the street language of Sheng, “she pours herself into another person, talkative, aggressive. A person who must have a Tupac T-shirt stashed away somewhere.” On a bus, he watches a conductor whose “body language, his expressions, his character even, change from language to language—he is a brash town guy, a Gikuyu matatu guy, in Gikuyu, and even in Kiswahili. When he speaks Kalenjin, his face is gentler, more humorous, ironic rather than sarcastic, conservative, shy eyes.”

 

In his travels around Africa, Wainaina’s observes, along with delightful new quirks of national character, similar discrimination over language, class and ethnicity. Towards the end of the book, he writes in a fog of horror about the Kenyan election violence of 2007-2008.

 

Yet the mixed-up nature of his own family background points to relationships of familiarity possible all over the continent. When, a kind South African friend hires Wainaina, at his most destitute, as a marketer, he remembers in a rush of warmth other acts of compassion: how another South African friend  “offered to let me stay rent free in her house” and how her “father, a physics professor […] left South Africa in the fifties unable to get a job in Verwoerd South Africa [… but] was adopted in Nigeria where they lived for many years, […teaching]  a generation of Nigerian physicists at Ibadan.” “This is how to become an African,” he writes.

 

The “place” Wainaina writes about is both his mother’s hometown and the continent he travels: His family history is one of blood and one of adoption by friends throughout Africa. This is how to write about Africa, he implies. This is how to write about this place.

 

“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.

Interview with Ghanaian-British filmmaker Julius Amedume and review of four of his short films

This year on my way from the Port Harcourt airport to Yenagoa to the Africa Movie Academy Awards, I was lucky enough to get to sit beside thoughtful Ghanaian-British filmmaker Julius Amedume, whose film Precipice (2010) had been nominated for best Diaspora Short. He ended up winning the award.

On 12 November 2011, Weekly Trust published as a feature my email interview with Julius. Because of word limits for publication, we had to edit down a few of his responses, but because I don’t have word limits on my blog, I will include a slightly fuller (though still edited down) version of the interview here. After the interview, you can read my review of Amedume’s four short films made while in film school: “Mary and John” (2009), “Lorraine” (2009), “Mr. Graham” (2010), and “The Precipice” (2010). I have also included the short films within this post, but if you are on a slow internet connection (as I am), please wait for the entire video to download before attempting to watch it, as the jumpy start and stop of the download process will destroy your enjoyment of the film.

First, if you want to get a taste of Amedume’s work, watch his 2010 showreel here:

Second, the interview. If you want to read it as published by the Weekly Trust, click on this link or on the photos of the hard copy below. If you want to read the slightly longer version, which includes descriptions of his short films, read on below:

Julius Amedume: I’d love to tell more African stories in my films

Julius Amedume is a Ghanaian-British filmmaker based in the U.K.. He has over eleven films to his credit and a production company, Amedume Films. He won this year’s Africa Movie Academy Award for best Diaspora short for his film Precipice, Best Feature award at last year’s Pan African Film Festival for his film A Goat’s Tail and other awards at festivals around the world.

Could you tell us about your background?

My parents originated from Ghana but I was born in London, England and grew up Balham, south west London. I am the youngest of four children. Even though we were all raised in England, my parents being first generation Africans, always made it a priority to install western values as well as a strong sense of African values.  This has been fundamental to making me into who I am today.

Tell me about your journey to become a filmmaker. 

I first became engrossed in films when I was around four or five. I didn’t start school until I was seven because of health problems. My mum would work days and my dad would work nights. My dad would come home from work and teach me maths and English until he fell asleep at about 11am. I would be left in front of the TV watching westerns, musicals, war films, black and white movies and film noirs until my mum or my siblings came home in the evening..

My parents, especially my dad, kept abreast of technology and we were lucky to have a Betamax, VHS and even a Laserdisc player. I used to watch anything that came out, from art house movies to B movies. Throughout childhood and my early teens I would watch a film almost every day.

On leaving school at the age of 16, I enrolled into Saint Francis of Xavier College in Clapham and made my first short film as part of a media studies course. I ended up writing, producing, editing and directing it. I was originally working with a group of people, but as the amount of work involved dawned on them, they slowly dropped out, leaving me to finish the film.

The film was about the controversial subject of safe sex: three couples who meet in club and what happens later that evening when they have sex, either with a condom or without. The film then jumps to a year later. One of the couple is still together in a settled, stable relationship. The second couple has broken up and the male has a multitude of baby mothers. The last couple has also broken up, but the man learns he has caught AIDS. There was a big AIDS epidemic at the time scaring the nation and as I started to understand the facts, it made me start to think of different scenarios which people could or might find themselves in within the community.   This is what gave me the idea for the film.

This was my first attempt at a making a short film, it also set up the tone and types of films I would be compelled to make along my career path. Looking at the film now, it’s still entertaining , it still  has narrative, but the production values make it seem like a  low budget mess.

I played around for a year with a camera on a Youth Training Scheme which taught me the basics of different areas along the production route.  I went on to do A-level media studies which gave me another opportunity to mess around with video. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do in film. I just knew I wanted to be around it.

When I hit 19, I needed enough money to go to university, so I took a year out which turned into three. I worked in two sports shops and then spent two years as assistant manager in a shop called PROHIBITIO.  We sold high end designer clothes to celebrities and other characters who walked through the door. There were two things that helped me most on my journey to film when I worked there. The first was when American actor Jack Nicolson walked by and I enticed him into the shop. He came in and hung around for fifteen minutes whilst waiting for a lady friend. I was at a transitional stage when I really wanted to study film but my parents wanted me to follow a different path. Jack told me because he loved acting, it didn’t seem like work and he could put in as many hours as god sends. He told me you shouldn’t do any job that seems like work because it’s not making you happy. If you do a job that makes you happy then it doesn’t seem like work. Those words were what I was looking for.

The second thing was the experience dealing with the different types of customers. Because I constantly interacted with people and had only seconds to try to sell them something, I found the tips, tricks and senses gained later helped me in my career when I approached actors, tried to understand them, and bring out the best of their talent.

When I went to university, I did an intensive BSC Hons degree in Communication and Technology at a broadcasting university called Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication. Their Film/TV module was a calculated plus, but the other courses taught me things which I would later utilize, like webpage design, DVD authoring, marketing, psychology, electronics, engineering, broadcasting, satellite distribution signals, etc. It also gave me a safety net. If film failed, I could get a job as engineer, which gave my parents peace of mind.

Upon graduating I immediately went back to doing what I love. By now I had worked out that I really wanted to direct. It incorporated all the other disciplines whilst overseeing the overall project. I got an unpaid runners position at a commercials company. I had been advised this was the easiest way to work your way up to being a director. I started on a Monday and the company went bankrupt on a Friday. I was back to square one but I read it as a sign. Never being someone to wait around, I threw caution to the wind and remembered ‘WE CREATE OUR OWN DESTINIES AND CALL IT FATE’. I decided to open up a production company. The birth of AMEDUME FILMS came in 2002, though a production company had been in my mind since 1999. I didn’t really have any money, but I also knew I had good contacts and good line of credit from working full time. I used this line of credit to gap fund projects whilst I sought investors.

Through my production company, I made three short films, THE MEETING, THE PHONE CALL and THE VIDEOTAPE.  The Meeting, about an intimate conversation between a baker and teacher as they wait for a train, won a best actor and a cinematography award at the Kent Film Festival in 2002. The Phone Call explores the repercussions when a young man receives a phone call from an old school friend asking for a favor. It was nominated for five awards at the 5th BFM international film festival 2002 and won the Best Screenplay award. It was also nominated for the best short film award at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles. As well as taking it to schools and prisons it also screened on various Satellite television channels and MTV Base.  The Videotape was my first fully corporate funded short film.

The Meeting trailer

The Phone Call trailer

The Video Tape trailer

Tell me about your feature film A Goat’s Tail. How was making a feature film different from making shorts? Were there any major challenges in shooting a film across two continents?  

Making a leap from shorts to feature films is a different kettle of fish. The pressures of the production can be catastrophic, especially if you intend to make a film, shot in two continents, on a micro budget.

I had gone to Ghana for three months with my parents so I could chill out and write a script.  When I arrived I suffered from writers block. Nothing managed to make it onto the page. To take my mind off the block, I started to relax and enjoy Ghana. Taking taxis everywhere, my face, body language and attire signaled to the taxi drivers that I was a foreigner. The majority of them tried to exploit me, by trying to double or sometimes triple the fares, but I showed them I wasn’t a “Johnny just come.” Taxi drivers are like your local newspapers, they know everything and have strong views. In our many conversations, they told me they would love to travel to England. The shared consensus was that that coming from there you must be rich. I tried to tell the cab drivers that compared to cost of living, prices were more or less the same. Living in Ghana actually has more benefits like constant sunshine and fresh food. My information fell on deaf ears, but this turned out to be the key that I was looking for to unlock my writer block. The idea for A Goat’s Tailwas born. I spent the rest of my time in Ghana writing out a treatment. The film was about Kojo, a Ghanian taxi driver, who is hired by a beautiful young British actress, Cynthia, to show her around for the day. The day ends with a sexual encounter and a reluctant promise from Cynthia to invite Kojo to England. Arriving on Cynthia’s doorstep four months later, Kojo soon realizes that the grass might not be greener in England and people are not what they seem.

I wrote the script when I arrived back in London. I gave myself a time limit of two years to make this film. My business plan was based on a lot of high calculated risks. In my passion to make the film, I knew nothing could go wrong, but it did, in more ways than one. First, I never managed to raise all the money I needed, and I decided to gap finance the film on about 10 credit cards, which I had amassed with 0% interest over a year from my good credit. This failed me by the end of the film, leaving me vastly over budget and with huge debts. I also decided that renting equipment would be too expensive so I decided to buy all my own equipment from ebay and then sell it after the shoot, so I could reinvest the money into the post production schedule.  When the shoot got delayed, the depreciating costs of the equipment came back to haunt me. I decided to cast a Ghanaian non-professional actor for the lead role. He had never left Ghana before—talk about life mimicking art! Having flown to Ghana with my crew and equipment to shoot the first part of the film, I had scheduled to return back to England with the actor  to shoot the last part, but his visa was denied, not once, not twice, but three times. I fought to exercise his right to come to England especially since all the required paper work was in order. I even had a letter from the Ghana High Commission endorsing the film. I took the decision to an appeals court and got the case transferred to London.  This delayed my film for just over a year but I did feel victorious when I defended myself in the UK case hearing and won.

I am only really touching the surface of the problems I faced and experienced making that film. It’s true when they say everything that could go wrong will go wrong. Physically, it was the hardest film I have made to date. I spent over three years of my life on it. In the darkest hours of wanting to quit, I realized how much I wanted my career and what I was prepared to do to make it happen. Making this film, I would say, was my film school and I grew more confident and learned how to tell stories better. I also understood the different types of problems I could face in the future on any given production.  Having shot, written, produced and directed the film, it confirmed to me I wanted to be writer-director but also gave me a understanding of the other disciplines. The film went on to be nominated for six awards, and it won best feature at the Pan African film festival.

A Goat’s Tail clip

Tell me about your Masters in Directing Fiction at the National Film and TV School. What were the benefits to going back to school when you were already making films and had a production company?

I was accepted into a scheme called Compass Point, with the National Film School and B3 media. Paul Moody, the organizer of the course, and Nik Powell, a visiting guest speaker, both encouraged me to apply to the film school.  I had tried before and was unsuccessful, so I wasn’t sure if that’s what I wanted to do. I had some successes independently and had set up a production company which I had been running for 5 years. But one day I sat back and asked myself –if being a director is something I wanted to do for the rest of my life, if I was to apply and got in, wouldn’t it be like taking two steps back to go three steps forward? With that attitude I applied and beat 450 other applicants to one of the eight places available on the Directing Fiction masters program. I had never been to film school before. I had done a few technical courses in and around film, but instantly I knew this was it. The National Film and Television School is the best film school in Europe. I felt I had been touched by an angel to have the opportunity to go there. I was still financially hindered from A Goat’s Tail and wasn’t sure how I was going to pay the fees. But I was blessed and received a full scholarship from Toledo Productions.

Just being in an environment surrounded by like-minded individuals who share your passion and knowledge for film was enough. But to be lectured  and have master classes by  some of the greats like Stephen Frears, Pawel Pawlikowski, Roger Michell, Ken Loach, Udayan Prasad, Danny Boyle and  Mike Leigh, I felt like a child in a sweet shop. What I also found confidence building was realizing that some of what I was learning from these directors I already knew and had picked up through making my films. Understanding why I did something instinctively made me stronger in assessing my own strengths and weaknesses and more precise at what I wanted from the course.

The films I made during my course of study each had specific learning objectives. With Mary and John, I wanted the experience of working with old people.  With Lorraine, how do I direct up to seven people at the same time and within limited time create believable group dynamics? With Mr Graham, how do I tell a story honestly when the subject matter is something I feel strongly against, and how do I make the audience care about and understand someone who society tells us not to. In Precipice, how do I make a genre piece on a micro-budget, without having the audience dismiss it if it doesn’t live up to the higher budget aesthetics they are used to? If A Goat’s Tail was my film school, then the National Film School was the polishing and prepping I needed for a life long career. The film school really did change me as a person and as a director.

Tell me more about your film Precipice, which won this year’s AMAA award for best short film from the Diaspora.

Precipice had been with me for a while. I grew up watching film noirs and thrillers, and in terms of subject matter, I was first inspired by the case about the scandals surrounding the American company ENRON in 2001/2002 , and the American stockbroker Bernie Madoff .  But ultimately with the lack of ethnic action heroes on screen, I wanted to create a character that would fill that void whilst being able to tell an entertaining commercial, universal story.  My ideas were originally a lot bigger than the short film could handle, but I took one or two strands and streamlined it into a short film. Working with the actor Jimmy Jean-Louis was the essential key to the short film. He is the person I always envisaged and was best suited to fill this void in mainstream cinema.

What was it like winning the AMAA?  How far have your plans gone for remaking Precipice into a  a full-length feature?

Julius Amedume with his AMAA award for Best Diaspora Short film (photo credit courtesy of Julius Amedume)

Winning the AMMA award was extremely invigorating and truly amazing. It’s something I will remember forever and tell my children about. I honestly never expected to win anything that night and I was just thankful I was nominated. I have a saying that “As a director my job is to serve, to serve the audience.” I believe as along as my audience are engaged, inspired, educated, challenged, entertained and happy with my work, my job is done. Audiences keep you going, Nominations are a great pat on the back, and winning awards is a surreal added bonus. I did enjoy winning. I was grinning from ear to ear. It felt great to be embraced by Africa. The film also won the Pan African Film Festival Board of Directors award.

I have developed the ideas around Precipice into the feature length script.  Some of the script takes place in Africa. Roman’s character has been developed to give insight into how he became who he is and where he is going. The ideas, the scenarios, the characters’ motivation, wants and needs can stretch into a franchise of three films. I want Jimmy Jean-Louis to stay as the lead, and a there are parts for a number of integral supporting characters from the different international territories the film is based in. The script has all the original entertaining set pieces an action thriller should have, but it also has a strong emotional core and social message which, like all my work, will create topics for debate.  I have had a lot of interest in the project, pitched as a Black Jason Bourne. We know this film is going to profitable, but Jimmy and I want to make the film the way we want to make it and with the right people. So building the right team and attracting the right investors is key.

What is your creative process like?

When I was growing up my mother used to tell me to be seen and not heard. That stuck with me and I got used to sitting back and just watching people, watching the world, whilst trying to interpret and understand it.  I have a very selective memory, and I tend to only remember stuff that I feel is important to me. For example, I might meet you and instantly forget your name, but if you make an impression, I will remember when we met, what we spoke about, and even what you were wearing. Instead of your name, I remember your spirit or your energy.  If a story, a person or a situation stays with me, I think about it to the point I become obsessive and need to understand every angle of it, every side. Once I understand, then I can let go.  My brain goes through this process with every film I make. But mostly, I have to find something challenging, mentally or physically, or I won’t do it. I have written and directed most of my films. I am a slow writer and always write at night. But I feel I am more of a director than a writer. Ultimately I would love to direct something I have written every five to six years and direct other people’s work in between. At the moment I am working with a handful of different writers on different projects and reading scripts my agents send through.

What is your philosophy of directing actors? How do you get such profound performances?

I put actors through a process. They might not even know it at the time, but I build them up in layers. I do a lot of research and make it available to them so they can see where my mind is. I am quite a deep thinker and it comes across in my conservations with them, which ultimately reflects in their acting.  Acting is about what you think. Everything else is secondary to me. When I do casting sessions I actually hate when actors come with monologues. Most of the time in castings, I never even make them act or read. I just have a nice chat with them and then make my decision. I have worked with professional and non professional actors, and I always find the right person for the right role.

What are your thoughts on Nollywood and Ghallywood and the popular African film industries?

The Nollywood and Ghallywood market is saturated. There are too many films that have flooded the market making these African movies lack high production values, because producers want to make quick money on as small financial outlay as possible. But now the film industry has reached a stage where films with better quality acting, better storylines and higher production values will rise from the rest and will open the doors for bigger investment in movies and the industry so they can compete on an international level. The African market is the second largest film producing market in the world after Bollywood. It has taken a while but they are getting there.  My only experience of working in the African film industry  was when I shot A Goat’s Tail. I am interested in working in Africa, but it depends on the story.

What projects do you have on your plate right now? What are your hopes for the future?

I am working on five or six projects at the moment but I would like to see PRECIPICE get made and make films that change how we think or view the world.

Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?

Stop talking about making a movie and go and make one.

(End)

Third, here is my review of his four short films made while he was at the National Film and Television school. The review was first published in Weekly Trust on 29 October 2011:

On the Precipice: The short, dark films of Julius Amedume

 Written by Carmen McCain Saturday, 29 October 2011 05:00

This year when I attended the Africa Movie Academy Awards, I rode in the bus from the Port Harcourt airport to Yenagoa seated beside Ghanaian-British filmmaker Julius Amedume. Amedume’s short film “Precipice” had been nominated for the best Diaspora short and his feature film A Goat’s Tail had won the best feature award at the 2010 Pan African Film Festival. He told me about his love of suspense films and how he hoped to remake “Precipice” into a full-length feature.  The next night at the award ceremony, he was called up to receive the award for Best Diaspora Short. When after the festival he sent me a DVD of four short films made as part of his MA in Fiction Directing at the U.K.’s National Film and Television School, I realized why “Precipice” had won.

Julius Amedume wins the AMAA for the Best Diaspora Short Film (c) Carmen McCain

The DVD that he sent me included the short films “Mary and John,” “Lorraine,” “Mr Graham,” and “Precipice” all of which are set in the U.K. but deal with human emotions and failures that resonate with almost any culture. After watching the first film “Mary and John,”I sat back and breathed out. I realized I had been holding my breath for much of the film. Rather than proceeding on to the next one, I turned it back and played it again. I ended up re-watching all four of the films that way. Watching it once holding my breath in suspense and then watching it again to savour the details. In the first film in the collection, “Mary and John” (2009, 6 mins) are an old British couple, apparently played by a married couple in real life (Marlene and Eddie Price). In the absence of any other obvious loved ones, the couple seems to be waiting to die. John sits motionless and expressionless, mouth half open watching TV (staring into the camera so his audience becomes the TV he watches), while Mary vacuums the carpet in front of him. The cord of the vacuum machine tugs around his leg, but it is as if he is made of wood. He doesn’t seem to notice. Mary’s life is taken over with taking care of her husband. She feeds him, bathes him, dresses him. Her life is marked by the clicking open of the pill box which is divided into dosages for each day of the week. Other than a powerful flashback with a texture and sound that makes it the emotional centre of the film, each day is the same. The faces of the old couple are mostly still and emotionless, making the heartbreak on Mary’s face and the expression in John’s eyes in the moments where he lifts his face to her and opens his mouth like a child so that she can feed him, all the more devastating. Yet what initially seems to be a short quiet film about old age, has room in it for an unexpected twist. There are powerful understated performances here as well as a thoughtful use of sound.

Watch “Mary and John”

In the second film, “Lorraine,” (2009, 14 mins) the protagonist after whom the film is named is a new girl at school who desperately wants to be accepted. But the story quickly gets much darker than the typical high school movie about teenage angst. There are moments that feel like William Goldings’ Lord of the Flies here, school girls in uniforms capable of stunning cruelties. This is the film that perhaps stuck with me the most. The actress who plays Lorraine(Lisa Diveney) acts with depth and passion, emotions playing over her face as she contemplates the violence she is complicit in. The other girls, too, reveal more about themselves in their expressions and glances than they do in their words.

Watch “Lorraine”

“Mr Graham” (2010, 14 mins) is the slowest and most brooding of the films but contains perhaps the most hair-raising twist of any of them. Mr Graham (Alexis Rodney) remembers the legacy left by his father who “died when I was too old to forget.”  As he travels home at night watching a train slither over the tracks and into the darkness, his father’s spirit blossoms and grows in him. The next day as he goes about his daily duties, he struggles with a secret obsession that threatens the life he had hoped to build.

Watch “Mr. Graham”

The award winning “Precipice” (2010, 25 mins) is the most ambitious of the films in scope, telling the story of a corrupt London banker Jasper (Martin Turner), who has embezzled money and is on the verge of being discovered.  Roman (Jimmy Jean-Louis, who also played in another AMAA award winning film Sinking Sands) is hired by Jasper’s partners to spirit him away. But, although this was supposed to be a simple job for Roman, it becomes complicated when Jasper asks him to make one stop on their way out of town. The two criminals, the embezzler and the hired gun, discover they have more in common than they could have imagined. This short film certainly has enough emotional punch and complexity to carry the full-length film, Amedume wants to make of it.

Watch “Precipice”

Although these four short films have great emotional power, they are anything but sentimental. Almost all of them have suspense and unexpected twists that lead to chilling discoveries. Amedume directs his actors extraordinarily well, in powerful understated performances.  The dialogue here is on the surface, the real drama happens in the moments of silence, where the horrors lurking within even the most innocent looking characters slither into the open. Many of the short films I’ve seen are clever but without well-developed characters. Here, however, the expressions of the actors, the pacing, the framing, give you insights into character that make you feel like you have watched a feature-length film by the end.

Despite the maturity and polish of the films, there were occasional flaws. The sets sometimes seemed a bit too pristine, not lived in enough. In “Lorraine,” an abandoned house suddenly yields forth bounties of food from the fridge. In “Precipice” there are moments in the dark car scene where the cinematographer seems to have trouble pulling focus on Jasper’s face and, as in some Nigerian films that attempt to project great wealth without having access to it, Jasper’s office seems a little modest for a bank executive. But for me, what is best in a film is in its script and the power of performance, the kind of story that forces you to sit down and be pensive afterwards. Amedume’s films do that.

Read together these four films explore the depths of the human psyche in a way that reminds me of the W.B. Yeat’s poem “The Second Coming” from which Chinua Achebe took the title “Things fall apart.” The films that frame the collection, “Mary and John” and “Precipice” are bitter-sweet. These characters on the precipice of death think back on the moments and people in their lives most precious to them. The two films enclosed within this frame, “Lorraine” and “Mr. Graham” explore young characters, their lives stretching out before them, who struggle with passions, in some ways, more horrible than death. Lorraine’s simple search for friendship turns into betrayal, as “the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” In ‘Mr. Graham,’ there is an ugliness welling within him that makes one wonder “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

If you are intrigued enough to want to check out these films, you are in luck. You don’t have to wait for a film festival or travel to the UK to hunt them down. Amedume told me he plans to upload the four films to his website by 1 November 2011. If you plan to watch them online, though, I beg of you to download them in full before you start watching. They are too good to be ruined by the jumpy start and stop of a slow internet connection. Enjoy.

“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.